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Data & Innovation, Performance | Jan 9, 2017
How data can be used to challenge conventional wisdom in golf.

Blake Wooster is the Co-Founder and CEO of 21st and 15th Clubs. In an exclusive feature for Performance, he describes how data can be used to challenge conventional wisdom in golf and why it is important to be able to show a professional resonant and meaningful data in order to help maintain their focus on the end goal.


“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”

Henry Ford

A time-worn Henry Ford quotation may not be the most imaginative opening to an article about performance innovation, but that single sentence encapsulates as well as any the philosophy that drives our work in professional golf. Approaching the game with a fresh perspective and the analytical tools required to identify and exploit inefficiencies, our goal over the last 18 months has been to help players think differently about the way they measure and evaluate performance.

It’s not easy to come into a sport and tell people that they’ve essentially been measuring the wrong things; it’s a dynamic that involves a certain level of vulnerability on both sides. It takes a high level of maturity for a professional athlete to actively scrutinise their own methods and an equal amount of courage to suggest to them possible alternatives. 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.

Received wisdom in golf has long held traditional statistics like driving accuracy, putts per round and greens in regulation (GIR) to be reliable performance indicators, but by digging a little deeper we quickly discovered that this wasn’t the case. As a quick example, let’s imagine that two golfers are in the middle of the fairway, both 100 yards from the pin. The first golfer hits his approach to within three feet, while the second lands his on the green, but 26 feet away from the pin. Both players would register the same GIR, yet the first golfer clearly played the superior shot. With golf’s traditional statistics proving unfit for purpose, it was clear that players who were willing to assess their performance in new ways would enjoy a significant advantage over the rest of the field.

The analytical work that 21st Club are doing in soccer has shown that the quality and quantity of chances created are strong predictors of success (much stronger than goals as it happens). Since 15th Club came into existence we have found that similar ideas can be applied to great effect in golf. Taking further inspiration from the pioneering work of Mark Broadie, author of Every Shot Counts, the ideas have formed the basis of a revolutionary new approach to the evaluation of high performance, an approach that now supports the likes of Rory McIlroy, Danny Willett, Tyrrell Hatton, Thorbjørn Olesen and Matthew Fitzpatrick. This is how we work.

 

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Start with why

It doesn’t matter how great your idea is, you won’t get far if you can’t convince end users of its value. Without evidence-based reasons for altering their methods, golfers are understandably reluctant to embrace change in a sport that relies so heavily on finely calibrated processes. To convince them otherwise, it’s essential to speak to their primary motivations.

Broadly speaking, golfers are motivated by their love of the game, desire to win, financial reward, or a combination of the three. As long as a player is motivated to perform there is surely no right or wrong way for them to excite that competitive impulse. Speaking to that instinct by demonstrating the value in our approach can be challenging, but by crunching the numbers we discovered that a 0.5 shot per round improvement increases a golfer’s earnings potential by 73%. That’s a pretty compelling business case in any line of work and tends to get a golfer’s attention.

Once a player is convinced (or at least curious), the conversation can then move from ‘Why?’ to ‘How?’

 

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Begin with the end in mind

The number of golfers we meet who don’t possess a clear sense of where they want to be is astounding. Some are content to have simply ‘made it’ as a pro, while others want to take their game to the next level yet lack a strategy to help turn their ambitions into reality. It’s the latter we’re most interested in at 15th Club.

I’ll spare you the GCSE-level pep talk on goal setting, but the most important thing for a golfer is to clearly define a set of realistic objectives and agree them with their support team. For example, a golfer like Andy Sullivan (who made Europe’s Ryder Cup team) may harbour ambitions of one day reaching the top of the world rankings. However, given his current ranking of 46, a more realistic short-term target might be to finish the year in the top 25.

Irrespective of the short- and long-term aspirations, once established it’s important to gain a comprehensive understanding of what ‘success’ looks like in relation to those goals. In Andy’s case we would begin by quantifying the characteristics and behaviours of a top 25 player. What are the performance benchmarks? What does a typical schedule look like? How many ranking points or what amount of prize money is required? When objectively defined, the answers to these questions become the factors against which progress can be properly measured.

Establish the gaps

Before you know where you’re going, you need to know where you are. It is therefore vital to assess a player’s current performance level and understand where there are gaps in relation to the target.

Finding ways to accurately measure true underlying performance is key at this stage, particularly given that – as we’ve established – many traditional metrics don’t tell the full story, or worse, are actively misleading.

 

“By crunching the numbers we discovered that a 0.5 shot per round improvement increases a golfer’s earnings potential by 73%. That’s a pretty compelling business case in any line of work and tends to get a golfer’s attention.”

 

Historically, one of the primary ways of measuring a golfer’s performance has been through the Official World Golf Ranking (OWGR). We recognised, however, that the OWGR was simply crediting accomplishment (outcomes) rather than understanding performance (process) over time. As an alternative, we developed an index that more accurately reflects performance adjusted for key variables such as course difficulty, weather conditions, and the strength of the field. This method helps us contextualise a golfer’s performance and, crucially, is a far better predictor of future results.

Scheduling is also key. A typical European Tour pro will play between 25 and 30 events per season, with decisions often determined by habit (where they’ve played before), preference (desirable locations) and incentive (appearance fees). However, there’s a huge competitive edge to be gained by identifying the courses that suit a player’s specific strengths and the events that offer a disproportionate number of ranking points relative to the strength of the field. With careful consideration, it is possible to be smart and beat the system.

Execute, monitor and stay agile

Come January, the season will be well underway and – without proper planning – players will discover that it quickly starts to happen to rather than by them. If a plan is going to work, it’s important that the golfer remains disciplined and constantly monitors where they are in relation to their objective. The key is to remain focused on process rather than outcome. It’s too easy for a player to get carried away with a marginal victory or a top ten finish when, in reality, they were up against a weak field. Conversely, the player might get down about a lowly finishing position when in fact they weren’t far away from hitting their own performance benchmarks. As the golfer works towards a long-term objective it is vital they play the course rather than their opponents. In the long run, a disciplined process will usually bring about the desired outcome.

There are also opportunities for players to focus on specific events. For example, ahead of the 2016 Masters we helped Danny Willett and Jonathan Smart (his Caddie) plot the optimum course strategy for Augusta. We knew Danny’s approach play was brilliant from around 100 yards, so part of the plan was to create opportunities to attack the pins from those distances on par fours and fives.

 

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If you look at a list of the top performers by shot type during the 2016 Masters, Danny is nowhere to be seen. Rory McIlroy gained the most strokes on the field when driving, Matthew Fitzpatrick (approach), Bill Haas (short game), and Jason Day (putting). While Jordan Spieth recorded the most birdies (or better). The key to Danny’s victory was that he only made eight bogeys during the whole event. To put that in context, the field averaged bogey or worse on 26% of their holes, Danny on just 11%. Sometimes it’s not about the shots you make, it’s about the mistakes you avoid.

Embracing change

If working on the 2016 Ryder Cup taught us anything, it’s that sometimes even the best-laid plans can go awry in the heat of battle. However, the recent proliferation of analytics in golf is enabling players to be smarter and better prepared than ever before. Even if a player occasionally falls short of their objectives, sound planning can ensure that the odds are tipped in their favour more often than not. Grounding strategy in objective process, players are becoming increasingly well informed and finding innovative new ways to gain that crucial half shot per round.


Further reading:

Performance Lessons from Leaders: Cameron McCormick

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