Genesis Invitational

Riviera Country Club

The Loop

Davis Love III's use of statistics as Ryder Cup captain could be golf's version of "Moneyball"


Getty Images

August 29, 2016

In a dark conference room at the midtown Manhattan Hilton, U.S. Ryder Cup Captain Davis Love III admitted he didn’t realize “until this past weekend” that he had nearly a month longer than Europe to finalize the members of his team. While European captain Darren Clarke will announce his final picks tomorrow at 7:30 am EST, Love gets to wait until the Tour Championship concludes on September 25th to make his last happy phone call. If this feels reminiscent of Matt Kuchar’s lack of awareness of the Olympic format one week before Rio, don’t be fooled. It’s arguable this year’s American lineup and pairings will be the most deeply premeditated ever.

Specifically, Love has been consulting with a group of statisticians hired by the PGA of America. During his last captaincy at the 2012 Ryder Cup, categories like strokes gained putting and other ShotLink-driven stats were still rather esoteric. But they’ve since gained wider understanding and their keeping more sophisticated, and Love plans to give them increased weight in his decision-making this time around.

“Patrick Reed suggested we pay closer attention to strokes gained tee-to-green,” Love said. In alternate-shot, for example, it could be possible to pair a player whose proximity to the hole with irons syncs with another’s putting percentages from those distances, and then overlay that data across the holes at Hazeltine National.

“Now instead of saying ‘OK, you two go play together,’ we can give players a reason they’re paired,” Love said. “We can say, ‘Hey, we ran the numbers and dissected the course and together you guys are unbeatable.’ Knowing why you’re playing with a guy can do so much to boost confidence.” That a major fruit of the Task Force—formed in the wake of our most recent trouncing—will be a system with which players can grow familiar and find comfort, was a theme of Love’s presser. “It’s like Dean Smith, who could say to his freshman, ‘Look, we’ve been running this same offense for 12 years. Step into it and do your thing and we’ll win.’”

Of course, Love, who largely attributes his selection as captain to the fact his relationships with players are strong and current (the 52-year-old is only 12 months removed from his most recent PGA Tour win), isn’t about to let big data totally override which personalities mesh best.

“I’ve told the eight guys [who qualified based on points] this is their team,” Love said. “If there’s a guy they all want to make the squad, he’s on.

“I’ve got a jillion people coming to me telling me what to do. It’s my job and the job of the assistant captains to overthink this. We’ve got to take all this data and decide what’s important and what isn’t. We’re only going to tell the player what he needs to know, so that way it’s easier for him to go out and play.”

In case this newfangled number-crunching sounds like a leg up, it’s really just a equalizer. The Europeans have been employing the consulting services of 15th Club, self-described as a “passionate team of golf professionals, data experts and software engineers” for at least the last two Cups.