Second coming of ShotLink: Advanced analytics

Louis Riccio of Columbia University speaks about advanced golf analytics on PGA Tour at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in 2014.

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BOSTON – Surrounded by hundreds of computer wielding stats lovers at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, many sporting jeans and sneakers with sports jackets, Ken Lovell, the PGA Tour's vice president of media development openly wished someone like Bill James could capture the imagination of golf lovers.

"I would love to be baseball. That's where we want to get," he said Friday afternoon.

James is widely credited with being the father of baseball's sabermetric movement and one of the earliest proponents of using analytics and data to determine the value baseball players. It was James' ideas that were at the heart of Michael Lewis' book Moneyball.

"We have hundreds of years of golf history, but they have 100 years of data that has to do with the box score," Lovell said. "Well, we now have something that's richer than that."

That something is ShotLink, a repository of data that contains every shot hit by every player in every PGA Tour event since 2003. But it's the future, and how the data collected by ShotLink will be used, that's really on Lovell's mind these days.

"When ShotLink for came out, we introduced tons of statistics just because they were there," he said. Approach Shots from 200-225 Yards, Proximity to Hole From Fringe, 3-Putt Avoidance in Round 1 – page after page of analytics was revealed for the world to see.

The tour also published classic stats like Driving Accuracy and Putting Average. "They're called Core Stats and they're the first 12 you see on that page when you pull them up," Lovell said. "Those are things that have been honored over time. There is a sense about them of honoring tradition versus current things. Having said that, we want to incorporate the best stuff we can and get more stuff in there."

To encourage that to happen, the PGA Tour is once again incentivizing statisticians, number crunchers and creative-minded golf lovers by bringing back the CDW ShotLink Intelligence Prize. In February 2013, Louis Riccio, a senior lecturer at Columbia University, won the inaugural prize after he submitted a paper that used ShotLink data to determine the PGA Tour's best ball strikers on iron shots. While the competition is aimed at academics, anyone can enter. The winner's school will receive $20,000 and the winner himself will get $10,000.

In 2012, Riccio studied every shot made from 150 to 225 yards taken on the PGA Tour on par 4s. He chose that range because it because those shots would most likely be hit using irons instead of other clubs, although he concedes that a few wedges and hybrids could have been used. After discovering 67.16 percent of tour pros' shots within that range landed on the green, Riccio developed an equation that could be used to show the PGA Tour average for accuracy from any distance within the range. Armed with that, he could compare any individual player's data against the PGA Tour average from a given distance.

The next time you see Justin Rose, pat him on the back and congratulate him for topping Riccio's chart. While you won't find this award-winning stat listed on the PGA Tour's website, it serves as an example of where ShotLink is headed.

"Most broadcasts now can show you things like the chances of making a putt from a given distance, and thanks to the world of poker, people immediately know what that means," Lovell said.

Down the road, he envisions networks will show viewers things like how a player's projected score on a hole changes with every shot. So, for example, while Tiger Woods tees up a ball on a par 4, you could see a graphic that shows when he hits the fairway his average score is 3.84, but when he misses it's 4.25 (those were Tiger's actual stats in 2013).

"Where we want to get to is a conference like this where people are just talking about golf. There's enough there," Lovell said in Boston as attendees filed into a lecture entitled A Data-driven Method for In-game Decision Making in MLB. "There's stuff that you can do. We're in the infancy and there's still a long way to go."

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