Molinari's revolution: Long game trumps short game

By Jason SobelOctober 23, 2013, 1:30 pm

ORLANDO, Fla. – In between bites of filet mignon and sips of sparkling water at a chic restaurant with a warm breeze floating in from its back porch, Edoardo Molinari is plotting the revolution. The one that’s going to turn the golf landscape upside-down. The one that’s going to make us rethink everything we already thought we knew. The statistical revolution.

OK, so it’s not exactly his revolution to plot, but Molinari has been serving on the frontlines for years. Armed with more numbers than a phone book, he is prepared for what’s to come.

His part of this story dates back to 2003, when the Italian was still an amateur. An engineering student who’s always had a keen thirst for wanting to know how things work and where they can be improved, Molinari began keeping a spreadsheet of every personal statistic from every round. Beyond just fairways and greens percentages, he would monitor where shots landed and their ensuing results. He did this while winning the 2005 U.S. Amateur Championship; he continued it while competing for the victorious European team in the 2010 Ryder Cup.

In the spring of 2011, the PGA Tour introduced a new statistical category called strokes gained-putting. The brainchild of Columbia Business School professor Mark Broadie, the stat was the first of its kind to measure how golfers compared to the median as opposed to blindly bleating numbers about putting average and total putts without giving the data any perspective.

Naturally interested in how his personal data could be interpreted, Molinari contacted Broadie. The two met just before the 2011 U.S. Open, and the professor plugged nearly a decade’s worth of the player’s stats into a program that analyzed what these numbers actually meant in relation to his competition.

“I had all of the data from before,” Molinari said. “I just didn’t have the ability to calculate the gains and the losses. I was very skeptical in the beginning. But when something is based on fact, when you look at the numbers for 10 years and the numbers show consistency every year, it’s difficult to say that’s wrong.”

Thanks to the professor, he was not only able to analyze his numbers, he was able to use these findings to practice specific areas that needed improvement.

Pretty soon, so will every other golfer. If they so choose.

In March, Broadie will release his newest book, “Every Shot Counts.” It will be filled with more than 10 years of statistics from both the professional and amateur ranks, employing comparative analysis to prove where players are gaining and losing strokes against their competitors.

The data in the book will present a revolution already found in other sports. We’ll get to those analogies, but let’s not bury the lede any longer. There’s one headline-grabber that is sure to make headlines around the world:

Long game is more important than short game.

In a revelation that is sure to leave the old-school “drive for show, putt for dough” thinkers stomping in their soft spikes, Broadie found that 68 percent of the differential between golfers can be found in the long game, with only 17 percent attributable to short game and 15 percent to putting.

“When I compare the top players on the PGA Tour, I find that the long game contributes about two-thirds to their success while the short game and putting contributes about one-third,” Broadie said. “Initially I was surprised, so I analyzed the data in different ways and found that all roads led to the same conclusion.”

For example, in any given year if you looked at the scoring average of the top 10 on the money list compared with those ranking 116-125, the scoring average differential would be about two strokes. Based on Broadie’s comparative analysis, about 1.4 of those strokes gained would come from the long game, while only 0.6 would be attributable to short game and putting.

If the numbers alone aren’t enough to reshape how you see the game, consider Molinari’s anecdotal evidence.

“You and I are having a match,” the man with nine career professional victories says to a single-digit handicapper. “Would you rather have a match on the putting green, chipping or who hits it longer and straighter? You’d take the putting green every time. At least you’d have a chance. You’d have no chance in the other areas. When you think about it, it makes sense.”

And when you think about it, it makes sense that all of the statistics we’ve used for so long to measure a player’s talent and success now seem archaic by comparison.

In theory, the day is coming soon when Broadie’s two-year-old strokes gained-putting statistic is joined by categories of strokes gained-driving, strokes gained-approach shots and strokes gained-chipping.

If it sounds impossible, consider the statistical changes in baseball over the past 10-15 years.

The previous generation would measure its stars on the diamond by batting average and runs batted in, win percentage and earned run average. Those still exist, but have yielded importance within the game’s inner circles to acronyms like WAR (wins above replacement) and VORP (value over replacement player). These numbers may not be as easy to understand, but are undeniably more reliable in providing useful analytical data.

There is little reason to believe that golf statistics such as driving accuracy and greens in regulation won’t soon be replaced in significance by more meaningful data that compares players against their competition.

“Sometimes I thought I was driving it well and it didn’t show in the fairways hit, but if you look at how many shots I gained off the tee, you immediately see it,” says Molinari, who’s missed the last three months following surgery on his left thumb. “I can tell you a few tournaments where I had great driving weeks. I was only hitting nine or 10 fairways per round, which is not great, but I go look at the stats and I was gaining a half-shot per round. Then there were other rounds where I’d hit 12 fairways, but hit one in the water and one out of bounds, and I’d end up losing shots against the field.

