Counting on Success
Extracted from The Wall Street Journal.
The margins are tiny: in a professional golf tournament players will hit the ball close to 300 times, yet the title may be decided by a single shot.
How to save that one shot is a conundrum that has obsessed golfers and sport scientists for decades— none more so than Mark Broadie, professor of finance and risk management at Columbia Business School, N.Y.
Prof. Broadie, also the author of a seminal book on golf out-performance, “Every Shot Counts,” applied his deep understanding of math to performance on the golf course, developing a powerful advanced metric program called Strokes Gained. This was the result of his analysis of millions of shots recorded by the PGA Tour, and what he discovered revolutionized the game.
The traditional statistics used in golf were “a poor guide to performance,” Prof. Broadie says. “Strokes Gained shines a light on a player’s particular weakness, which can then become a strength.”
Ahead of The 2016 Ryder Cup, European team captain Darren Clarke hired a newly formed golf analytics agency called 15th Club, which draws on Prof Broadie’s program, to advise his players on which aspects of their game to practice. The results so far have been astonishing.
Applying the Strokes Gained approach, Clarke captained a European team to the most emphatic away result in elite golfing history, winning the EurAsia Cup in January 2016 by 1/2 points to 51/2.
U.K. golfer Danny Willett, also working with 15th Club, triumphed at The Masters in April, beating U.S. favourite Jordan Spieth by three shots, with six other European golfers in the top 10.
Prof. Broadie is pleased to see his work bearing fruit in this way. Asked why it works, “I think that analytics can take misconceptions out of sport,” he says, adding that just as in the business world, where 360-degree appraisals help to identify strengths and weaknesses, Strokes Gained gives golfers an objective picture of their performance. “These things are hard to see for yourself,” Prof. Broadie says. “You can lower your score just by playing smarter.”
“I think that analytics can take misconceptions out of sport”
But, in sport as in business, it’s not only a numbers game. European Ryder Cup 2016 captain Darren Clarke stresses that statistics, vital as they are, must be used in combination with skilled human judgment. “Like any business, we will have statistics and analysis in front of us, but sometimes you have to use your gut feeling on whether you do a deal,” he says.
U.S. captain Davis Love III puts it another way: “If I can’t come up with any reason other than numbers whether to pick a certain player, the numbers are going to make the decision for me.”Seeing these emphatic demonstrations of data’s value in prestigious sports tournaments, it’s no surprise that today’s forward-looking businesses are adopting a similar approach. Nuala Walsh, global head of marketing and relationship management at Standard Life Investments says “The future belongs to sophisticated firms that realize there has to be a balance between data and behavioural analysis, especially where you have a very complex customer base,”.
“Data is integral to the decision-making process, but not an end in itself,” adds Jeremy Lawson, chief economist at Standard Life Investments.
“We’re trying to become outcome-focused rather than process-oriented,” says Dave Coplin, chief envisioning officer at Microsoft U.K. “In sport, outcome is really important. Focusing on effectiveness gives you an opportunity to do things differently, to deliver products that the customer will love.”
So a balance, after all, it’s not data that’s going to hole the winning putt on the final day of The Ryder Cup.