Where are the Strokes Gained for women?
Team Europe’s Solheim Cup analytics usage shows larger problem with antiquated LPGA Tour stats
By Kyle Stefan
As the best professional women’s golfers from the United States and Europe converge this week on the Des Moines Golf and Country Club, one side has a quantifiable advantage in this 12-player team match-play Solheim Cup competition.
United States team captain Juli Inkster has prioritized player personality testing, telling the LPGA media on a July conference call that she is making her Solheim Cup decisions “75 percent on personalities last year and 25 percent on golf…maybe 50/50 this year. Everyone has taken a personality test…and we’ll map out some strategies.”
European captain Annika Sorenstam based her playing career on the opposite of that approach. “I’m very strategic,” Sorenstam said on the same call. “Some people think I’m very analytic. I use that a lot.”
Her captaincy in Iowa will follow suit: Team Europe announced in February that it would utilize the services of The 15th Club, a UK-based performance analytics company that provides data-based insights to golfers.
Whether that edge is alone enough to produce a Solheim Cup win is to be determined. Danny Willet credited 15th Club insights as key to his breakthrough 2015 Masters win. The service also consulted for Europe’s triumph in the 2016 EurAsia Cup, along with the losing 2016 European Ryder Cup team (Darren Clarke captained both events).
The European women enter the 2017 Solheim Cup as 2-1 underdogs and captain Sorenstam wants to identify and exploit even the slimmest of edges – by using the best available information on player performance to recommend pairings, strategy, course management, and in-round decisions – in hopes of lifting the trophy on Sunday.
The larger issue isn’t the adoption or application of golf analytics and data-based insights. Whether a feel-based or chemistry-based approach is antiquated, or an analytics-based approach is modern, is certainly up for debate. Captain Inkster is a Hall-of-Famer player in her own right and captained the winning Solheim Cup team in 2015. She’s free to manage as she pleases and her tactics may well win again this year.
But where is the LPGA Tour’s data so their players and coaches can access the most modern and correct information and make their own decisions?By not activating Strokes Gained collection, building a database, and providing the info to its players – and outsiders like the 15th Club to run deeper analytics and generate probabilistic insights – the LPGA Tour is doing its membership a grave disservice.
The PGA Tour developed ShotLink in 2004 to collect data on every shot played on tour: measuring the lie of the golf ball and its proximity to the hole. The system has been developed tremendously since its inception. Third parties like 15th Club have produced mathematical truths on everything from round strategy to long-term career success probabilities – all entirely related to the men’s game.
The LPGA Tour has yet to implement such a system. Why? Especially in 2017, and especially with the movement across business, tech, education, and life to big data and mathematically-driven decisions, the time to act is now.
Information is increasingly important to strategy and gaining competitive advantage. Yet, the counting stats tracked and promoted by the LPGA Tour – fairways hit, greens in regulation, sand saves, putts per round – are as antiquated as 1980s golf and can be misleading at best as actual indicators of golf performance.
Collecting Strokes Gained data is not cost- or tech-prohibitive anymore. It’s certainly not labor intensive. There are user-friendly smartphone apps that do a reasonably decent job of this for $9.95 per month!
It’s no secret that the LPGA Tour lags behind its male counterparts in terms of total purses. Excluding majors, World Golf Championships, and Playoff events, the PGA Tour played 34 tournaments for $210 million in prize money in 2016. Excluding majors, LPGA Tour players competed at 28 events for $46 million.
In theory, one immediate way to make inroads on the pay gap would be to improve the product through better play, lower scores, and longer careers from women’s players – generating more star power for the Tour to promote and monetize. A clear roadmap to this can be developed through efficiencies generated from comprehensive Strokes Gained data analytics.
Odds are, there are more than one player molded like Annika Sorenstam who would like to implement modern golf strategies based on proximity to the hole instead of simplistic counting stats. And when your earned income, career, and livelihood are based on beating the field each week, it would be extremely beneficial to know – precisely – how performance stacks up against said field on a week-to-week and season-long basis.
Implementing a shot-tracking system is entirely viable for the LPGA Tour to help itself and move into the 21st century on the statistics front. It is beyond time for the LPGA Tour to provide their players the opportunity to utilize data to achieve competitive advantage.
A European win this week would highlight the importance.
Kyle Stefan is the founder and owner-operator of 54ANALYTICS, a data-based sports consulting firm, and is a professional participant of ASAP.