“The right thing is that you have a number.”

Broadie understands that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to teach an old dog new tricks. Which is to say, those who have spent an entire life playing this game and steadfastly believing that putting is more important than anything else won’t soon allow statistical proof to affect their theory.

“Lower scores come from improving weaknesses while maintaining – or even improving – strengths,” he continues. “Strokes-gained analysis makes it much easier to identify those strengths and weaknesses.”

Here’s where Broadie’s research could change the entire spectrum of how the game is played, not just at its uppermost levels. Not only does his analysis favor long game over short game for touring professionals, the results remain consistent for amateurs, as well.

He knows this because for the past decade, Broadie has mapped every single shot in every group in which he’s played. He’ll laser each yardage, take note of each club and write down each result. (And no, it remarkably doesn’t take him any longer to play than anyone else.) These findings will be released in the book, but they mirror those of game’s best.

In other words, work on your long game.

Perhaps, though, more customized statistical analysis will soon become all the rage. Ponder this question: Would you rather shell out 50 bucks to have an instructor loosen your grip or change your elbow position on the range, or spend that money to earn knowledge on where you’re gaining and losing strokes to those of the same skill level? It’s a radical idea, but hey, these are revolutionary times.

And these results can alter the way every golfer approaches the game.

“It does change the way you practice,” Molinari maintains. “You can immediately tell where your strength points and weaknesses are. It’s a number. You can compare yourself between one season and another. In 2010, I was playing well and I was gaining a half-point on the field; in 2011, I was playing poorly and I was losing 0.3. My scoring average was affected by 0.8.”

Both Broadie and Molinari realize there will be some quick adapters to this analysis, some who will remain interested without it changing their methods and others who will forever eschew these findings.

The easygoing Italian isn’t one to provoke social media wars, but he recently got so frustrated after tweeting some of these results and receiving pushback from establishment types that he ended a string of 140-character correspondences by posting: “Believe what you want, I cannot care less. The truth is out there, you simply need to understand it.”

It’s true. Many will refuse to believe that driving isn’t for show and putting isn’t for dough, no matter what the numbers mean.

As for Molinari, there may be no greater endorsement of Broadie’s research than when he’s asked whether his fellow players will soon use this data to change their well-established work habits.

The pro looks sternly ahead for a few seconds, then laughs, more to himself than his company. “Hopefully,” he says knowingly, “they won’t.”

The revolution is coming. It’s almost here.

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Monty grabs lead entering final round in season-opener

By Associated PressJanuary 20, 2018, 4:00 am

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii – Colin Montgomerie shot a second straight 7-under 65 to take a two-shot lead into the final round of the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, the season opener on the PGA Tour Champions.

The 54-year-old Scot, a six-time winner on the over-50 tour, didn't miss a fairway on Friday and made five birdies on the back nine to reach 14 under at Hualalai.

Montgomerie has made 17 birdies through 36 holes and said he will have to continue cashing in on his opportunities.

''We know that I've got to score something similar to what I've done – 66, 67, something like that, at least,'' Montgomerie said. ''You know the competition out here is so strong that if you do play away from the pins, you'll get run over. It's tough, but hey, it's great.''

Full-field scores from the Mitsubishi Electric Championship

First-round co-leaders Gene Sauers and Jerry Kelly each shot 68 and were 12 under.

''I hit the ball really well. You know, all the putts that dropped yesterday didn't drop today,'' Kelly said. ''I was just short and burning edges. It was good putting again. They just didn't go in.''

David Toms was three shots back after a 66. Woody Austin, Mark Calcavecchia and Doug Garwood each shot 67 and were another shot behind.

Bernhard Langer, defending the first of his seven 2017 titles, was six shots back after a 67.

The limited-field tournament on Hawaii's Big Island includes last season's winners, past champions of the event, major champions and Hall of Famers.

''We've enjoyed ourselves thoroughly here,'' Montgomerie said. ''It's just a dramatic spot, isn't it? If you don't like this, well, I'm sorry, take a good look in the mirror, you know?''

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The missing link: Advice from successful tour pros

By Phil BlackmarJanuary 20, 2018, 1:24 am

Today’s topic is significant in that it underscores the direction golf is headed, a direction that has me a little concerned.

Now, more than ever, it has become the norm for PGA Tour players to put together a team to assist in all aspects of their career. These teams can typically include the player’s swing coach, mental coach, manager, workout specialist, dietician, physical therapist, short-game guru, doctor, accountant, nanny and wife. Though it often concerns me the player may be missing out when others are making decisions for them, that is not the topic.

I want to talk about what most players seem to be inexplicably leaving off their teams.

One of the things that separates great players from the rest of the pack – other than talent – is the great player’s ability to routinely stay comfortable and play with focus and clarity in all situations. Though innate to many, this skill is trainable and can be learned. Don’t get too excited, the details of such a plan are too long and more suited for a book than the short confines of this article.

