Lies, damned lies, and statistics!

SHANKS AND LIPOUTS
IRC Golf Column On Sundays

The phrase “Lies, damned lies and statistics” was popularized by Mark Twain, and although it is not known who first came up with this little gem, the point is well made; analysis of numbers can be misleading.

An acquaintance of mine, a self-confessed inveterate gambler, convinced himself that careful crunching of numbers could yield handsome dividends. After some years of frustrating and expensive forays into the world of betting on horse racing, while maintaining an interest at the track, also began punting on professional golf results. He doggedly continues to analyse the statistics of every player competing, but despite his diligent studying, he has enjoyed very limited success. That doesn’t surprise me, because quite simply, despite all the mathematical chicanery devised to establish which players might have an edge on any given week, these calculations are hopelessly unreliable.  

For a long time, the only stats recorded were percentage of fairways hit, number of greens in regulation, and the number of putts. The stroke average of each player is also kept (the player with the lowest average score over a season wins an award), and while these numbers are not without value, they have failings when it comes to forecasting results. For example, hitting fairways is all very well, but very often a player hitting a lot of fairways will be outscored by one hitting less fairways. (Missing a fairway in the right place is often preferable to finding the short grass but leaving a difficult approach in relation to the putting surface or pin position). Hitting a lot of greens but finishing a long way from the flag results in a false measure of performance, and just because a player may have a low number of total putts, it doesn’t mean they will score well, in fact very often the opposite applies, as it can mean that a lot of greens were missed.

 

Some two decades ago, Mark Broadie, a professor at Columbia University’s Business School, came up with a more reliable system to assess performances on the PGA Tour. Broadie’s “strokes gained” analytics, developed using mountains of data collected by ShotLink (The system that produces the graphics showing ball positions and what scores were made), accurately calculates the average strokes of the field on every hole from any given spot. By way of example, an approach of say, 130 yards at a given hole with a certain pin position may be 2.84 strokes. Should the player hit the shot to 8 feet and hole the putt, he would have gained 0.84 shots on the approach. (Because he completed the hole in two strokes.) The average of the field for holing an 8-footer on that hole might be 1.5 strokes (so he then gained 0.5 strokes on the putt). Basically, by using the same mathematics that is used in a televised poker tournament, golf commentators can inform us of the probability of a player making birdie, par, bogey or worse from any given spot on the golf course using the field’s average as a baseline.

Over a period, a player’s form can now be quantified – strokes gained (or lost) against the field in either the departments of driving, approach shots, recovery shots around the green or putting. Theoretically, lumping all these stats together for the total shots gained should make it easy to pick the serious contenders on any given week, but unfortunately it isn’t.

Before all this sophisticated computer-aided arithmetic was instantly available, there were always players who stood out among the rest as simply being better; they won more tournaments and at the end of the season, they had won the most money. One such player was Colin Montgomerie, who finished on top of the European Tour’s Order of Merit an incredible seven consecutive times from 1993. During this period, I and many others backed him to win a major and he never did. Lee Westwood was another player who seemed simply too good not to win a major, and I backed him religiously to win one of golf’s Big Four, but of course he failed to do so. Sergio Garcia was another superior talent fancied to win majors, but by the time he did finally win the US Masters in 2017 I had lost faith in him, running out of patience and money. It was, after all, his 74th attempt to break his major duck.

Whether backing a player to win, or to finish in the top 5, top 10 or top 20 positions, is infuriatingly difficult. Even match bets, picking one player to beat another, will leave the most diligent student of form bamboozled. The truth is, as any golfer knows, there is a very thin line between success and failure. Given the depth of quality on the Tour, the number of variables and the inherent inconsistency of even the best players, beating the odds seems to be more of an art than a science. In no other sport is the win percentage of the top ranked players so low.

There are success stories concerning some outlandish bets in golf, but they are few and far between. Rory McIlroy’s father Gerry, with three of his friends, famously placed a bet on the 15-year-old Rory winning an Open Championship within 10 years. At odds of 500-1, in the 10th year McIlroy justified his dad’s faith in him, and Ladbrokes happily paid out £180k for the relatively modest bet.

Statistics are all very well, but gut feel may be just as reliable, and my feeling is that John Rahm is going to cement his place as the world’s number player this year. But don’t bet on it. – IRC. 

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