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By the numbers: vital analysis

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The last person to get on my media shuttle bus after the first round of the Northern Trust Open was a guy dressed like a player, complete with snappy golf shoes and a custom belt buckle. He sat across the aisle from me, and as we chatted at the start of our 10-minute ride, he mentioned that he was, in reality, a coach. Specifically, he is a coach who gives statistical analysis and advice to clients.

In an age where players have swing coaches, short-game coaches, fitness coaches and sometimes life coaches, the data coaches are sometimes a secret weapon.

As the coach on the bus, who prefers to remain anonymous and who declined my request for a formal interview, talked about players and their growing willingness to use analytics to improve their game, I asked what he thinks is the most-overrated stat in the professional game. After a moment’s thought, he said scrambling.

Scrambling percentage reveals how often a player gets up and down to make par or better after he has missed a green in regulation.

“You see, there are really three things that go into scrambling. There is the chip and then the putt, but a big part of scrambling is the miss,” the coach said.

To make his point, the coach said one of his clients gets up and down about 75 percent of the time after missing the green on the long side, meaning away from the hole so he has some green to work with. When the player misses the green and short-sides himself, he gets up and down about 25 percent of the time.

“The scrambling stat does not take into account where you miss,” he said.

This is a great example of a well-intentioned statistic not telling the complete story. Most people would think a golfer who has a low scrambling percentage does not chip or putt well, but in reality, he may be putting himself in tough positions too often. Such a player needs to work on course management and accuracy on approach shots more than improving his short game or putting.

Ian Poulter led the Tour in scrambling from 10 to 20 yards for the 2016-17 season, but the category doesn’t tell the whole story, because he might be even better at course management than with a wedge. (Getty Images/Andrew Redington)

Another stat that does not tell the whole story is putting average, which is the average number of putts a player takes after hitting the green in regulation. Anirban Lahiri finished the PGA Tour regular season tied for third in putting average with Rickie Fowler at 1.723. But if you think Lahiri putts as well as Fowler, think again. Fowler ranked first in strokes gained: putting (0.896), while Lahiri finished 152nd (-0.23). Over 72 holes, Fowler earns a 3.476-shot advantage over the average player based on his putting alone, while Lahiri gives up almost a full shot.

PGA Tour players, their coaches and caddies recognize they have to do more than just keep up with stats. They need to go inside the numbers and take things into consideration that are not tracked by ShotLink. This can require a specialist, such as the coach I met on that bus. It can provide a competitive advantage, and players don’t like to share what they’ve learned (hence the coach’s anonymity).

Coaches and team officials in other professional sports – the NBA, NFL, NHL…


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