The Stat All Players Want But No One Can Define

By Rex HoggardMarch 24, 2011, 2:05 am
ORLANDO, Fla. – In the 2003 book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” author Michael Lewis details the mathematically fueled rise of the underfunded Oakland A’s under general manager Billy Beane.

In short, Beane realized that above all other statistics, and hunches, the most important stat for a major league slugger was “on base percentage” and he built a winner around that simple truth, and possibly performance-enhancing drugs but that’s another story.

With a fraction of the payroll of other teams, Beane created a contender based on math and science, so much so Lewis regularly referred to the 2000-2002 seasons as Beane’s experiments.

If it worked in baseball, could the same philosophy be applied to professional golf? Is there a single “tell-all” stat that separates the stars from the slugs?

Geoff Ogilvy, as right-brained as they come in the pro set, was the first of many to see the flaw in the hypothesis. “If you take scoring average out it’s not a fair fight,” he said. “I would say does anyone really have a good year without putting well?”

True, there aren’t many three-jack specialist in the World Golf Hall of Fame, but pure putting average is hardly the ultimate arbiter of success. Brandt Snedeker led the PGA Tour in putting average (1.654) last year and finished 48th in earnings, a good year but not great.

“Putts are important because it takes all the pressure off your game,” Paul Casey said before admitting. “I led the scrambling stat one year in Europe because every time I missed the green I was in the fringe and I was two-putting . . . it’s very misleading.”

Similarly, much like Beane realized with many MLB statistics, some of golf’s staples are at best misleading, at worst worthless. In short, many stats lie.

“I look at (greens in regulation), how many greens I hit,” said world No. 1 Martin Kaymer.

While GIR may work for the meticulous German as a meaningful measurement, it falls woefully short in determining broad success on Tour. John Senden led the Tour in GIR last year but hit his average first approach shot to the green was 7 feet, 6 inches, which ranked 119th on Tour.

For most Tour frat brothers picking golf’s “OBP” was an exercise in reverse engineering – drifting from the mundane to . . . well, the moneyball.

“There’s no reason to have a fairway (hit) stat, to be honest with you,” Ryan Palmer said. “It’s not that important. There are guys that hit every fairway and don’t win. (But) guys that every week are top 5 in proximity (to the hole) and top 5 in putting, they usually do pretty good.”

Proximity to the hole, on first shots to the green, shows promise, with the likes of 2010 Player of the Year Jim Furyk ranking third last year (6-feet-1 average), along with a combination of putts per GIR and putts made distance.

But mostly players seem to assign value based on their own strengths and weaknesses. Gary Woodland, the Tour’s most recent first-time winner following his show last week at Innisbrook, is among the game’s longest hitters, but struggles at times with his short game.

“Scrambling,” the bomber predictably said. “It has to be a short-game stat. Everybody out here can hit it; it’s a matter of who gets it up and down when you miss. Look at Tiger (in 2000 and 2006), he was bombing it and getting it up and down.”

Enter 23-year-old stat sage Jason Day, who has spent a good amount of time pouring over the dozens of tour stats. “I don’t know . . . whatever Tiger was doing well in 2000 or Vijay in 2004 . . . that’s probably important.”

Although not nearly as extensive as Beane’s quest for statistical truth, there are parallels between Woods’ benchmark performances in 2000 and 2006, and Singh’s nine-victory calendar in 2004.

A snapshot of those three seasons reveals that Woods finished first in ’00 and ’06 in GIR while Singh ranked second in 2004, and all three years they led the Tour in total birdies and scoring, but those stats explain the what, not the why.

Woods has always been among the Tour’s best at scrambling, a stat defined as the percentage of time a player misses the green but still makes par or better, and the notion, more so than the cold hard facts, seems to resonate among those surveyed.

“You don’t have to hit it so good as long as you’re scrambling well,” Day said. “Look at the best guys in the world, they are not great off the tee but they scramble solid.”

Ogilvy concurred, “Scrambling is important. It tells you how they are thinking their way around the golf course.” But the Tour did not keep scrambling stats in 2000 and Singh ranked 19th in ’04.

Neither did Woods nor Singh drive the ball particularly well during those years – Woods ranked 54th in driving accuracy in ’00 to lead the way – and neither player topped the circuit in driving distance.

Par-5 scoring, however, has the potential of being golf’s “OBP.” Woods and Singh led the Tour in that category in 2000, 2006 and 2004, respectively, and the connection between power and precision along with a solid short game suggests that scoring, at least in the modern game, begins and ends on the par 5s.

Yet among last year’s leaders in Par-5 scoring were Bubba Watson and J.B. Holmes, a pair of long-ball specialists who have benefited greatly from equipment advances but are not considered world beaters just yet.

Players also referred to “clutch putting,” an unquantifiable stat that many say separated Woods from the rank-and-file for years.

“It’s the holing of putts when you need to that counts,” Casey said.

The tour keeps all manner of putting stats, including a “one-putt percentage for Round 4” which holds promise, but means little to a player 10 strokes off the lead and heading for a tie for 30th and an early flight home on Sunday.

If there is a magic statistic in golf it would take Beane and his army of number crunchers to root it out. The truth is, performance on tour is likely gauged by an assortment of indicators – from proximity to the hole to scrambling. At least that’s what tour players say, and they are always looking for it.


Follow Rex Hoggard on Twitter @RexHoggard

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