Some oft-cited golf statistics don’t tell the true story

SHANGHAI, CHINA - NOVEMBER 06: A close-up of numbers on the main scoreboard during the second round of the WGC - HSBC Champions at the Sheshan International Golf Club on November 6, 2015 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images) Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Some oft-cited golf statistics don’t tell the true story

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Some oft-cited golf statistics don’t tell the true story

Before there were TrackMan-powered graphics, laser-measured approach shots or any modern ways of figuring out how far players hit their drives, golfers gathered statistics and information about their game based on things they could count.

Beyond their score, golfers kept track of how many times they hit the fairway and how many putts they needed in a round. Using counting stats, it seemed apparent whether things were good or bad. For example, hitting more tee shots in the fairway was good, but having more three-putts was terrible.

But as well-intended as the classic stats shown on TV might be, some are deceiving and fail to paint a complete picture of what is happening.

Scrambling percentage shows how often a player gets up and down for par or better after missing the green in regulation. Commentators love this stat because it sounds golfy and because it has been used for years when discussing a player’s short game. Serious players, however, usually ignore it.

Everyone agrees that getting up and down to save par is a good thing, but scrambling lacks context and fails to consider the difficulty involved in saving par. For example, imagine a golfer hits an approach shot that lands short of the green, then hits a basic chip from a fairway lie to about 3 feet and makes a putt for par. Now imagine another player hits his approach shot and short-sides himself, forcing him to hit from a downhill lie over a bunker. After pulling off the shot, he makes a 15-foot putt to save par. Scrambling considers both pars to be equally valuable, even though one required a lot more skill.

Scrambling also fails to tell golfers, coaches or fans whether a player tends to make par or better because he is an especially good wedge player who rarely needs to make a hard putt or lousy wedge player who makes a lot of tough putts.

Greens in regulation (GIR) is another stat that can be deceiving. Every golfer wants to hit more greens in regulation, but merely hitting a lot of greens does not mean a Tour player is an effective iron player.

For example, Jon Rahm ranked eighth in GIR (70.83 percent) on the PGA Tour heading into last week’s BMW Championship. But his strokes gained approach the green average was 0.15 (ranked 80th), which means his play from the fairway earns him only about 1/10th of a stroke edge over the field over 18 holes. How could that be if he hits the green so often? Compared to other pros, Rahm has not hit a lot of approach shots close to the hole this season. He may hit the green a lot of greens, but his proximity to the hole average is tied for 112th (36 feet 9 inches).

But even proximity to the hole is a misleading stat because it fails to take into consideration where the ball stops. If two players hit approach shots from the same area of the fairway, and one player’s shot stops on the green 30 feet from the hole while the other player’s shot lands in a bunker 25 feet from the hole, the player who hit into the sand will rank higher in proximity to the hole.

Using data the ShotLink system already collects, an alternative stat the PGA Tour should develop is proximity to the hole on greens in regulation (pxGIR). A stat like that could reveal which players consistently hit the best iron shots over a season, and within a tournament. Who is throwing darts and who is aiming at the fat parts of the green?

The PGA Tour and people who love golf analytics need to keep working to develop new statistics that consider context. When all we could do was count shots and instances of things happening, the old stats were the best we could do. Today, however, we can do better. Gwk

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