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How Analytics Helped Reclaim the Ryder Cup for Europe

Blake Wooster of data experts the 15th Club explains that it was a question of relationships, street smarts and getting the fundamentals right.
John Portch

Blake Wooster is the CEO of 21st Club (and by extension 15th Club), an organisation whose mantra is achieving a competitive edge through outthinking rather than outspending rivals. Two years’ ago Wooster, who is educated in sports science and business strategy, spoke to the Leaders Performance Institute about how analytics could help optimise a golfer’s strategy and improve their performances. Here he discusses 15th Club’s role in helping Europe to a brilliant Ryder Cup victory in September 2018.


By Blake Wooster

The images will live long in my memory. Tommy Fleetwood being carried on the shoulders of jubilant fans. Francesco Molinari being mobbed like a World Cup winner returning to his home village. The sight of Ian Poulter donning a postbox costume to wild cheers after delivering once again in the Ryder Cup! On that glorious Sunday in Versailles, many hailed Europe’s 17.5 – 10.5 win over a strong US team as among the finest in the competition’s history. But while millions saw our success play out over three intense days at the Le Golf National, it was a victory 22 months in the making. Because from the moment Thomas Bjørn was appointed to be Europe’s Ryder Cup captain in December 2016 he was focused on exploiting every possible edge to win back the Ryder Cup. And we at 15th Club were happy – and humbled – to be given the opportunity to help Team Europe.

90% of our work was done beforehand

Many people think the Ryder Cup truly starts on the Monday before the Friday fourballs. The reality is rather different. In fact I’d go as far to say that 90% of our work was done beforehand, starting in early 2017 and carrying through until the day the trophy was lifted.

The first time our team sat down with Thomas, there was a strong philosophical alignment on how our relationship would work. He shared our vision that data and analytics could be a useful addition to his tool box, especially when used appropriately and in moderation. Once we established trust and rapport our role quickly became more akin to a strategy consultant – providing independent and objective advice and offering solutions to complex problems.

To Thomas’ great credit, he also created a culture where we felt comfortable floating ideas and challenging his assumptions. It’s not easy to come into a high performance environment as outsiders; it’s a dynamic that involves a certain level of vulnerability on both sides. It takes a high level of maturity for a leader to actively seek out challenging voices to help avoid ‘groupthink’, and an equal amount of courage from our side to suggest alternative approaches. Such a relationship relies on trust and an alliance forged in shared ambition. It’s a fine balance, but when it works the results can be spectacular.

The Ryder Cup is the type of sports event that lends itself to implementing a long-term strategic plan given its timeline. First the captain is named. Then he decides on how the team will be selected. Then the players try to qualify based on their performances between August 2017 and early September 2018.

 

Duncan Carey (right) discussing strategy with Vice Captain Robert Karlsson (left)

 

Not long after Thomas took over we were asked to examine whether he should allow himself two, three or four wild card picks. After trawling data from previous Ryder Cups, we strongly recommended that he should take the maximum number of selections – not only because captain’s picks tend to perform better than the guys who qualify in the last couple of automatic spots, but also because we felt it made sense to give himself as much flexibility as possible.

From then on we began to assess all of Europe’s potential contenders, not only by looking at their results but by assessing their underlying performance. We know from our work in football with 21st Club that the league table often lies, and the same can be true with the official golf world rankings. That’s why we developed our proprietary 15th Club index, which more accurately reflects performance adjusted for key variables such as course difficulty, weather, and the strength of the field. Crucially, this method is a far better predictor of future success.

Using our predictive analytics, we knew with a high level of confidence who the automatic qualifiers would be way ahead of the event, which allowed the team to get ahead of the planning process and start formulating the pairings strategy months ahead of the US team.

Insight and instinct should work together

As summer gave way to autumn, Thomas had to decide on his wild card picks. Henrik Stenson, Ian Poulter and Paul Casey were relatively obvious choices given they would have qualified if there were 12 automatic spots available. However Thomas faced a real dilemma with his final pick. It came down to whether or not to choose Sergio García, a talismanic player for Europe but whose form seemed patchy.