So, if that aspect of the game is so important, where is the representative on the player’s team who has stood on the 18th tee with everything on the line? Where is the representative on the team who has experienced, over and over, what the player will be experiencing? In other words, where is the successful former tour player on the team?

You look to tennis and many players have such a person on their team. These teacher/mentors include the likes of Boris Becker, Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors and Brad Gilbert. Why is it not the norm in golf?

Sure, a few players have sought out the advice of Jack Nicklaus, but he’s not part of a team. The teaching ranks also include some former players like Butch Harmon and a few others. But how many teams include a player who has contended in a major, let alone won one or more?

I’m not here to argue the value and knowledge of all the other coaches who make up a player’s team. But how can the value of a successful tour professional be overlooked? If I’m going to ask someone what I should do in various situations on the course, I would prefer to include the experienced knowledge of players who have been there themselves.

This leads me to the second part of today’s message. Is there a need for the professional players to mix with professional teachers to deliver the best and most comprehensive teaching philosophy to average players? I feel there is.

Most lessons are concerned with changing the student’s swing. Often, this is done with little regard for how it feels to the student because the teacher believes the information is correct and more important than the “feels” of the student. “Stick with it until it’s comfortable” is often the message. This directive methodology was put on Twitter for public consumption a short time back:

On the other hand, the professional player is an expert at making a score and understands the intangible side of the game. The intangible side says: “Mechanics cannot stand alone in making a good player.” The intangible side understands “people feel things differently”; ask Jim Furyk to swing like Dustin Johnson, or vice versa. This means something that looks good to us may not feel right to someone else.

The intangible side lets us know that mechanics and feels must walk together in order for the player to succeed. From Ben Hogan’s book:

“What I have learned I have learned by laborious trial and error, watching a good player do something that looked right to me, stumbling across something that felt right to me, experimenting with that something to see if it helped or hindered, adopting it if it helped, refining it sometimes, discarding it if it didn’t help, sometimes discarding it later if it proved undependable in competition, experimenting continually with new ideas and old ideas and all manner of variations until I arrived at a set of fundamentals that appeared to me to be right because they accomplished a very definite purpose, a set of fundamentals which proved to me they were right because they stood up and produced under all kinds of pressure.”

Hogan beautifully described the learning process that could develop the swings of great players like DJ, Furyk, Lee Trevino, Jordan Spieth, Nicklaus, etc.

Bob Toski is still teaching. Steve Elkington is helping to bring us the insight of Jackie Burke. Hal Sutton has a beautiful teaching facility outside of Houston. And so on. Just like mechanics and feels, it’s not either-or – the best message comes from both teachers and players.

Lately, it seems the scale has swung more to one side; let us not forget the value of insights brought to us by the players who have best mastered the game.

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Woods, Rahm, Rickie, J-Day headline Torrey field

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 20, 2018, 12:47 am

Tiger Woods is set to make his 2018 debut.

Woods is still part of the final field list for next week’s Farmers Insurance Open, the headliner of a tournament that includes defending champion Jon Rahm, Hideki Matsuyama, Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler, Phil Mickelson and Jason Day.

In all, 12 of the top 26 players in the world are teeing it up at Torrey Pines.

Though Woods has won eight times at Torrey Pines, he hasn’t broken 71 in his past seven rounds there and hasn’t played all four rounds since 2013, when he won. Last year he missed the cut after rounds of 76-72, then lasted just one round in Dubai before he withdrew with back spasms.

After a fourth back surgery, Woods didn’t return to competition until last month’s Hero World Challenge, where he tied for ninth. 

Woods has committed to play both the Farmers Insurance Open and next month's Genesis Open at Riviera, which benefits his foundation. 

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Even on 'off' day, Rahm shoots 67 at CareerBuilder

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 20, 2018, 12:36 am

Jon Rahm didn’t strike the ball as purely Friday as he did during his opening round at the CareerBuilder Challenge.

He still managed a 5-under 67 that put him just one shot off the lead heading into the weekend.

“I expected myself to go to the range (this morning) and keep flushing everything like I did yesterday,” said Rahm, who shot a career-low 62 at La Quinta on Thursday. “Everything was just a little bit off. It was just one of those days.”

Full-field scores from the Career Builder Challenge

CareerBuilder Challenge: Articles, photos and videos

After going bogey-free on Thursday, Rahm mixed four birdies and two bogeys over his opening six holes. He managed to settle down around the turn, then made two birdies on his final three holes to move within one shot of Andrew Landry (65).

Rahm has missed only five greens through two rounds and sits at 15-under 129. 

The 23-year-old Spaniard won in Dubai to end the year and opened 2018 with a runner-up finish at the Sentry Tournament of Champions. He needs a top-6 finish or better this week to supplant Jordan Spieth as the No. 2 player in the world.