Q&A: Can statistics drive the game of golf?
Kin Lo, the PGA Tour's director of research and development, leads the Tour’s consumer research and market intelligence activities. He also manages its Academic Data Program, which makes ShotLink data available to the academic community for the purpose of furthering the evolution of statistics in professional golf. Lo was a panelist at the Golf Analytics session at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference March 4-5 in Boston.
We caught up with him before the conference kicked off:
We’ve seen analytics used in baseball and basketball, but those are team sports. Can they have the same impact on golf?
Golf is different than the team sports. Those sports are driven by a financial incentive with player selection and draft considerations, and statistical analysis can play a major role in those decisions. The closest thing to that in golf would be instructors using the data to analyze their students’ performance, or even companies using the data to decide who they sponsor. But, yes, there are many other ways evolved statistical analysis can have a huge impact on golf.
Statistics definitely provide more opportunities for people to engage with the sport. There’s people who watch golf because they play themselves, to see their favorite players, or have a visceral connection with the sport. If we’re able to provide another angle, a statistically-driven angle, that may appeal to a different segment of our fans.
In what arena could analytics have the largest impact on golf?
From a fan and media perspective, they facilitate a much deeper understanding of what’s going on and how players are performing. A lot of the traditional stats don’t necessarily represent a player’s performance (i.e. if a player is wild off the tee, that has a negative impact on his greens-in-regulation statistic). ShotLink really lets you drill down and dissect different players’ performance, and see how they compare to the rest of the field.
On the competition side, analytics allow us to really illustrate how players are navigating their way through our courses. Our Competitions Department uses ShotLink extensively with respect to course setup, pin positions and agronomy considerations like rough length and green speed.
Can you give an example of how these statistics may impact what the fan sees when he or she watches golf?
If you watch poker on TV, they’re able to show the probabilities of one player winning a hand. Predictive modeling like that during the broadcast can get fans more engaged. At the end of the Farmers Insurance Open, when (caddie) Jim Mackay was holding the flag as Phil Mickelson was trying to hole out from the fairway on the 72nd hole to tie for the lead, we knew exactly how far he was from the pin (71 yards), what the probabilities were of him making that shot, and exactly where he’s hit his approach shots into on the 18th green at Torrey Pines in his career.
If you think about golf, the last 30 years, there really hasn’t been much change in the way it has been presented or talked about until the last few years. I think there are opportunities for a dramatic shift in that way. We’re starting to see more and more advancements like the Shot Tracer and Aim Point technologies you see in our broadcasts.
How would you compare these new statistics to old statistics?
Distance is the most important element ShotLink added to the equation. It is such a crucial factor to every facet of the game -- how far you hit a drive, how far you are from the pin, how long your putt is. We didn’t have any of that before. The whole other component is behind the scenes. Prior to ShotLink, there was no way to easily manipulate and share data from our tournaments. ShotLink is a completely integrated scoring and statistical system that not only captures and warehouses data for sophisticated analysis, but distributes it -- in real time during tournament play -- to an abundance of media platforms for broad consumption.