In golf, as in poker, there’s a number for everything.
If you follow the sport even from a distance, you’ll likely know plenty of the numbers relating to Tiger Woods: 15 majors, 82 PGA Tour events, and so on. But did you know that in 2019, the year of his fifth Masters, he made 86.24% of putts inside 10 feet?
Did you know that means there were 163 players who were better than him, and just 22 who were worse?
Golf has always been a game of numbers, none more revealing than the unalloyed, pencil-meet-scorecard kind. Add up your shots, write down a number, walk to the next tee, repeat; however you do it, whether it’s via big drives or dead-eye putts, there’s no substitute for scoring.
This century, though, there has been a data boom, and it has changed the way virtually everyone involved in the sport is forced to think about it.
The maxim always used to be ‘drive for show, putt for dough’, and you will still hear it uttered. Except that through the data which breaks down every stroke taken by every PGA Tour player for the best part of two decades, we know that isn’t true.
Almost every tournament ends with a putt which finds the hole, a kind of visual affirmation which some can’t see past. But how did the ball get to the green? Why did that putt matter?
The data tells us that which should be obvious: putts have meaning because of the shots which came before them.
Thanks to Mark Broadie, the Columbia Business School professor whose methods brought golf into this century, many of golf’s sub-industries have been revolutionised or even birthed.
Speak to the world’s top players, and they will tell you what they need to work on and why, all brought about by the data.
Their schedules – where they play and when they play – are seeded with data, for all that sponsors will always have their say, too. You simply cannot operate at the top of the sport without embracing the numbers, even if for some they are a toboggan to madness.
It’s the same if you’re a punter.
Intuition and instinct and knowledge and experience still count, just as the predominant forces which motor the success of the professional might be technical, mental, relating to the mechanics of the swing or the power of the mind.
But you have to learn to understand and apply the data as best you can; to cut through it and separate the predictive from the misleading.
The best example here might be greens-in-regulation versus its new, improved model, strokes-gained approach.
Greens-in-reg (GIR) is a measure of how many times the player finds the putting surface in the appropriate number of shots – one on a par-three, two on a par-four, three on a par-five – or, as is the case more than it once was, fewer than that.
In times gone by, this was the category which told us who were the elite iron players, because the elite iron players do not often miss greens, at least not from the fairway.
Now, we have a better number, part of the strokes-gained umbrella.
There are others better placed to explain it in detail, but the basic remit of the approach stats is to tell us how good the approach shot was, versus field average, and what exactly that translates to.
Think of two players who each hit 16 greens in regulation, out of 18. They would likely rank in the top five for GIR, but beyond that we’ve no way to separate them.
Now, strokes-gained will tell us who benefited more: likely the player who hit 12 of those approaches inside 10 feet, versus the less aggressive partner who was consistently putting for birdie from much further away.
Similarly, the old stats would tell us how many putts a player had in any given round.
But let’s say the two players cited here both had 30. Strokes-gained would tell us that the one who gained less with his approaches – i.e. hit them further from the hole – had therefore putted better.
The player who was peppering flags but still requiring 1.67 putts per hole was missing their chances. Two players with identical numbers pre-2003 now have a distinctly different set.
And through what we know about putting – it is inherently more volatile than iron play – we might conclude that the player whose approach work was superior would, over time, begin to pull away.
All of this helps to shape our understanding of players.
When we add layers like shot-by-shot coverage of their rounds, press conference transcripts, their Instagram activity, the pro-am they played in last week, their preference for courses with no trees or lots of trees, their predilection to a certain grass type (seriously), fondness for a city, ability in the wind, and so on, we put ourselves in a better place to apply that data, and to really understand it.
Because this is a sport of more variables than any other.
In poker, we know the cards, we know the possible outcomes. In golf, the course changes, the players use different equipment, and the weather is the weather.
We also have to have to contemplate the greater unknowns and accept a word which those seeking long-term gains would prefer did not exist: luck.
Anyone who tells you they can apply, with any degree of certainly, a figure which relates to the chances of any player winning any tournament, is wrong. Worse, they’re foolish.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
Data Golf is a website which does just that, and their numbers are always fascinating, often forming the backbone of betting markets worldwide.
As punters, we cannot have better numbers, and we cannot have better understanding of the numbers we have. Our edge – in theory at least – comes from that layer of additional knowledge and intuition.
Perhaps that’s where the best parallels with poker are to be found. All of us are trying to interpret and apply the same basic fundamentals, but through every refraction our journeys diverge.
Those who study longest and know the most will come back together at the final table, able to look back upon a job well done. Sometimes it will take weeks, more often months or even years to be able to measure success.
Always, hard work will be undermined by that which could not possibly have foreseen. As it turns out, betting on golf is not so very different from playing it.
Ben Coley is a British sports writer who specialises in golf. You can find him on Twitter @bencoleygolf.