Throughout the wildcard selection process we provided clear and detailed information on each of the potential picks – broken down into details on their overall performance, how they fitted with the existing team in terms of pairings, and, in particular, how well their game was suited to a demanding course like Le Golf National. This was key to giving the captain a multi-faceted understanding of a player’s suitability. People tend to underestimate the level of work that goes into making such crucial selection decisions.

 

Duncan Carey capturing data out on the course

 

One of the key metrics involved drilling into a player’s ‘Strokes Gained’ performance across a wide range of stats including driving, putting and approach play. This relatively new approach essentially allows you to see how much better or worse every facet of a player’s game is compared to their rivals. It is also more informative than traditional statistics, such as greens in regulation and putts per round, which can be extremely misleading.

The data showed that Sergio’s underlying numbers were not as bad as many thought. And given his previous stellar Ryder Cup performances, Thomas was confident the Spaniard was the right man for the job.

Some in the media suggested he had gone for the easy option by picking his friend. We knew, however, that like all good leaders he had done his due diligence. And he was vindicated as Sergio won three of his four matches and, in the process, also became the all-time Ryder Cup points leader. The wildcard picks would go on to earn Europe 9.5 out of their final tally of 17.5 points.

You have to earn the right to be in the room

As I mentioned, it’s not easy to be an outsider coming into a team environment. Relationships have to be forged, trust established, respect earned. You can have the best brains and the most brilliant analytical models, but if the captain or coach doesn’t ‘get’ your message you might as well be whistling in the wind.

So while our team would regularly chat and share analysis with the captain and vice captains on a WhatsApp group we made a point of looking at the European Tour schedule so we could fly out and speak to them regularly in person. In truth, kicking some ideas around in a private room is where we made the most progress. It was a chance for us to listen and understand and see what kind of information these guys needed to help make their decisions. Our head of golf, Duncan Carey, deserves huge credit too – as a former pro who plays off scratch he understands the game and its language.

In final few weeks Thomas and Duncan would talk a couple of times a day, grappling with some of the decisions in the lead up to the Ryder Cup, to the extent that Thomas’s partner joked to Duncan in Versailles, “So you are the guy that my man has been cheating on during these past few weeks!”

 

Left to right: Thomas Bjørn, Duncan Carey and Lee Westwood

 

I really can’t stress enough the importance of developing a rapport and establishing your credentials. You hear of disaster stories in other sports of analytics teams not getting the fundamentals right. Without building relationships, it’s almost impossible to have the respect and platform to challenge people in a constructive way.

Thomas, however, welcomed us from the start – he was to prove a brilliant captain throughout – and he also had a team of vice-captains who would frequently ask us to crunch the numbers to answer difficult questions. Debates could be anything from ‘how important is experience in the Ryder Cup versus form?’ to ‘what are the most important factors that determine success in foursomes and fourballs?’ It speaks for Thomas’ leadership that he naturally created an environment for rigorous and open discussion, with all of us totally focused on one common goal: a victory for Team Europe.

Pick your horses for courses

Another important factor was the golf course itself. Long before we arrived at Le Golf National we had also prepared a detailed course report, highlighting the characteristics needed to score well on what is the most penal course on the European Tour circuit when you miss the fairway. Low driver use was therefore identified early as a major factor, along with driving accuracy being rated as a much higher predictor of performance than driving distance (typically it’s the other way around, especially on PGA Tour courses which the US players were more accustomed to).

The course also had a clear pattern in its layout that would influence the optimal order of play in foursomes. The player teeing off on odd holes would be taking significantly more key drives, and the even player would be taking more key approaches.

So while the pairings for the opening day’s matches were a combination of knowledge and data, we used the numbers to identify at least two optimal pairings options – for both fourballs and foursomes – for each player, in order to give the captains flexibility. Another major use for the data here was identifying which format suited each player best.

Some of the key decisions included:

Pairing Paul Casey and Tyrell Hatton in fourballs;

  • Selecting Henrik Stenson in foursomes only – and ideally as an approach-heavy partner with Justin Rose;
  • Picking Ian Poulter as an approach-heavy partner with Rory McIllroy in foursomes;
  • Recommending that Francesco Molinari and Tommy Fleetwood played four times together as they suited the course – and each other – so well.

