Adjusting Performance for Context

December 30, 2015
Jake Nichols

Underneath everything in golf is a number: total putts, club head speed, yardage to the pin, etc. Golfers, coaches, and analysts have to make sense of all of these numbers and apply them to improve their games, help their clients, and explain what is going right and what is going wrong. The most important idea when dealing with these numbers is context. What is the context behind the number you’re looking at? What is good, what is bad, and what is average?

For golfer performance – whether looking at general scoring or when looking more specifically at an in-depth statistic – it’s important to compare performance to what the field has done. For a full-season, it’s less important to know that a golfer’s scoring average was 71.5 as it is to know that that golfer beat the field by one stroke per round on average. Looking more specifically at a single round, it’s less important to know that a golfer hit twelve greens in regulation than to know that the field hit thirteen – one more than that golfer.

Below I’ve included a chart of how well the top 110 golfers in the Race to Dubai standings performed in terms of two simple statistics – Greens in Regulation and Fairways Hit – over each European Tour event in 2015. Immediately you can see the wide-range in performance depending on the course. At the Italian Open (field average 47% of fairways) hitting more than seven fairways per round is above-average, but at the British Masters (field average 69% of fairways) a golfer would need to hit ten or more fairways to be above-average. The same story is true for Greens in Regulation. Whether a performance is good or bad depends on the context – the course and the field it was achieved against.

Average Greens 2015

This idea of context is what makes the new Strokes Gained statistics so powerful at explaining performance. Not only does Strokes Gained measure each shot and better capture information about each part of a golfer’s game, but it also compares every shot to how well the field average of professional golfers are expected to perform on each shot from each lie and distance. It immediately applies context to a golfer’s performance.

That gives coaches and analysts greater ability to evaluate a golfer’s performance by looking deeper than the traditional stats. For example, during his fantastic 2015 season Jordan Spieth posted some rather pedestrian traditional stats for one of the best seasons ever – ranking 78th in driving distance, 80th in fairways hit, and 49th in greens in regulation out of 184 qualifying PGA Tour golfers. However, he ranked in the top 30 in all of Strokes Gained Driving, Approach, Short Game, and Putting per round based on calculations by 15th Club.

Jordan Spieth

Focusing in on one of his wins at the John Deere Classic, Spieth hit 2% fewer greens than the field (68% vs. 70%), but he gained 6.8 strokes on approach shots (47% of his total strokes gained in the event). Of the 24 stroke-play events Spieth played on the PGA Tour in 2015, his GIR percentage relative to the field ranked only 18th best, but he still managed to gain enough strokes with his approach play to earn his 4th victory of the season. It looked like he was playing mediocre golf by a traditional measure like greens in regulation, but his approach play ranked in the top 3% of all PGA Tour tournaments for 2015.

The takeaways here are:

  • Focus on placing every number in golf into context. Understand what is good, what is bad, and what is average. Use that context to better set goals going into next season.
  • Embrace newer, more precise metrics to measure performance like Strokes Gained. Realize that the traditional statistics like Greens in Regulation or Fairways Hit – while useful at times – aren’t telling the complete story about a golfer’s game.

15th Club works with professional golfers – seeking out the meaning in data and translating it into key insights like these to develop a competitive edge. We apply context and intelligence to data to help golfers win.