Golf returns to MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

Justin Wang

Golf returns to MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

PGA Tour

Golf returns to MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

BOSTON – Let’s call it a brief hiatus. Last year it was my sad duty to write that while sports like basketball, baseball, football and tennis were the topic of conversations and panel discussions at the largest gathering of sports analysts, golf was nowhere to be found.

In 2015, there had been one research paper presented, by a pair of non-golf professors, who sought to show how much more poorly pros putt as pressure rises. It was interesting, but the 30-minute presentation was not exactly a showstopper.

This morning, I had the chance to moderate a panel discussion that included Blake Wooster from 15th Club, Jeff Price from the PGA of America, the CEO and co-founder of Arccos, Sal Syed, and professional golfer Jason Gore. It was a great time slot and we spoke in front of a crowd of about 300 people at a conference that will be attended by about 3,500.

My biggest takeaway is stats and advanced analytics are being more widely accepted throughout the golf world than ever before, and things are only going to grow from here.

“The trend is our friend,” Wooster said. “There is a huge group of people here and there wasn’t a golf panel last year. Golf fans and people in the media are starting to ask much better questions about performance than ever before. It doesn’t really matter how many putts a player takes in a round, but now we’re trying to deliver insights about how players perform under pressure or how consistent they are.”

Price, who helped to oversee the initiative that brought Scouts Consulting in to help the United States Ryder Cup team, said that analytics played a significant role in helping Davis Love III select his captain’s picks.

Analytics also played a significant role, Price said, in helping the Americans set up Hazeltine National to its advantage. The analytics showed that the United States team, as a group, had better wedge players than the European team, so some par 5s and par 4s were set up to create landing areas that would likely get the ball into distance ranges where the United States players excelled.

It was acknowledged by the panelists that many golfers, including the pros, are not savvy enough to use the data that systems like the PGA Tour’s ShotLink, or even consumer products like Arccos, can generate. It is critical to develop platforms that make sifting through data and presenting it manageable.

“There is such a thing as overwhelming consumers with data,” Syed said. “Today, golfers measure themselves with one number, their handicap, but that really doesn’t give you any insights into the strengths and weaknesses of the golfer, or how you can get from where you are to where you want to be.”

His company’s device, Arccos 360, breaks down a player’s game into five areas (driving, approach, chipping, sand game and putting), and then assigns a handicap-style number to each phases of a player’s game. In this way, players can see what they are good at and what parts of their game need more work.

Gore, a 20-year veteran of professional golf, is best-known for being in the final group Sunday at the 2005 U.S. Open at Pinehurst. He bought a TrackMan about two years ago because, while he calls himself a feel player, he wanted to improve his distance control and felt that working with the radar-based launch monitor could help him do that.

When the topic of “smart” golf clubs, equipment that had built-in data gathering devices, was being discussed, he said that he would be open to working with them if they could help him hone his own swing.

“With the way teaching is going, there are all these model swings out there, and with someone of my stature and body type, I can’t swing like Justin Thomas or Tiger Woods from 2000,” Gore said. “I would like to know where I swing best, not how David Leadbetter thinks I swing it best. That’s where I want it to go.”

As the panel was winding down, Syed talked about a discussion he had Thursday night with the general manager of the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey, one of the conference’s co-hosts. The two talked about which sports lend themselves best to advanced analytics.

“He said that baseball, in terms of sports, is a 10 and that basketball is a seven and every other sport is between a one and a five,” Syed said. “When I asked him about golf, he said that he hadn’t thought about it, but as we talked about it, his consensus was that golf is an 11! It’s more suited to analytics, and the reason is that every event in golf is isolated. Shots are not a reaction to a pitch or a pass from someone else. That means we really can put a value of each shot on, independent of everything else.”

For analytically-minded golf fans, and people who want to learn more about the game, the future looks much brighter than it did one year ago.

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