Golf / Sports

PGA Tour players following 'Moneyball' model with statistical analysis

BETHESDA, Md. -- Rory McIlroy's struggles on Fridays this year were a disturbing trend for the newly crowned British Open champion.

But considering the explosion of statistical analysis in professional golf, the regularity of McIlroy's woeful second rounds was first-grade stuff.

More numbers became available to players on the PGA, Champions and Web.com tours after ShotLink was conceived in 1999. It replaced walking scorers with volunteers equipped with lasers -- with about 350 needed at each event -- to measure Bubba Watson's booming drives and Tiger Woods' tap-in birdies. The PGA Tour teamed with CDW in 2008 to sponsor a data program known as ShotLink Intelligence.

Now some players, including Jason Day, Zach Johnson and Brandt Snedeker, rely on a person in their inner circle to crunch those numbers as adeptly as Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane did in the baseball movie "Moneyball."

But that doesn't mean the players listen to what the numbers say and adjust their practice routines accordingly.

"Some people don't like to know what their weaknesses are," said Colin Swatton, Day's coach and caddie since the 26-year-old Australian was 12.

Swatton has been analyzing Day's stats since 2007. He doesn't rely on ShotLink because as diligent as the volunteers are, he said they're not always accurate. So while on Day's bag, Swatton notes the details and distances of all Day's shots.

"I maintain all that, put it into my spreadsheets and my database and cross reference it with ShotLink," Swatton said last month before the Quicken Loans National at Congressional Country Club. "Every round we analyze it, put it all into a folder and then we break it down per hole, per course."

Swatton said after a bad round is not usually the right time to present what his notes and numbers reveal.

"I work with other clients that really don't want to know which holes they play bad because they feel if you tell them they're going to go and play bad, which is a bit silly," Swatton said. "I never look at a weakness as a weakness, I look at it as an opportunity to improve. That's the reason I do it."

Day said before every tournament, Swatton hands him a piece of paper that tells him what he has to do to win the event. It summarizes what the winner has done over the years -- how many eagles, birdies, bogeys and double bogeys he had, along with averages on the par-3s, par-4s and par-5s.

"Sometimes it can be information overload," Day said at Congressional. "But that's why you employ people. If you're a big CEO of a company, you employ smart people that make you look smart. That's what I'm doing.

"I'm very much so into that. I need to stay ahead of the curve, make sure that I've got that extra step over the next person, and whatever I can do to help me win, that's legal, obviously, I'll do."

Snedeker has been using statistics for five years and believes that's why he had his top two earnings years in 2012 and 2013, when he totaled four victories and 16 top 10s.

He gave a dramatic example of how the analysis helped him.

"I had a gap in my proximity to the hole from 125 to 150 (yards)," Snedeker said at Congressional. "I was not hitting it very close at all. It was way out of whack from where I was from 150 to 175, 100 to 125. I looked at my bag setup, ended up putting a different wedge in and pulling everything back to where it was supposed to be. Little stuff like that you can catch if you're paying attention to it."

"I looked at my stats a few weeks ago to see where my game was sort of wrong and I was about 180th or something on putts from (10) to 15 feet," Tim Clark said Tuesday at Firestone Country Club. "I knew I was struggling, but it was interesting to suddenly see it in writing. I wouldn't say I'm much of a stat guy, but I knew at one point I was 140th in putting for the year.

"It was something I started to work on a little bit. I putted better at the John Deere, finishing fifth. Even last week, it was a little flat until I got to the back nine."

Clark made 67 percent of his putts from that range during the four rounds at the Canadian Open, according to tour stats, improving to 178th this week. He needed only 10 putts in a back nine 30 to beat Jim Furyk by a shot.

Sweden's Peter Hanson is more of a devotee and has "a professor in putting" to crunch his numbers. But he primarily uses them to make his practice time more efficient. He also reads the ShotLink analysis by Mark Brodie, a professor at Columbia's Business School.

"I spent way too many hours on things that didn't have as much of an effect on the game as I thought," Hanson said at Congressional.

Hanson believes it's the wave of the future.

"I spent hours and hours working on my wedge game," Hanson said. "Then in the end you see between 30 and 80 yards you hit 3 and 4 percent of the shots. All those hours, you can spend those hitting 6- and 7-irons, which is really the key."

Day said at the end of the year, his team, which includes Swatton, agent Bud Martin and his wife, Ellie, sit down for a meeting. When Swatton talks, he lays out what Day needs to improve on in the next 12 months and presents a practice plan to "maintain the strengths and improve the weaknesses."

Johnson does the same thing in what he calls a "team summit."

"Those magnify and pinpoint aspects that we can really attack in my game," Johnson said after his victory in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions on Jan. 6. "There have been years where I want five to 10 extra yards off the tee. There have been years where the only focus has been putting. There are three or four stats that we can cater to with drills; my time and effort and energy goes into two or three drills on the putting green, two or three on the ball striking, some scrambling, and that's it.

"The team summit is not a whole lot when it comes to the mental side. It's a great way for me to end the year, talk to my guys that I trust and get somewhat of a direction for the next year or even the next quarter. That way we can really get after it."

Justin Rose, who won the Quicken Loans National and Scottish Open back to back, doesn't delve as deeply into statistics as Day and Johnson. He mainly pays attention to greens in regulation and fairways hit.

"The ShotLink stuff is so in-depth now," Rose said at Congressional. "My putting from six feet, seven feet, eight feet, nine feet, 10 feet ... I might be 30th from six and seven feet, and 180th from eight feet and 60th from 10 feet. You can't really then go out and practice 8-footers because that's what you're 180th at. How you interpret stats I think is very, very important. But I don't get that in-depth and detailed on it."

Swatton believes that will change, especially as golfers see the benefits like Snedeker and Day have.

"I think people will get more into it," Swatton said. "But it comes down to the person. If they're standing over a shot on the 72nd hole trying to win the U.S. Open or a Masters, you can say 'Probability is.' But there's going to be out-of-control emotions at the end of the day."

(c)2014 Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio)

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