Crunching the Numbers
The LPGA Tour is set to embark on a statistical revolution
JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — For a very long time now, in the realm of advanced statistics, there has been a massive infrastructure imbalance between men's and women's golf. The men of the PGA Tour have Shotlink, the state of the art data collection system that facilitates statistics like Strokes Gained—the creme de la creme of golf metrics—and allows players to hone in on highly specific aspects of their game while creating a richer storytelling experience for media and fans. On a given broadcast, a viewer will be told exactly what percentage of players make the 22-foot putt they're about to watch, and an enterprising fan can dive deep into the numbers and find, for instance, the player with the best proximity to the hole on approach shots from 100-125 yards. And these numbers, in turn, allow for the development of new statistics to quantify questions like, "which players step up the most at majors?"
On the women's side, well ... to borrow the language of a recent statement from KPMG and the LPGA, the options available to the players are “similar to what some weekend golfers calculate after their rounds.” And for fans and media, it's essentially a statistical desert.
But that's all about to change. KPMG Performance Insights, a new technology platform developed in partnership with the LPGA, will launch at this week's Women’s PGA Championship and immediately be implemented on the LPGA Tour. The idea is to redress what KPMG CEO Paul Knopp called the “glaring absence” of any sophisticated stat-gathering system in women's golf.
“As we recognized this disparity between the men's game and the women's game, we knew we needed to do something about it,” Knopp said. “And we came up with a solution that will provide the women of the LPGA Tour with transformative data and analytics capability.”
This is not quite ShotLink—all parties recognize that it's a first step in the right direction, and not the end of the journey—but it still represents a massive leap forward for the women's game. Knopp compared the new system to the European Tour, in the sense that caddies will be tasked with collecting data throughout a round, from yardage to club selection to lie, using a pre-formatted written template. (For their service, the caddies will receive a stipend.) After the round, that information will be entered into a central database by KPMG, at which point it will be available to players, media and fans. The program went through a dry-run at the last two LPGA Tour events before going live this week at Atlanta Athletic Club.
Knopp calls himself a "huge golf fan," but emphasized that this move is equally about “diversity equity inclusion,” i.e. promoting opportunities for women in the golf and business world—a priority KPMG has also pursued in securing Atlantic Athletic Club, where men's championships have been contested, as well as network TV coverage and one of the biggest purses in the sport ($4.5 million).
“We’re in a constant dialogue with the LPGA about what it will take to elevate the women's game,” he said. “We think this closes that disparity, and that's really the objective.”
Players themselves are excited about the opportunity having the new data will provide in terms of developing their own games. “It's great to see where your flaws are,” Brooke Henderson said on Tuesday. “When you see it in writing, it really confirms what you need to work on.”
“With new data to look at, you might see players looking at new strategies to put into play for practice and in tournament settings,” Hannah Green added. “Feel and comfort are very important to me, so we’ll be able to look at the numbers and see if the stories line up, or if there are new things that may be beneficial to try.”
It has always been the case that new statistics are understood gradually, and implemented and expanded even more gradually. It happened in baseball, it happened in men's golf, and it will take the women's game some time to learn how to use the numbers to greatest effect. Additionally, this is only the start of the development; Shotlink is a very expensive system, and we may not see it on the LPGA for a long time, but nor will this be the end of the story. And as we've learned from Moneyball, and Strokes Gained, and countless other innovations, it's only a matter of time once the statistics have been unleashed before they change the game in fundamental ways.