Crunching the numbers paying off so far for Ernie Els at Presidents Cup

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Crunching the numbers paying off so far for Ernie Els at Presidents Cup

2019 Presidents Cup

Crunching the numbers paying off so far for Ernie Els at Presidents Cup

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MELBOURNE, Australia – Ernie Els might be sitting on the biggest secret in golf since Ben Hogan.

For those scoring at home, Hogan’s secret was in the dirt; as for Els, his secret he says is safe “until Sunday night,” but he’s already revealed that he’s using 15th Club, a team of golf professionals, data experts and software engineers who apply intelligence to data and helped 2018 European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn to win back the Cup.

It is a golden age for number crunchers in sports — the book and Oscar-nominated movie “Moneyball” gave advanced analytics mainstream acceptance. It slowly has infiltrated golf, a game overrun by numbers and statistics, and “stats guys” are becoming as important to tour pros as swing instructors and fitness trainers are. They parse statistics to create better training plans and arm the golfers with game plans for each week. Since 2016, both Ryder Cup captains have had their own stat team.

“It’s just the way the world is going these days,” said International Team assistant captain Geoff Ogilvy. “I think with so much information we have, you’d be silly not to access that. There’s been good results from other guys, other teams, and others doing it this way. So far, so good. I think everyone really is liking the process, if you like.”

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Indeed, they are. The International Team, which has a 1-10-1 record in the Presidents Cup, grabbed a 6½-3½ lead after Day 2. Els has the unenviable task of trying to unite players from nine countries and five different continents. He instituted a series of team gatherings as early as the 2018 U.S. Open, and created a new International shied as a team logo. (It’s the backdrop on his iPhone case.) But the most notable move has been his reliance on data analytics in forming his pairings rather than going more on gut and feel and the so-called “eye test.”

The old method essentially was a formula of pairing existing friendships, players from the same country or else based on past experience.

Captain Ernie Els at the 2019 Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne Australia. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

“The numbers haven’t shown exactly what I expected. It’s funny. A lot of the personalities I wanted together; the data shows they are not compatible,” Els told pgatour.com. “To convey that to the players has been tough. As you can expect, certain players want to play together — but I can show them if it is not compatible. Now the good thing is the guys are taking that in and actually listening to me whereas in previous years guys were quite adamant who they wanted to play with.”

Els paired five of his rookies with five veterans in the first four-ball session, putting Adam Scott with Ben An and Louis Ooshthuizen with Abraham Ancer, for instance, and turning them into formidable teams. But something in the data – so far it’s a secret – led Els to recast all five of his pairings for foursomes. He will send out repeat four-ball pairings on Day 3 in Scott-An and Hideki Matsuyama-C.T. Pan.

“Preparation, it is the old cliché. You just have got to prepare, have a good plan and try to install that in the team,” Els said. “We are not as deep as they are so we know we have had to come up with some good pairings.”

“As far as the team, everyone’s bought in completely,” Ogilvy said. “Everybody believes that they are with the right guy and everybody’s out in the right groups and the captain’s got a plan.”

Golf’s deep dive into advanced statistics got jump started with the creation of the Strokes Gained statistics in 2011, and others have followed in mining the data collected every week on ShotLink, the PGA Tour’s real-time scoring system that uses sophisticated measuring devices to track every shot by every player. That data can reveal a player’s strengths and weaknesses, provide structure to practices and evaluate how a player’s game stacks up with a particular tournament venue. U.S. Captain Tiger Woods said he has “delved into” advance analytics, too, saying, “you can see tendencies and you can see things that you probably didn’t see prior to that, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to turn it over to the athletes.”

So far, the players Els has entrusted to play together based on data have taken the ball and run to a 3-point lead.

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