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Embracing The Stats Revolution

January 13, 2014

While no action in sport has a more absolute numerical value than a golf stroke -- in a medal-play tournament, you count 'em all -- statistically speaking, golf has never been considered much of a numbers game. But as David Barrett's extensive explanation of the PGA Tour's ShotLink system and other advanced analytics shows, that is about to change.

Not that there won't be resistance. Golf's deepest romantics have always extolled its art and caprice, finding endless charm in the vast and variable playing field and the rub of the green, most comfortable when the game is perceived as unknowable. Arnold Haultain's The Mystery of Golf, written in 1908, isn't a classic because of its title, but it didn't hurt.

At the same time, old-school pragmatists who believe the Hogan dictum that there is an answer and it's in the dirt, have also taken a dim view of stats, often trotting out Mark Twain's glib line about "lies, damned lies and statistics" and holding that only one number is important in competition -- what you shot.

But similar reductionist thinking would ignore, for example, how much more engrossing it is to know the effect of pitch count on a batter's exact likelihood of getting a hit, or a football offense's percentage of touchdowns in the red zone, or an individual basketball player's plus/minus value.

Related: What the numbers say about Tiger & Rory

I'd argue that advancing collective awareness of what truly matters to winning and losing through enlightened statistics enhances any sport's popularity. Serious fans of the three major sports have always pored over box scores, and that humanly satisfying act of attempting to figure out something fascinating and complex has become more fulfilling with constantly improving metrics. By contrast, I think hockey and soccer have a relatively small American audience in part because they are stuck in statistics that aren't cogent enough to refute the impression that scoring in those sports is haphazard.

Similarly, golf's longtime dearth of relevant stats has something to do with why it's remained a better participatory than spectator sport. While at Golf World we would only encourage our readers to play more often, we also want to give students of the highest level of competition information that challenges their curiosity, stretches their knowledge and inspires more interest.

In our view, a more knowable game is a better game. We get that stats aren't for everyone, and why the inadequacy of past attempts to quantify what the best players do might have caused a distrust of numbers. We appreciate the wisdom at work when 78-year-old Gary Player concludes, "I've studied golf all my life and know a hell of a lot about nothing."

But Player, who has never stopped (or regretted) being a searcher, would have used ShotLink in his playing days, and it would have taught him more than a little about something. ShotLink gives us empirical proof where before there was only informed (and often flawed) opinion. We now know that tour players separate themselves with success more through tee-to-green play than putting. And that iron play is more important than driving. But that on a given week among the tournament contenders, putting is usually important to winning. It makes sense that the very best players -- whether they are loath to admit it or not -- will study ShotLink because it will be very good at telling them precisely what is needed to be the very best.

Related: Making Every Number Count

And there is no need to worry that numbers will make the game cold and sterile and diminish its charm. Golf's statistical heads are romantics too, which really shouldn't be surprising. The more you love something, the more you want to understand it, and the better you understand it, the more you love it. For me, the exemplar is former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman, who transferred the passion he developed as a longtime amateur champion into innovations that made the game better -- including beginning the tour statistical program that set the stage for ShotLink.

Golf's mystery will survive just fine with advanced analytics. The sport is too various, too human, too profound, too much like life -- which the smartest people realize. Albert Einstein said, "The human mind, no matter how highly trained, cannot grasp the universe." And the Einstein of sports statistical analysis, Bill James, says about baseball: "We haven't figured out anything yet. A hundred years from now, we won't have begun to have the game figured out."

Golf is probably more unknowable, which should only incite us to quantify it as much as we can. Bring on the full power of numbers. It will only make the greatest game even greater.

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