Golf analytics show players, manufacturers the keys to success

Brandt Snedeker Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Golf analytics show players, manufacturers the keys to success

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Golf analytics show players, manufacturers the keys to success

(Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the Dec. 12, 2016 issue of Golfweek. Click here to subscribe.)

An analytics revolution is taking place in golf, and whether you are a +2 or a 32-handicap player, you’re already part of it.

The combination of the PGA Tour’s ShotLink system, omnipresent GPS-enabled smartphones and other technologies are pushing golf analytics beyond what was possible a few years ago. And things are just getting started.

“It’s always evolving,” said Brandt Snedeker, an eight-time PGA Tour winner who was an early adopter of analytics. “(The stats) I was focusing on two and three years ago are almost like a baseline now. That stuff is the given; I know that. I’m trying to drill deeper down the rabbit hole and find out nuances in what we’re looking at.”

The “what we’re looking at” is data collected every week on ShotLink, the PGA Tour’s real-time scoring system that tracks every shot hit by every player using lasers and sophisticated measuring devices. That data, when studied by a savvy analyst such as Mark Horton, who worked with Snedeker and now has numerous other clients, can help a player understand his strengths and weaknesses, what areas need practice and how his game matches up with a particular PGA Tour venue.

“I look back, and I’m like, ‘Man, how did I do this before?’” said Billy Horschel, winner of the 2014 PGA Tour Championship and FedEx Cup. “I’d just show up to a course and sort of have a game plan, but not an in-depth game plan. Now, I’m more in-depth and know how I need to play. . . . Everybody’s different, but I feel that (Horton) saves me at least a shot or two a tournament.”

Billy Horschel

Billy Horschel (Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports)

Asked on the eve of the 2016 Deutsche Bank Championship to provide the key to success at TPC Boston, Snedeker played it coy, not wanting to give away a competitive advantage.

“Well, I don’t want to go too deep into it, but there are certain things that guys who have had success here tend to do really well,” he said with a grin. “One of those numbers is greens in regulation. A guy like Henrik Stenson, who is one of the best ballstrikers in the world, plays really well here. Rory McIlroy seems to play well here a lot.”

Five days later, McIlroy won the Deutsche Bank Championship after hitting 68.72 percent of greens, which ranked 26th for the week. Stenson led the tournament with 72.1 percent.

There are several analysts and companies working with PGA Tour and European Tour players, even at the recent Ryder Cup. The 15th Club, a London-based group of golf professionals, data experts and software engineers who assisted Danny Willett leading up to his win at the 2016 Masters, provided services to the European team. The PGA of America spoke with three groups before hiring Scouts Consulting Group to work with the American team.

Davis Love and Brandt Snedeker

Davis Love and Brandt Snedeker at the 2016 Ryder Cup. (Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports)

Stats and analytics also are valuable tools for manufacturers and PGA Tour reps who build gear for elite players.

“I worked with a guy the other day that is not on our staff, and before I worked with him, I looked at every stat he has,” said Matt Rollins, a PGA Tour rep for clubmaker PXG. “I found out that his driver miss, 63 percent of the time, is left. So I built him a driver that won’t go left. We got out there, and he starts hitting balls and he looked back at me and said, ‘This driver is amazing because it does not go left.’ He loved it.”

When Fujikura’s Pat McCoy spots a negative driving trend for a player who uses a Fujikura shaft, he considers alternative shafts that could help fix the issue. And if McCoy spots a trend for a player who does not use a Fujikura shaft, he thinks about how he could tactfully suggest a solution to a member of the player’s support team.

Recreational players do not get their rounds tracked by ShotLink, but over the past five years several companies such as Game Golf and Arccos have released products that combine smartphone GPS, sensors and Bluetooth technology to provide shot-tracking for the masses. These devices not only allow weekend players to see where they hit the ball and how far an average shot goes with each club, the systems feature analytical breakdowns of a player’s game.

Arccos 360 can provide rich information about a player’s game, and tags are half the size of the previous model’s.

For example, Arccos 360 displays such things as relative strength and weakness of driving, shortgame and putting, left and right tendencies, and what trends develop over time. Game Golf’s Approach the Green tool displays miss tendencies when hitting into greens in both percentages and yards. This type of useful data is fairly new to most amateur players.

Adoption of these systems is growing slowly, but partnerships such as Arccos’ with Cobra Golf should spur more interest. Several new Cobra drivers – including the King LTD Black, King F7 and King F7+ – come standard with Cobra Connect, an Arccos-powered system embedded in the grip that syncs with a smartphone app and provides driving data.

The partnership has obvious and indirect benefits for everyone. Golfers win because they get a “smart golf club” that provides data, while Arccos wins because those players are more likely to buy a full 14-club Arccos system to get data on other shots. Cobra wins because the Cobra Connect system provides the company with real data about real golfers.

It is easy to imagine that in the not-too-distant future, golfers will show loyalty to individual data-gathering systems, like people who prefer a Mac or a PC, and they will buy equipment with their preferred system preloaded or installed.

But despite recent advancements, there are still plenty of things to learn.

For example, strokes gained statistics have become popular on Tour, but those stats are based on distance from the hole. Strokes gained: putting would be much better if a putt’s break was added to its equation. And advanced stats and analytics are conspicuously absent from the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship, the sport’s biggest events. It’s like baseball playing a World Series without anyone counting pitches or defenses being allowed to shift.

Also, most shot-tracking systems for recreational players are too labor-intensive and inaccurate when it comes to putting, because smartphone GPS systems do not know where the holes are located.

Those shortcomings will get worked out. It’s inevitable, because this revolution, both at the highest level and the most humble, will be tracked.

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