How to Beat the Data Day Golfer

With the Ryder Cup starting tomorrow I thought it was a good opportunity (or excuse) to bring a little golf into the TSG blog.

I would like to introduce you to one of the most influential figures in the world of golf over the past 25 years; a revolutionary in his field (yes it is true that his particular field was filled with dodgy tartan trousers, usually paired unnaturally with Pringle sweaters) but he is a revolutionary nonetheless.

How did he achieve this?  He managed to flip 20th century golf teaching on its head. All by using data.

Dave Pelz was a good golfer, good enough to play college golf, but not good enough to play golf for a living.

He went to Ohio State University, the same one as Jack Nicklaus. He played Nicklaus 22 times during his time there, and lost 22 times.

Pelz got degrees in Physics and Mathematics before landing a job with NASA. He crunched data all day at the Goddard Space Flight Center, all whilst still dreaming of playing golf. He was being schooled in the rigour of sound research, watching rules becoming apparent through numbers and patterns.

The moment that brought these worlds together was when Pelz attended a PGA Tour event with a friend. They watched players warm up on the range, and Pelz was drawn to 2 players hitting balls next to each other.

Player A was tall, athletic, and could hit every shot in the book, one after another. Player B was short, struggling to hit the ball in the air let alone hit high soft shots with total control, like his opponent next to him. He hit ugly low shots like a weekend amateur.

Pelz noted their names, followed them around the course and he saw the same thing. Player A seemed in total control of his game, hitting wonderful flighted shots that drew applause from the gallery. Player B seemed to struggle all the way around and drawing more giggles and amusement than applause.

Pelz checked the scores afterwards, and then again the next day. What he thought he had learned over 20 years of playing and watching the game was suddenly turned on its head.

Player B had beaten A by 8 shots over 2 rounds. He had made the cut, and he was making money over the weekend. Player A was back on the practice range earning nothing.

This occurred week after week and Pelz was intrigued. He knew only only one way to try and figure this out – he crunched the data.

He spent hours, days, weeks, years following players around the course, mapping yardages, clubs hit, scores made. He was staggered by the picture being drawn in front of his eyes.

Pelz’s data showed that 65% of the game were shots of 100 yards or less – the short game. This also happened to be the worst part of many people’s games and the part they practiced the least. Why were players practicing hitting high and mighty 3 and 4 irons all day when they hit them once, maybe twice in a round of golf? Why weren’t players practising their short games?

He also calculated percentage misses, or by how much each player had missed his target by. With virtually all players this averaged around 6%. So a 200 yard shot would finish 12 yards from the target etc etc.

This all changed when the player got within 100 yards of the flag – it amazingly went up to 16%. He checked this, double checked it and checked it again. It was correct.

Pelz observed nearly all the players on the PGA Tour standing on the driving range practicing hitting all the wrong shots for hours on end. They were not the shots that mattered. The shots that matter are the ones closer to the green.

He discovered that players could not control their distance properly and were often 10 yards long or 10 yards short of their target. If they could get this right with their 6% accuracy error they would reduce their score and increase their ability to make money!

This was what Player B had been doing but nobody actually knew it. Nobody could see it.

Pundits and fans were transfixed by athletic players who looked the part, not the so-called ‘ugly’ players who were actually doing the right things and getting the results.

Pelz had the data. For those of you who read Steve Cox’s previous blog on MoneyBall and how businesses can learn from the stats – it’s exactly the same principle.

Pelz took this principle to some of the players. He told them not to carry a 1-iron, a 2-iron or a 3-iron. He gave them 3 more wedges for the shorter shots. He taught them a simple method of using slightly different swing lengths to cover every distance from 100 yards in using these 4 wedges. He invented a 60 degree wedge to cover 50 yards and in.

His players began to win; they began to win big. They won US Opens, and they won the US Masters.

Pelz became hot property. In 2003 he was approached by Phil Mickelson. Mickelson had played in 43 major championships and never won. 3 months later he won the US Masters, and has won 4 majors since.

There is now not a single professional golfer who does not work to these Pelz’s principles. He has transformed the way the game is played. If you watch the Ryder Cup this weekend, then watch how closely the players pay attention to getting the yardage correct.

Watch how their ball finishes level with the flag on most occasions – they are rarely short, they are rarely long – and normally only around 6% off target.

Whilst others looked for the secret on the driving range and in the dirt, Dave Pelz found the secret in data. It was there all the time but he was the first one to see it (which takes talent, a theme which Duncan Davies explores in his ‘Technology Doesn’t Replace Talent’ blog series), he gave his players a competitive advantage through data – now sit back and ponder that whilst you enjoy the golf!