Why a little stat analysis goes a long way on the PGA Tour
Scott Stallings hadn’t been very analytical in any facet of his life, but when the three-time PGA Tour winner was told he was one shot a tournament away from qualifying for last season’s Tour Championship—and, more dauntingly, one shot a week away from losing his card—he started re-examining his game.
“A quarter of a shot a day and one a tournament is worth millions,” says Stallings, 34, who in 26 starts during the 2018-’19 PGA Tour season finished 105th in the FedEx Cup standings and earned a little more than $1 million. Conversely, Jason Kokrak, the last man in at East Lake, earned more than double that. “A margin of 58 shots over the course of a year,” Stallings says, “is not a lot of variance.”
Which is why his swing coach, Scott Hamilton, reached out to a statistician to delve into the data built up over Stallings’ 10-year career. The examination included everything from the schedule Stallings was playing, to what areas of his game that he should work on the most. The results were eye-opening.
“My short-game coach [Jeff Pierce] suggested increasing the lofts in my wedges to allow for more versatility around the greens, even though I’d used a standard setup for forever,” Stallings says. “I also became more focused in my practice and built in more drills around the green.”
To say it helped would be an understatement. In the entirety of the 2018-’19 season, Stallings holed pitches/chips four times. Through just five events in 2019-’20, he has already more than doubled that, knocking it in the hole 10 times from off the green. Last season, Stallings ranked 116th in strokes gained/around the green. In the still small sample size of this season, he’s first.
In recent years, analytics have become as much a fabric of sports as the games themselves. Golf, being the numbers game it is, is no exception, especially with the tour’s ample performance data that measure and track every aspect of a player’s game. The information is telling, even down to what tournaments a player should or shouldn’t play.
Quail Hollow Club, site of the Wells Fargo Championship, for example, is a course that fits Stallings’ eye and one that he says he loves. Yet in nine trips, he has made the cut only twice, with his best result a T-53. This year, he shot 76-72 and missed the cut, prompting his curiosity as to why he continues to struggle there.
The answer? It’s a course that favors mostly right-to-left shots off the tees. The right-handed Stallings prefers to hit a cut.
At the same time, some stats and rankings can be misleading. In 2018-’19, the difference between the player ranked 11th in driving accuracy (Brian Gay) and 131st (Patrick Reed) was 10 percent on nearly the same number of possible fairways played. The difference in total number of fairways hit for the year was 130, or roughly one a week using Stallings’ schedule. Similar numbers play out in driving distance as well.
“I don’t care about that,” he says. Or maybe more importantly, Stallings can live with a few more missed fairways, knowing the difference isn’t so large as to have a significant impact in finding himself on more leader boards.
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It wasn’t until after the 2012-’13 season that Billy Horschel started to care about stats and began taking a closer look at them. Brandt Snedeker had already enlisted the services of numbers guru Mark Horton when Horschel, who shares the same coach as Snedeker, Todd Anderson, asked Anderson if he thought Horton’s services could be useful.
To that point, Horschel had won once in three seasons on the PGA Tour.
The next season? He won twice and captured the FedEx Cup, something Horschel said he’s not sure would have been possible without the information Horton had provided. The two have worked together ever since.
“He dissects why guys played well in the past at certain courses, what they did to play well there, and helps put together a game plan,” Horschel says. “I now have a way to practice that week going into a tournament and know how to prepare for that event. Then come tournament time, I know where to be aggressive and where not to be aggressive.”
One example where it continues to come in handy is at the Genesis Open with the famed 10th hole at Riviera Country Club. A drivable but difficult par 4, the stats indicated to Horschel that it’s always better to go for the green than to lay up.
“Unless you hit a really bad drive, you’ll make par,” Horschel said.
Similarly, the numbers helped Horschel figure out how to play the redesigned drivable par-4 12th at TPC Sawgrass during the Players Championship.
“Everyone might think a certain hole is a birdie hole, but the stats can show that if you play it in even par for the week, you’ll gain strokes on the field,” Horschel says.
Like Stallings, the numbers also told Horschel that certain tournament venues weren’t good for him, no matter how much he might “like” the course. Sedgefield Country Club, site of the Wyndham Championship, is a course that Horschel struggled on early in his career. It demands accuracy off the fairway because its rough is difficult, but the bigger problem was that it also features a lot of short irons and wedges, which was an area of the game that Horschel struggled with.
“Historically, I’ve not been great with those clubs,” he said. “The last couple years I have gotten better, though, and the profile has changed.”
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Jason Day doesn’t like to get bogged down in too much information, so his longtime coach and former caddie, Colin Swatton, does most of the numbers analysis.
One of the goals? Improving his play on the holes and courses the former World No. 1 has struggled on and figuring out why.
“We look for situations,” Swatton says. “Is the tee shot the issue? The second shot? What is preventing success? Every week [the numbers] are helpful.”
Swatton cites Day’s breakout year in 2015, when he won five times, including his only major championship.
“He made fewer bogeys,” Swatton says as one way of explaining the success before delving deeper. “But why? He was short-siding himself less, he was putting well.”
Those weren’t just Swatton’s observations, either.
“The numbers tell the story,” he says. “That way, it’s factual. It’s not opinion.”
And understanding the numbers can be the difference between success on the PGA Tour and grinding it out each season to keep your tour card.