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Donald is an example that long hitting isn't the only route to success, even in the world of advanced stats. There is still room for individual differences, and Donald is able to attribute most of his strokes-gained advantage to short game and putting. Fortunately, he and Goss are smart enough to look at the stats and not say he needs to work on driving the ball farther, though they did note that an extreme dip in driving accuracy in 2009-10 needed to be corrected. They realize he could actually get worse if he tried to change his swing to gain extra yards. Instead, they look for realistic areas where he can improve.
The main use for pros is how best to utilize their practice time. "Most players don't spend enough time on their weaknesses," says instructor Mike Bender, who brought in Sanders to analyze the games of his players Zach Johnson and Jonathan Byrd. "With Peter, we can identify the weak areas and formulate a practice plan to enhance skills and bring the levels up."
"What I do is lend clarity and perspective to each piece of the puzzle," says Sanders, who works mostly with Bender rather than directly with the players. "For a player like Zach, it's really the fine tuning of a great athlete. We want to lessen the difference between his best and his not-best play, and extend the periods of time when he's playing well."
Experts like Sanders, Broadie (who now consults with several tour players and coaches), Goss and Pelz are valuable because they can cut through the noise and glean true insights from the data. Otherwise, there's the danger of being overwhelmed by so many numbers or making too much out of small sample sizes.
"A guy could almost make every putt in a round, and he may be a really good putter even though it doesn't look like it because he didn't make any," says Pelz. "There's no luck in a million putts, but there is a lot of luck in every putt. You have to understand stats if you are going to work with them."
It's best when you can point to a tangible reason for a weakness. Kevin Streelman looked at his stats at the end of 2013 and noticed that he didn't make enough putts in the 15- to 25-foot range. Rather than just going out and mindlessly practice them during the offseason, he thought about why he was making a low percentage. "Too many times, I was just lagging it up close, trying not to hit it five feet past," he says. "But I need to make a higher percentage of those to be more competitive." Sorenstam recalls that early in her career, her data showed she tended to miss long irons short and to the right, a fact that enabled her to correct a swing flaw.
Jason Day's coach Colin Swatton is very much into stats and recalls a time when he was able to pinpoint a problem with Day missing fairways. It turned out Day's percentage with the 3-wood wasn't any better than it was with the driver, so it was the shorter club -- with which one expects to be more accurate -- that was the biggest problem.
Of course, there's no guarantee that a player will actually improve with practice. But the potential payoff is worth the effort, especially as small improvements can make a big difference given how tightly compacted in skill level the pros are -- a fact which can be gleaned from the data.
Another way players can use the data is to determine the best strategy on a given hole or particular course. That's a specific focus of Brandt Snedeker and his analytics coach Mark Horton, who Snedeker points to as a reason for his improvement in the last couple of years, though the two are loath to talk about it for fear of giving away any secrets.
Swatton is in a unique position to give that kind of course-management advice because he is Day's caddie as well as his swing coach and statistical analyst. "In the past, you could say something like, 'You've played well at Torrey Pines,' " Swatton says. "But now you can look at it and see that he might have played 13 holes well and five not so well, and come up with a different plan on those holes."
Overall, Swatton compares statistical analysis in golf to a football coach or player watching game film. "At the end of the day, these guys play for so much money, why wouldn't they use it? Whether it's this year, next year or next month, who knows, but it's going in that direction."
What does the future hold for ShotLink and statistical analysis? One possibility, as the tour's laser equipment is nearing the end of its life, is a change to a video-camera system that would be able to capture the final trajectory of the shot and where the ball hits the ground as well as where it ultimately finishes.
Ideally, we would see ShotLink technology installed at the four major championships, all run by organizations other than the PGA Tour. That seems unlikely to happen soon, though responses to inquiries about the possibility from the PGA of America (PGA Championship) and the Masters at least offered some degree of hope. It's an unfortunate situation when there is less information about the game's most important tournaments than there is about regular events.
"All tour players are guessing about what they do or don't do well at the majors," says Goss. "This year I'm trying to come up with a homemade method for the majors and the European Tour events Luke plays in."
Broadie foresees more application of ShotLink data to course strategy, further development of strokes gained, more incorporation of additional information like the lie of the ball and the contours of the green, perhaps even connecting ShotLink data to TrackMan ball-flight data in a more direct link to coaching.
"If this were a round of golf, I'd say we're still on the front nine in golf analytics," Broadie says. "There's a long way to go."
Shotlink's many uses
ShotLink data has additional uses besides analyzing players' games. Most notably, it is a treasure trove of information for the USGA as it considers possible equipment regulations or analyzes the effect of past regulations.
"We call ourselves power users," says USGA technical director Matt Pringle. "There's not a week that goes by that we don't tap into it."
The USGA delves deep into the ShotLink data, marrying it with information from the tour setup staff on rough height, grass type, green speed and fairway width. Pringle's staff has developed its own software to go through different scenarios.
"With so much data, you can slice it a hundred different ways and test hypotheses to see if you can attribute things to equipment effects, course setup or something else," said Pringle. "The tour is not a controlled experiment, but there's so much data we can use it as if it were."
Naturally, the ruling body uses the data to constantly monitor distance. But it goes much further, and one of its most interesting tools is simulation -- the USGA has simulated the 2012 season 10,000 times with changing variables.
"We can say: 'What if driving distance were shorter or longer, how does that play out?' " says Pringle. "For example, if drives went 15 yards farther, what effect would it have on scoring for different types of players. We can see what would happen if you changed course setup or made courses longer or shorter."