Analytics show putting's importance overstated

Mark Broadie and Sean Foley giving a lecture during the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston.

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BOSTON – He wasn't on a driving range, but standing next to a podium in a dimly lit conference room, Sean Foley still looked exactly like Sean Foley.

Standing next to Mark Broadie, a professor and the vice dean of the Columbia School of Business, the swing coach of Tiger Woods, Justin Rose and Hunter Mahan wore a gray Nike sweater and gray horn-rimmed glasses. No tweed, no navy blazer.

The pair were on the stage at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference to give a lecture called, "Every Shot Counts: Using Analytics to Improve your Golf Performance." A better title might have been something like R.E.M.'s 1987 hit, "It's the End Of The World As We Know It."

"I want to attack what I think is one of the biggest misconceptions in golf," Broadie began. "Conventional wisdom says that putting is the most important part of the game, and what I mean by most important is the number of shots that separates the winner of a tournament from everybody else, or from the best players to the average players."

Keep in mind that it was Broadie who is credited with developing strokes gained-putting, the PGA Tour's stat, debuted in 2011, that measures how much better or worse a golfer performs on the green from a given distance when compared with the PGA Tour average.

From 2004 to '12, Luke Donald, Brad Faxon and Tiger Woods led the PGA Tour in strokes gained-putting, which should surprise almost no one. However, Jesper Parnevik, Brian Gay and Loren Roberts tied for sixth (0.062), followed by Bryce Molder (0.58) and Ben Crane (0.56). Not exactly a Murderers' Row of PGA Tour winners and major contenders.

Using the same methodology that produced strokes gained-putting, Broadie has now also developed strokes gained-driving for tee shots on par 4s and par 5s; strokes gained-approach for shots of more than 100 yards that are not tee shots; and strokes gained-short game for shots of less than 100 yards, excluding putts. Add them together and you get total strokes gained.

From 2004-12, here the top 10 players in total strokes gained: Tiger Woods, Jim Furyk, Phil Mickelson, Luke Donald, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia, Adam Scott, Steve Stricker and Zach Johnson.

That, not the putting stat, looks much more like a list of the players who saw their names on Sunday leaderboards.

"When you break down their games, the average of these top 10 golfers gained 1.7 strokes per round against the field," Broadie said. Broadie then pointed out that as a group, the Terrific 10 averaged a gain of 0.3 strokes against the field off the tee, 0.7 strokes from the fairway and 0.4 strokes near the green. Their collective strokes gained-putting average was just 0.2 better than the PGA Tour average.

"So, basically, two-thirds of the strokes that they gained were from shots outside of 100 yards and one-third was from inside 100 yards," Broadie said. Putting accounted for just 15 percent of the scoring difference between the top 10 golfers in the world and the average PGA Tour pro."

In 2008, Tiger drained a 24-foot putt on the final hole to win at Bay Hill. When the ball dropped, Tiger whipped his hat to the ground and high-fived his caddie, Steve Williams. Sure, that putt won the tournament, but the Broadie's numbers reveal that Woods had a strokes gained-putting statistic of just 1.1 that week. What really won that tournament was his 2.5 strokes gained in the long game. Over four rounds, Tiger was 10 shots better than the field off the tee and from the fairway.

Drive for show and putt for dough? Evidently not.

"You know, so much of what we've been handed down through the years has been nostalgia," Foley said when he took center stage.

Foley said that he bases practice sessions for his players based on data like Broadie presented in Boston. "From 30 yards, it takes the average PGA pro 2.52 strokes to get the ball into the hole. From 110, it's about 2.71, but every week on the PGA Tour you'll see people practicing from 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90 and 100 yards out. Basically, it's a massive waste of time."

Foley explained that when he first started getting exposed to analytics like Broadie's, he got excited and showed it to businessmen who were some of his clients. He said they were shocked that information like this was only now being created.

Broadie's new book, "Every Shot Counts" is due to hit bookstore shelves on March 6 and Foley wrote its forward. The swing coach says that it contains a lot of data-driven information that should help amateur players. While he noted that the overall message in the book the same as the lecture, they're not identical.

"I see plenty of amateur players take two shots to get into a greenside bunker on a 420 yards par 4 hole, and then take three to get out," Foley said. "I think with the amateurs, they could still probably be better from 30 yards and in."

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