Data Analytics in Golf

Golf is a game of history and tradition. The sport originated during the 15th century in Scotland, but there is evidence of similar games being played around the world for many years before. However, when most people think of the game of golf, they think of green jackets, country clubs, and athletes abiding by strict rules and etiquette. This is the aspect of the sport that drives the reputation of traditionalism and exclusivity.

Even the manner in which golfers have played the game shows very little evolution or adaption. How Jack Niklaus or Arnold Palmer hit a golf ball is quite similar to today’s professionals. In many other sports, incorporating data analytics is seen as a new and taboo approach to gaining an edge on the competition. Thus, I was surprised that golf is implementing data analytics by developing advanced data collection technologies, calculating insightful statistical metrics, and incorporating live scientists to benefit those “on tour.”

The PGA Tour created the first advanced shot tracking technology in 2003. This technology, Shotlink, is still very much an aspect of today’s game as it is used in 93 events per year. Today, the tool can laser map every hole on any course in the world, so the tour is able to collect the most accurate data. I think the age of Shotlink is the most shocking feature of the tech because the PGA tour is sitting on a goldmine of golf data almost as old as I am (yes, I am a millennium baby).

Another aspect of data collection that is continuing to improve in golf doesn’t involve where the ball goes, but how the golfer hits it. State of the art swing tracers are giving the edge to the golfers who pride themselves on perfection. Trackman, K-motion, and the Flightscope X2 Radar Launch Monitor each gather swing data using high-definition cameras and microwave transmissions. The tour pros all talk about the impact their club head speed has on their game. These tracers allow them to access precise metrics to the hundredth of a MPH.

Golf is unique in that there is ample time between plays to measure accurate data. However, the ability to be precise has taken thousands of dollars in technology and years of research to develop. Nonetheless, sports analysts like Mark Broadie have developed metrics that are measurable and effective but work around the limitations. He developed the metric labeled strokes gained. Mark knew that looking into putting data would present useful insights. Well, even my mother knew that as I have countless memories of her telling me to “drive for show, putt for dough.” Nevertheless, Mark decided that he should be using the widely abundant and specific data to put more weight on one shot rather than another. Mark’s stat calculates the difference in the number of strokes taken to complete the hole by the golfer and the average number of strokes from that golfer’s location.

For example, if I have a 10-foot putt, and the average number of strokes from that same location is 2, but I sink the putt in 1, I have 1 stroke gained.

Rather than comparing two golfers who had drastically different looks on the green, Mark compares on even ground.

All of these innovations have progressed analytics in golf, but there is none more important than the actual athletes of the game incorporating these mechanisms into the strategy and development of the game. Athletes who see results using analytics become proponents of the statistical advantage, and after a snowball effect, the implementation of data is tour wide. Zach Johnson was the first tour player to hire an analyst to his team back in 2011. Since then, many players have followed in his footsteps including players like Bryson DeChambeau, Rory Mcllroy, and Brooks Koepka. After DeChambeau focused on increasing his swing speed, using the swing tracking technology, he was able to hit shots further. By using data trends, he decided that it’d be more beneficial for him to hit it closer to the pin than hit the fairway in regulation. Today he has a top five average drive distance, and his fairway consistency is not even top 25% of all golfers. 

Man swinging a golf club on a golf course.

If I were not studying analytics at the Institute and writing this blog post, I would not have assumed that data was actually utilized within the game of golf. While data is not at the forefront of the sport, analytics plays a role in the background. Since my time began here at NC State, I have had a unique perspective on how analytics could be used around me, especially when it revolves around something I love to do, like golf! I encourage you to look into just how your favorite things embrace the use of data because I bet you’d be surprised just like me.

Columnist: Ben Wagner