Drive for show, input for dough

Explain how data analytics in sports can give you an edge.
Data analytics is just a way to say “better information”. It’s about quantifying elements of a business or process that previously weren’t quantifiable so that decision makers and stakeholders have the most accurate information.

In football, using analytics we can help executives judge the quality of a vast number of potential transfer signings, highlight undervalued or overvalued leagues, and identify the true talent of their team. In golf we can measure how well a player is performing across their game, which courses or events best suit their specific style of play and goals, and what the best way to play a hole is. Each of these tasks is about translating data into insights so that the people responsible for making decisions (executives, golfers, coaches, etc) are as well informed as possible.

How did you first get introduced to Darren Clarke?
Darren was the touring professional at The Astbury, where our now head of golf Duncan Carey was the head PGA professional. Duncan, being aware of the work 21st Club were doing in the football world, had a meeting with Darren, who said he just had to have something similar to enable him to plan for the Ryder Cup.

Talk us through the type of recommendations you made to Darren Clarke before the 2016 Ryder Cup at Hazeltine.
We worked very closely with Darren and the vice-captains for 18 months. We built an app whereby the captain could log in at any time to look at metrics such as driving accuracy and greens in regulation (GIR), as well as all the new ‘strokes gained’ numbers for all areas of the game. These numbers were continually updated automatically within the app, to ensure the information was current and correct.

We also compiled comprehensive reports looking at pairing strategies, current form, course demands and advice on wild-card picks. 15th Club were the only data company or broadcaster collecting live shot-by-shot data during every session at the Ryder Cup, and this was available instantly to the captain and vice-captains to assess each player and pairing performance. Our team were on hand to advise and direct the captain on all things statistical. Obviously this information had to be put together with lots of other softer factors.

What is the most fruitful insight you have delivered to any player?
Ahead of the 2016 Masters we worked with Danny Willett and his caddie Jonathan Smart to plot their optimum course strategy for Augusta. We knew from our analysis that Danny’s approach play was brilliant from around 100 yards, so a key part of the plan was to get him to attack the pins from those distances on par fours and fives.

If you look back at a list of the top performers by shot type during the 2016 Masters, Danny is nowhere to be seen. Rather than excelling in any particular aspect, the key to Danny’s victory was that he made only eight bogeys during the entire event. The field averaged bogey or worse on 26 per cent of their holes, Danny on just 11 per cent.

Sometimes it’s not the shots you make, it’s the mistakes you avoid.Danny’s incredible success at Augusta showed the value of objective data in the creation of a tailored strategy designed to meet the challenges of the course and amplify a player’s specific strengths. When diligent planning is combined with great execution, a player gives themselves a far better shot at success and, as Danny proved, the rewards can be significant.

Do you ever get it wrong – mistaking noise for signals, for instance?
It’s not about being “right” or “wrong”, but about mitigating risk and finding the small edges – nudging the odds in your favour. Anyone working in the data and insight space has made the wrong call based on the evidence available. We focus more on following consistent and replicable processes to mitigate risk and find small edges for our clients.

Have you got the Team Europe contract for this year’s Ryder Cup at Le Golf National, and what is the brief? Yes, we have been working with Thomas Bjorn and Robert Karlsson on Ryder Cup 2018 since the end of 2016. The brief is to work very closely with Robert to monitor the prospective players from a numbers point of view. Again the captain and vice-captain are using our unique software to stay fully informed on the form of the team’s potential players. We will be advising on wild-card selection, pairings and course strategy and will be on hand in Paris also to assist the team.

With data being so easily accessible now (ie PGA Tour stats), what makes 15th Club better? For example, a course that needs driving accuracy as a key attribute, are tour stats a good enough indicator? The main problem with golf stats as they are traditionally presented is a lack of context. The advent of the PGA Tour’s Shot Link system and the creation of Waggle on the European Tour has allowed for a vast number of new stats to be created: proximity to the hole, putting percentages from various distances, etc.

However, most of these stats don’t take into account the context by which they were generated.
The traditional statistics (GIR, scrambling, putts per round, etc) that have driven the conversation around golf for years claim to measure a part of the game (ball-striking for GIR, short game play for scrambling, etc), but really measure parts of other elements of the game.

They fail to isolate ball-striking performance or putting performance. Strokes gained statistics have received such wide adoption in recent years because they come much closer to telling the true story of a player’s performance.

The traditional stats are ill-suited for the type of detailed analysis that top professionals are now demanding. When you break down such stats, you find that GIR is influenced as much by how well you drive it as how well you hit your approach shots, scrambling is influenced as much by putting as chipping, and putts per round is mostly a function of whether you’re hitting the green (where you’re typically two-putting) or scrambling (where you’re much more likely to one-putt). We have calculated that using putts per round and putts per GIR is only a 65 per cent indicator of underlying putting performance.

What provides your team with more satisfaction: helping a client who has been with you since day one to win a major, or helping a captain make a pick that ultimately wins them the Ryder Cup? Both! We can be involved day-to-day with certain players and watch them improve, grow as a player, and achieve their goals, but also be involved in more long-term strategy around the Ryder Cup/Solheim Cup. Also, at the Ryder Cup you feel more like you’re playing the opposition as well as the course, so game theory comes into play.

Do you believe there can ever be an over-reliance on statistical data?
Yes – data won’t tell you everything. We’ve had examples of where we’ve had to encourage our clients to focus less on the data, because there may be a better way of solving a problem. There’s certainly a balance to be found in the use of statistical data – but sport in general is starting from a situation just a decade ago where there was very little or no rigorous use of data.

Because sport in general and golf specifically are starting from such a low level, there’s much more room to introduce data into the conversation around the game. We’re just another voice in the room, but one that’s growing to become more trusted and relied upon. At the same time, those working in golf have a responsibility to use data responsibly. We must focus on finding applicable insights from data, not just display numbers without meaning behind them.

Do you think statistical analysis in golf is of greater importance than other sports utilising similar technologies?
Maybe not greater importance as data can be useful in every sport, but maybe there’s an opportunity to get a bigger edge. The nature of the sport lends itself well to an analytical approach. Statistical analysis in golf is directly applicable to the work a golfer and coach are doing in a way that is distinct from team sport.

In team sport, analytics is typically more easily used in player acquisition and remuneration at the boardroom level and in terms of tactics and player selection on the field. In golf, it lends itself to direct use by players, caddies, coaches, and agents. That means the rewards are more immediate for players – they can see the rewards in terms of winnings, world rankings, and wins more directly than a player in football or basketball.

Looking towards the Fitzdares Fantasy Open competition: which players are most suited to the course and would make your shortlist?
Obviously form leading up to the event will be key in determining the players to look out for, but amoung the ones who perform well on links golf courses are Tyrrell Hatton, Rickie Fowler, Henrik Stenson, and Chris Wood. Nearer the time we will be putting together our Open guide with more extensive details.

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