USGA finds common ground for men, women at Pinehurst
PINEHURST, N.C. – Too much information? Not during these two weeks of national championships at Pinehurst No. 2. The goal has been to measure everything and leave nothing to chance. That way, the U.S. Golf Association could set up the golf course for last week's U.S. Open and this week's U.S. Women’s Open in a like manner, one that’s fair and comparable to both sets of players.
That's why the USGA is paying caddies $550 apiece for a week of that most precious commodity: inside information. As of midday Wednesday of Week 2 of the Open fortnight, they had collected what Mike Davis, the USGA's executive director, described as “50,000 data points.” It was the only way to ensure a fair setup, one that would take into account how differently and how similarly the men and women played, Davis said.
"We asked the caddies to tell us: What did you play or hit off each teeing ground? What did your player hit into each green or their approach shot?“ Davis said.
It was no problem for a veteran caddie such as Mike “Fluff” Cowan, who after looping (and data-collecting) for Jim Furyk last week is on the bag this week with pencil in hand for Lydia Ko. “I do that stuff anyway,” Cowan told Golfweek. “I always write down yardages and clubs in my yardage book during a round or right after, so it's no big deal.”
From there, the data are cross-referenced with a separate set of data gathered by volunteers stationed at every green who record additional information on what happened with each shot. “Did the person hit the green?” said Davis, citing an example. “Did they land short and bounce it on? Did they land on and did it bounce over?”
Yet more data are available, separately collected by the U.S. Green Section agronomists who take readings every morning about moisture levels in the greens, speeds and firmness. Plus the wind – direction and velocity. That way, a multivariable database is on hand to help USGA staffers analyze exactly what’s happening.
If one goal of staging back-to-back championships at Pinehurst No. 2 is to compare the world’s best men and women on the same stage, what better way than actually to measure what they are doing? The math experiment involves the first systematic effort by U.S. golf’s ruling body to find out exactly how far the men and women hit the same clubs and how they play the same holes. And the only reason it’s possible is that for the first time in golf history, elite players are playing the same course back-to-back. ShotLink data exist for PGA Tour events, but there is no comparable data set for the women on the LPGA. Besides, the statistics wouldn’t be for the same courses in virtually the same playing conditions.
That's where Pinehurst No. 2 comes in handy. Both sets of players are playing to the same greens, kept at the same speeds (circa 12.5 on the Stimpmeter). The greens for the U.S. Women's Open are about 10 percent more receptive. Of course there’s a metric for that, as well, thanks to the USGA’s invention of the TruFirm meter. The USGA won’t divulge the exact numbers because officials don’t want green chairmen at home to start trying to emulate “U.S. Open firmness.”
It will take some time for the full data set to be collated and digested. Already, however, a version of it has been delivered to the production staff at NBC-TV Sports. Tommy Roy, NBC Sports' producer, told Golfweek that the data provide the basis for the animation models the network plans to air this weekend. They will show side-by-side comparisons of how the men and women play particular holes.
USGA officials are using the information to help them set up teeing grounds to achieve a measure of equity. It helps knowing, as Davis reported, that “there’s about a 25-yard difference in terms of approach shots – the clubs they hit, from men to women. So just to give you an example, last week, seven days of data, the average 5-iron went 203 yards for the men. This week the average 5-iron is going 175 yards. For a 7-iron last week, it was 180 yards. This week, it’s going 156 yards.”
That information is vital when setting up a dicey hole with a hard-to-hold green such as the par-3 15th. It is domed, with a false front and fall-offs all around – a tough target for the men, who hit the green in regulation 48.9 percent of the time during the Open, far less than the course-wide average for all holes of 56 percent. The posted yardage for the hole was 202, built it never played to that length. Instead, it was 208, 158, 199 and 205 – the first two days into the wind, the last two days with a slight helping breeze.
Ben Kimball, the USGA’s director of the U.S. Women’s Open, said the men averaged 5- to 7-iron for the week on No. 15. He said the women are using the same range of clubs during practice "from where we’ve been putting the tee markers on a daily basis.” With the hole sign posted at 156 yards and playing thus far for the women into the breeze, that’s about right.
Two certainties for the U.S. Women's Open setup: The yardage will change at No. 15, as it will on every hole from the sign-posted distance. And the decision to move it around, as well as where to cut the hole, will be based on actual hard numbers, not on guesswork or ballpark estimation.
To paraphrase corporate consulting guru Peter Drucker, you can only manage what you can measure.