Pairing ‘Moliwood’ – as they came to be known – also made sense because their chemistry and friendship was so strong. Often the best decisions are not just about opinion or data, it is a hybrid of the two.

Stick to the plan!

Yet that first morning did not go entirely as we had hoped. Europe were on their way to going 3-1 down and it was suggested that changes should potentially be made for the afternoon foursomes session. This was a critical moment, and one where all those months spent establishing relationships and trust came to the fore.

Here we had to work hard to try and instil calm and encourage everyone to stick to the plan. We knew that the foursomes, where players hit the same ball on alternate shots, was a very different format and our statistical simulations gave us a high level of confidence that our pairings in the afternoon would be stronger than those of the US team. We eventually agreed to stick to the plan and Europe would go onto win the session 4-0 – the biggest ever margin of victory in a foursome session by a European Ryder Cup team.

 

The 15th Club team

 

Later that weekend, Lee Westwood – who undoubtedly will be a future captain himself – commented that “sticking to the plan” and not panicking was the biggest lesson he had personally learned that week. Indeed, “stick to the plan” almost became the team’s motto for the remainder of the Ryder Cup.

We were also able to help the captains and vice-captains during the play itself. With four consecutive matches unfolding, it was impossible for them to take in all the action – especially in the heat of battle. Our team, however, were able to capture every shot out on the course and deliver live feedback to them through a real-time dashboard. Without such objective insight it can be very easy to get carried away with the emotion and overly influenced by the scoreboard.

For instance, if a pairing is three down after 10 holes it might be because the opposition are playing out of their skins rather than because they themselves are struggling. On that first morning, for example, Casey and Hatton lost their fourballs match on the final hole. However the data showed that Casey was the top performer in the team – gaining +5.83 strokes on the field, while Hatton gained +1.33 (putting him third). Our analysis demonstrated that – despite the scoreboard – both players were playing well and they were confident selections for the Saturday morning fourballs, where they beat Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler 3&2. Again it showed that it is often best to ignore the superficial result and stick to the plan.

Sealing the deal in the singles  

After the first two days, Europe had established a commanding 10-6 lead but now we had to seal the deal in the singles, where every player plays in a more traditional 1v1 match play format.

While received wisdom suggests that you should send your top players out first – and of course it is nice to get some points on the board early to avoid the sense of momentum shifting away from you. However the smarter play is to use analytics to forecast where the crunch matches might be; where the Ryder Cup would be won or lost.

Based on the scoreline, we were able to accurately predict that the crucial singles matches were likely to be games 7-10 (there are 12 single matches in total). Knowing this in advance gives you the opportunity to strategise ahead of time; what type of players do we want competing in these matches? Do we want the guys who have played well that week, such as Molinari, or players who statistically perform well under pressure, like Poulter and García?

Despite losing the first few matches, ultimately the strategy proved successful as Europe triumphed with an emphatic 17.5 – 10.5 victory.

Philosophical reflections

The morning after we travelled back from Paris with sore heads yet broad smiles and in contemplative mood. Being involved in Europe’s Ryder Cup victory was a hugely exhilarating and proud moment for 15th Club. Yet only two years earlier, we were part of the losing European team at Hazeltine. So what had changed since 2016? We hadn’t really developed any radical new approaches and our process was fundamentally the same. So what was the key differentiator?

 

Left to right: Blake Wooster, Thomas Bjørn, and Duncan Carey

 

The truth is while our models hadn’t improved our streets-smarts certainly had. Our ability to influence decision making, to constructively challenge thinking, and to suggest alternative possibilities had all come about because, having previously experienced the culture and environment, we had a far better understanding of when – and how best – to intervene.

There is, of course, a broader point here for anyone working in high performance. The strength of your models, while clearly important, is really just one part of the jigsaw. Successfully executing a plan depends on multiple pieces. Often it is as much about emotional intelligence and strong relationships as analytical expertise.

 

Further reading:

Helping Golfers Win – How data can be used to challenge conventional wisdom in golf.

Pro-Am golf: why the women’s game excels for sponsors

 

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