By: Edward Egros

Mar 2017

Are We Witnessing the Best Golf Ever?

Last January, Adam Hadwin shot a 13-under 59 at the CareerBuilder Challenge in California. Though it’s a dream scorecard, sub-60 is no longer a rarity. Just in the week prior, Justin Thomas posted a 59 at the Sony Open. Last August, Jim Furyk carded 58 at the Travelers Championship. Of the nine sub-60 round in PGA Tour history, three of them have happened in the span of roughly six months, out of 87 years of pro golf (in more than 1.5 million rounds of play, last I counted).

Because the odds are infinitesimally small these low rounds are by chance, it is safe to say golfers are improving. Equipment, athletic ability and coaching all play a part. But with several months left in the season, can we predict, right now, we are about to witness the best golf ever played?

Let’s first consider scoring average over the last 20 years, specifically, the median scoring on Tour:

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We had been seeing a significant decline in scoring beginning in 2007—with some fluctuation—but overall lower figures as recently as last year; however, so far this season, an uptick. What makes the higher median score so interesting is how much easier the early tournaments are, compared with the rest of the schedule.

Even for individual seasons, it will be difficult for anyone to match what Tiger Woods accomplished in 2000 and 2007. In both years, he finished with the lowest scoring and adjusted scoring average, ever, with a 67.79. This year, after the CareerBuilder Challenge and all of those historically low scores, even with the 59’s, the lowest scoring average was 68.715, roughly one stroke worse than Tiger’s.

Of course, devious course designers can always stay one step ahead and adjust conditions to keep scores from approaching zero (e.g. Tiger-proofing). Other statistics could better highlight if today’s golfers are indeed the best ever. However, metrics off the tee like driving distance has remained relatively steady over the last several years, though some tournaments show professional golfers are becoming more aggressive than ever before.

Where there might be significant improvement involves the less glamorous approaches and short game. Though the top Greens in Regulation percentages have hovered around 72% each season, this year the best is 75.69%, held by Jordan Spieth. More golfers can finish a hole with one putt. The best could have roughly 44% one putts for a season. In 2017, seven golfers have more than 44% success rate with one putts. But again, it is worth noting how much easier the start to a season is; these golfers have not faced the toughest challenges like The Players, the Barclays and any major championship.

What seems to be happening is not the next coming of 2000 Tiger, but rather, more golfers improving at roughly the same time at roughly the same rate. There are still milestones yet to be reached, like someone shooting a 62 for one round at a major, or less notably, a golfer carding 254 for a 72-hole tournament. There have been more golfers flirting with breaking these records in recent years, but no one has broken through. Sub-60 rounds are happening at easier courses where scores are lower and competition is not as fierce. But because fields are becoming saturated with similarly talented players, some of the better golfers still have to find other events to play. When they do, the occasional golfer could be poised to achieve that coveted 59.

If you believe talented playing partners and deeper tournament fields naturally make an individual golfer better, then the play we will witness this season could very well be the best we have ever seen. There may not be the lone star of golf, but a hodgepodge of pros who will make 2017 something to behold.

Will Jordan Spieth Win a Major in 2017?

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Leave it up to the U.S. Open’s official twitter handle to place tongue firmly in cheek when it comes Jordan Spieth’s victory at the Australian Open being a sign of things to come: “We all know what came after @JordanSpieth’s first #AusOpenGolf win...” followed by a photo of him holding the major’s championship trophy. In other words, only in the years he won the Australian Open did he win majors.


At the time of publication, no major tournament participants have withdrawn based upon this logic.

There are sounder ways to predict if Jordan Spieth will earn his 3
rd career major this year like momentum. Perhaps surprisingly, in a few ways, Spieth performed better in 2016 than he did in 2015, despite not winning any majors last year. We can illustrate this idea using “Strokes Gained” statistics:

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For those new to “Strokes Gained”, it simply means how many strokes a player gained or lost, compared with the rest of the field, based upon how they played in the four areas: off the tee, approaching the green, around the green and putting. Spieth was actually a better putter in 2016, it was primarily his iron and hybrid clubs letting him down. Fortunately for Spieth, putting is a better predictor for overall success than other phases of the game, so as long as he can continue improving in close range, he has opportunities.

Next, let’s look at each individual major, beginning with the Masters. When looking at a host of variables, there is no better predictor for future performance than past success. It is why I publicly predicted Spieth to win the green jacket last year, and I would have gotten away with it had it not been for that pesky Amen Corner. Still, nobody has played better at Augusta National the last three years than Spieth, so he is in the best position to win there again.

This year’s U.S. Open will be at Erin Hills. It is listed as 7,823 yards, which would be longer than any PGA Tour event played last season. Though Spieth is not one of the longer drivers on Tour, his U.S. Open win was at Chambers Bay, almost as long as this year’s event. Spieth’s advantage was he knew how to putt on the unique fescue greens better than most everyone else. This setup might pose problems.

Royal Birkdale will host The Open, a shorter links course. Perhaps one of the more underrated qualities of Spieth’s is his ability to play links courses well, compared with other Americans. As long as the momentum is there over the summer, Spieth can also contend there.

Finally, the site of the PGA Championship is Quail Hollow Club. It has hosted the Wells Fargo Championship since 2003. Predictably, familiarity with a course has helped Spieth over the years, but he has only played that tournament once, in 2013 when he finished tied for 32
nd. There may simply be too many other golfers with more knowledge of the course for Spieth to have a realistic chance.

Spieth already has a few Top 10 finishes in 2017, including a victory at Pebble Beach. In the last few months, he helped the Americans claim Ryder Cup win, earned an Australian Open victory and is 2nd on the Tour in greens in regulation percentage (one of the areas that was in need of improvement). His Strokes Gained: Putting has not been as strong this year, ranking 37
th, but a few golfers ahead of him have played more tournaments, so it remains too early in the season to suggest there might be a problem.

