How Data Can Save Your Golf Game

July 17, 2014

I don't have much time to hit the golf course these days, but there was a time when I hit the links nearly every weekend. During that period, I was almost maniacally focused on how to shave a few strokes off of each round. 

While I worked on things like my grip, stance and swing plane, there's a new book out suggesting that data analysis may instead be the key to golfing success.

To be clear, it's probably always a good idea to get a few lessons and hit the driving range. But in "Every Shot Counts," Columbia University business professor Mark Broadie says we can also improve our scores through analysis of each round and the shots we take. 

Broadie has worked with the PGA Tour and some top golfers, and advocates something called the "Strokes Gained" approach to golf. In essence, the idea is to measure how well a golfer scores from a given distance compared to the average. When measuring professionals, he takes advantage of the PGATour's data collection system, which measures everything from driving distance to the number of successful shots out of the sand.

Broadie's conclusions from the data are somewhat surprising. 

In short, he contends that putting skill may be overrated. Hitting the ball long off the tee and hitting long irons is far more important, he said. 

"Putting has a reputation as being the most important part of the game," he told "When you analyze the data, that conventional wisdom is wrong."

Broadie points out that when Tiger Woods was in his prime, he was not necessarily an elite putter. But he could boom the ball a long way, and that helped him get closer to the green, thus improving his chances to score well. 

There's a lot of other dense stuff in the book, including information on angles to the green and how to avoid water hazards (something I could use help on.)

Broadie also has published other papers on golf and analytics, which are available on his website. I plan to read up on as much of this topic as I can, in the hopes that next time I play, I'll score better. Data leading to a lower golf score? That's certainly an example of data for good. 

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