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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Day WDs from Farmers pro-am because of sore back

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 24, 2018, 12:07 am

SAN DIEGO – Jason Day has withdrawn from the Wednesday pro-am at the Farmers Insurance Open, citing a sore back.

Day, the 2015 champion, played a practice round with Tiger Woods and Bryson DeChambeau on Tuesday at Torrey Pines, and he is still expected to play in the tournament.

Day was replaced in the pro-am by Whee Kim. 

Making his first start since the Australian Open in November, Day is scheduled to tee off at 1:30 p.m. ET Thursday alongside Jon Rahm and Brandt Snedeker.

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Farmers inks 7-year extension through 2026

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 24, 2018, 12:04 am

SAN DIEGO – Farmers Insurance has signed a seven-year extension to serve as the title sponsor for the PGA Tour event at Torrey Pines, it was announced Tuesday. The deal will run through 2026.

“Farmers Insurance has been incredibly supportive of the tournament and the Century Club’s charitable initiatives since first committing to become the title sponsor in 2010,” PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said.

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“We are extremely grateful for the strong support of Farmers and its active role as title sponsor, and we are excited by the commitment Farmers has made to continue sponsorship of the Farmers Insurance Open for an additional seven years.

In partnership with Farmers, the Century Club – the tournament’s host organization – has contributed more than $20 million to deserving organizations benefiting at-risk youth since 2010. 

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Woods impresses DeChambeau, Day on Tuesday

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 23, 2018, 11:27 pm

SAN DIEGO – Bryson DeChambeau played with Tiger Woods for the first time Tuesday morning, and the biggest surprise was that he wasn’t overcome by nerves.

“That’s what I was concerned about,” DeChambeau said. “Am I just gonna be slapping it around off the tee? But I was able to play pretty well.”

So was Woods.

DeChambeau said that Woods looked “fantastic” as he prepares to make his first PGA Tour start in a year.

“His game looks solid. His body doesn’t hurt. He’s just like, yeah, I’m playing golf again,” DeChambeau said. “And he’s having fun, too, which is a good thing.”

Woods arrived at Torrey Pines before 7 a.m. local time Tuesday, when the temperature hadn’t yet crept above 50 degrees. He warmed up and played the back nine of Torrey Pines’ South Course with DeChambeau and Jason Day.

“He looks impressive; it was good to see,” Day told afterward. “You take (Farmers) last year and the Dubai tournament out, and he hasn’t really played in two years. I think the biggest thing is to not get too far ahead, or think he’s going to come back and win straight away.

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“The other time he came back, I don’t think he was ready and he probably came back too soon. This time he definitely looks ready. I think his swing is really nice, he’s hitting the driver a long way and he looks like he’s got some speed, which is great.”

Woods said that his caddie, Joe LaCava, spent four days with him in South Florida last week and that he’s ready to go.

“Before the Hero I was basically given the OK probably about three or four weeks prior to the tournament, and I thought I did pretty good in that prep time,” Woods told, referring to his tie for ninth in the 18-man event.

“Now I’ve had a little more time to get ready for this event. I’ve played a lot more golf, and overall I feel like I’ve made some nice changes. I feel good.”

Woods is first off Torrey Pines’ North Course in Wednesday’s pro-am, scheduled for 6:40 a.m. local time. 

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With blinders on, Rahm within reach of No. 1 at Torrey

By Rex HoggardJanuary 23, 2018, 10:10 pm

SAN DIEGO – The drive over to Torrey Pines from Palm Springs, Calif., takes about two and a half hours, which was plenty of time for Jon Rahm’s new and ever-evolving reality to sink in.

The Spaniard arrived in Southern California for a week full of firsts. The Farmers Insurance Open will mark the first time he’s defended a title on the PGA Tour following his dramatic breakthrough victory last year, and it will also be his first tournament as the game’s second-best player, at least according to the Official World Golf Ranking.

Rahm’s victory last week at the CareerBuilder Challenge, his second on Tour and fourth worldwide tilt over the last 12 months, propelled the 23-year-old to No. 2 in the world, just behind Dustin Johnson. His overtime triumph also moved him to within four rounds of unseating DJ atop the global pecking order.

It’s impressive for a player who at this point last year was embarking on his first full season as a professional, but then Rahm has a fool-proof plan to keep from getting mired in the accolades of his accomplishments.

“It's kind of hard to process it, to be honest, because I live my day-to-day life with my girlfriend and my team around me and they don't change their behavior based on what I do, right?” he said on Tuesday at Torrey Pines. “They'll never change what they think of me. So I really don't know the magnitude of what I do until I go outside of my comfort zone.”

Head down and happy has worked perfectly for Rahm, who has finished outside the top 10 in just three of his last 10 starts and began 2018 with a runner-up showing at the Sentry Tournament of Champions and last week’s victory.

According to the world ranking math, Rahm is 1.35 average ranking points behind Johnson and can overtake DJ atop the pack with a victory this week at the Farmers Insurance Open; but to hear his take on his ascension one would imagine a much wider margin.

“I've said many times, beating Dustin Johnson is a really, really hard task,” Rahm said. “We all know what happened last time he was close to a lead in a tournament on the PGA Tour.”

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Rahm certainly remembers. It was just three weeks ago in Maui when he birdied three of his first six holes, played the weekend at Kapalua in 11 under and still finished eight strokes behind Johnson.

And last year at the WGC-Mexico Championship when Rahm closed his week with rounds of 67-68 only to finish two strokes off Johnson’s winning pace, or a few weeks later at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play when he took Johnson the distance in the championship match only to drop a 1-up decision to the game’s undisputed heavyweight.

As far as Rahm has come in an incredibly short time - at this point last year he ranked 137th in the world - it is interesting that it’s been Johnson who has had an answer at every turn.

He knows there’s still so much room for improvement, both physically and mentally, and no one would ever say Rahm is wanting for confidence, but after so many high-profile run-ins with Johnson, his cautious optimism is perfectly understandable.

“I'll try to focus more on what's going on this week rather than what comes with it if I win,” he reasoned when asked about the prospect of unseating Johnson, who isn’t playing this week. “I'll try my best, that's for sure. Hopefully it happens, but we all know how hard it is to win on Tour.”

If Rahm’s take seems a tad cliché given the circumstances, consider that his aversion to looking beyond the blinders is baked into the competitive cake. For all of his physical advantages, of which there are many, it’s his keen ability to produce something special on command that may be even more impressive.

Last year at Torrey Pines was a quintessential example of this, when he began the final round three strokes off the lead only to close his day with a back-nine 30 that included a pair of eagles.

“I have the confidence that I can win here, whereas last year I knew I could but I still had to do it,” he said. “I hope I don't have to shoot 30 on the back nine to win again.”

Some will point to Rahm’s 60-footer for eagle at the 72nd hole last year as a turning point in his young career, it was even named the best putt on Tour by one publication despite the fact he won by three strokes. But Rahm will tell you that walk-off wasn’t even the best shot he hit during the final round.

Instead, he explained that the best shot of the week, the best shot of the year, came on the 13th hole when he launched a 4-iron from a bunker to 18 feet for eagle, a putt that he also made.

“If I don't put that ball on the green, which is actually a lot harder than making that putt, the back nine charge would have never happened and this year might have never happened, so that shot is the one that made everything possible,” he explained.

Rahm’s ability to embrace and execute during those moments is what makes him special and why he’s suddenly found himself as the most likely contender to Johnson’s throne even if he chooses not to spend much time thinking about it.