Because of the deep fields of majors, the odds are better “not” to predict any one golfer to win one of the big four. But for Jordan Spieth, there are enough reasons to believe he can capture another green jacket, win his first Claret Jug, or both.

Subscribers of the Aussie Open theory would agree.

2017 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

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Another installment of the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference has come and gone. More than 3,500 were estimated attending the proceedings, learning and offering their latest research in the sports analytics world. While football and basketball are often the most popular sports here, there seemed to be a noticeable effort to highlight the quantitative strides made in other sports.

One panel featured golf analytics, led by Golfweek's
David Dusek, who highlighted the success stories of these quantitative tools. Jeff Price, Chief Commercial Officer of the PGA, offered an example of Team USA at the Ryder Cup. At Hazeltine National Golf Club, long par 5's meant emphasizing wedge play. It's this discovery that helped the Stars and Stripes to a decisive 17-11 victory.

On a more personal level, current professional golfer Jason Gore explained how to turn research into actionable results.

"When I talked to a sports psychologist, Fred Astaire would [practice and] put chalk on the floor," said Gore. "But once he grabbed Ginger's hand, he never thought about the chalk on the floor."

There is still room for growth.

"We're in the first inning of the data revolution in golf," said
Arccos Golf CEO Sal Syed.

Dusek pointed out some major tournaments like the Masters and United States Open still do not provide the media with advanced statistics.
15th Club CEO Blake Wooster says the potential is there to analyze how golfers perform under pressure. Lastly, the group seemed to agree lasers should be used to measure distance more accurately. Even Gore believed lasers used by caddies could speed up pace of play.

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The seminal football panel of this year's conference was unabashedly endorsing the concepts of its own sport's analytic revolution. It was even subtitled "Please Stop Punting", a concept where going for it on 4th down
yields more expected points and discounts a more traditional idea valuing field position.

Almost immediately, Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman John Urschel, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in mathematics from MIT, discussed a common situation he says coaches get wrong. When a team trails by 14 late in a game and score a touchdown, he says it is better to go for two than kick the extra point. The reasoning is, two points essentially give you the win with another touchdown, but even if unsuccessful, you can go for two again and achieve a tie, and because most teams convert two-point attempts 50% of the time, you are at least giving yourself a better chance at winning, with a small chance at needing a third score of some kind.

Mike Lombardi, former football executive and current analyst for Fox Sports, says analytics help with time allocation throughout the week, knowing what coaches should communicate with players and which statistics are important in determining the outcome of a game, such as 3rd down red zone defense.

"You don't establish the run, you establish the lead," said Lombardi. "Teams with the lead at halftime frequently go on to win," citing last year's Super Bowl champion Patriots as the top team with wins after leading at halftime, then citing the second-place team, the Super Bowl runner-up Falcons. The players, which included former Patriot Tedy Bruschi, explained how halftime is all about adjustments, but that they should take fewer than five minutes to implement.

From a front office perspective, analytics can help decipher if trading players and draft picks make fiscal and qualitative sense.

"The toughest thing to do in sports is to know what you're trading. It's why the Patriots won't trade [backup quarterback] Jimmy Garoppolo," said Lombardi.

Football discussion was not confined just to that panel. A couple of talks featured fantasy football and if there are things to give analytic players an advantage. Here are some tips from Tauhid Zaman, the KDD Career Development Professor in Communications and Technology at MIT, and Renee Miller, a neuroscientist at the University of Rochester:

- When picking a quarterback, get one or two of his receivers as well.

- Avoid players who cancel each other out, like a defense against one of your offensive players.

- We weigh football players' performances at the start of the year too heavily. Instead, looking at the bigger picture of their performance.

- Be careful of overconfidence: "The more data we have, the more confident we become in our decision making."

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Lastly, in basketball, while guys like Luis Scola seemed to get most of the attention from hoops fans, maybe the most direct knowledge given came from Seth Partnow, Director of Basketball Research for the Milwaukee Bucks. In his talk, "Truths and Myths of the Three Point Revolution in Basketball," Partnow offered the following bulletpoints:

- Defensive three-point shooting percentage is a useless stat because of the noise involved (good defenses prevent the shot).

- Long range shots in the NBA do not lead to fast breaks, it's shots around the rim that cause these.

- Ten of the last 12 NBA champions ranked in the top ten in three-point shooting.

As robust as this research might be, it does not offer a glimpse into the future of basketball analytics. However, one panel discussed solely how the sport will evolve thanks to quantitative tools. There may still be blowback from coaches and those who approach the sport more traditionally.

"When you're working with the [NBA] Draft…you end up trying to convince coaches," said Dean Oliver, a statistician who worked in the front offices of the Sacramento Kings, Seattle SuperSonics and Denver Nuggets. "You don't expect to win 100% of these arguments and that's fine."

Using analytics, a couple of panelists offered simple suggestions for improving the game. Former NBA player and coach Vinny Del Negro wants the league to add a fourth referee because the pace of the game has gone up and it is getting tougher for officials to keep up. WNBA point guard Sue Bird wants to get rid of the shootaround because of the rest players need and the lack of proof shooters develop a rhythm because of this routine. She also wants the analytics to assist in the psychology of a team.

"If I were a general manager, I'd want to know if [players] retain information well and how they handle things under pressure," said Bird.

The flexibility of these tools, spanning different sports and perhaps different fields of expertise, perhaps proves why this conference has lasted as long as it has.

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(All photos courtesy of Sloan Sports Analytics Conference).