(Editor's note: For Golf Channel's 25th anniversary, Brandel Chamblee reveals his top 25 impactful moments over the last 25 years. Click here to listen to Chamblee's podcast with Jaime Diaz, revealing Golf Channel's official top 25 moments.)
21. Strokes Gained
In 1984, Gary McCord averaged the fewest putts of anyone on Tour, with 28.57 putts a round, and when he was given the award for this feat, he thanked everyone for acknowledging that he had missed more greens than anyone else on Tour. He hadn’t, in fact, missed the most greens of anyone, though he was close, finishing 163rd in greens in regulation. But he certainly pointed out the error in such a simplistic calculation as putts per round. From 1981 to 1990 – 10 years in a row – Calvin Peete led the PGA Tour in fairways hit. In an era when accuracy mattered, nobody was more accurate than Peete, which explains why he was able to win 12 times in his career – or does it?
Up until 2011, statistics on the PGA Tour were simply about whether a player hit or missed a fairway or green. Stats didn’t distinguish between a ball hit out of bounds, or one that missed the fairway by a foot. Nor did they distinguish between a ball hitting the green that finished 3 feet from the hole, or 60 feet from the hole. One putts from 3 feet and one putt from 80 feet looked the same in the statistics. Suffice it to say, the system the PGA Tour used to compile statistics lacked nuance and context. That all changed thanks to Columbia Business School professor Mark Broadie.
Broadie created a zero-sum calculation for every professional player on Tour, known as strokes gained, that measures each players performance against their fellow pros in every aspect of the game. In his book, “Every Shot Counts,” Broadie explains the data thus: “If a stroke starts on a tee where, according to historical data, the average score is four, and if it finishes at a position in the fairway where the average strokes to hole out is 2.8, then the tee shot has moved the ball 1.2 strokes closer to the hole with just one stroke.
“The single tee shot has gained 0.2 strokes compared to an average tee shot, so it has a ‘strokes gained’ of 0.2.
“Strokes gained recognizes that sinking a 20-foot putt represents a better performance than sinking a 3-foot putt, even though they both count as a single stroke on the scorecard. Strokes gained assigns a number to this intuition”
This form of measurement, using the data from ShotLink allows for the isolating of specific aspects of a player’s game to know exactly where his strength and weakness, relative to his peers, lies. Because of Broadie, who might be considered the Bill James of golf, the way we look at a player’s performance and the vernacular of the game has changed forever.
22. Launch Monitors
In the late-1990s, I went to a few of the equipment companies in Southern California to test balls and clubs. One of the companies had this huge machine that measured my clubhead speed, launch angle and the spin rate of my tee shots. While hitting scores of shots, I asked them who had the fastest clubhead speed on Tour and their answer surprised me. It wasn’t John Daly or Tiger Woods, it was Phil Mickelson. But, they said, he hit his shots with too much spin and at too low of a launch angle to maximize his distance.
Not long after that, at the BC Open, I was grouped with Mickelson all four days. On one of the holes, a par 5 with a blind tee shot, we had to wait for a sign that the fairway was clear. I told Phil that I had just done some testing and found out that he, in fact, had the fastest clubhead speed on Tour. A little grin lit up his face. He teed off and then I hit mine, which I caught a little high on the face and out on the toe – right where balls tend to launch higher and tumble when they land. Mickelson had outdriven me by 20 to 30 yards every hole and so he quite naturally walked to the longest ball and I walked to the shortest. But when I got to what I thought was mine, it wasn’t. So I said, “Hey Phil,” and before I could finish, he said, “What, is that MY ball?” I said, “Yep.” As he walked towards me, and I towards him, he said under his breath, “Oh yeah, lick me about my clubhead speed and then blow it past me.” I said, “Phil you didn’t let me finish the story. What they also told me was that you launched it too low and spun it too much, so occasionally a little sh*t like me can hit it past you.”
It wasn’t unusual for players to be misfit with equipment, 20 years ago, but today, because of the ubiquitous launch monitors, players are able to squeeze every yard out of their drives by dialing in their numbers. In the process, the game has become far more about power, as players strive to compete not on the course but on the computer screen, with ball-speed numbers and carry yardages spit out like when players used to talk about their scores after a round. This optimization has helped the younger players, who have grown up with launch monitors, to have a better understanding of how to recruit power from their bodies, combined with maximizing their launch numbers. As a result, I suspect the distance problem now facing the game, is just the tip of the iceberg.
23. Bubbas Banana Wedge Shot
Some have called it the shot of the decade, and I think all things considered, it just edges out Phil Mickelson’s second shot from the pine straw on the 13th hole during the final round of the 2010 Masters.
Bubba Watson had always been known for his ability to bend shots at will, but buried deep in the right trees of the 10th hole in a playoff against Louis Oosthuizen at the 2012 Masters, his situation looked hopeless. He had no clear path to the green, and trying to hook one around the trees meant that if he didn’t pull it off and finished left of the green, double bogey or worse was in play.
But out came the wedge and he curved the ball at least 40 yards, from 144 yards out, and the ball worked its way closer to hole, finishing some 10 feet away, where he two-putted for the win. On a golf course that likely makes more people pray to and deny the existence of God, who we all know can’t hit a 1-iron, Watson found something else the All Mighty might not be able to do.
24. 2012 Ryder Cup
It was the most perfect reversal of fortune since, well, the 1999 Ryder Cup. Only this time Jose Maria Olazabal wasn’t the victim of fate, he was kissed by it. Trailing, 10-6, Europe was in the exact same situation as the United States team in 1999, except the Euros were not playing at home. Like Ben Crenshaw saying he was a believer in fate on the eve of the singles matches, Olazabal called on his team to evoke the memory of the late Seve Ballesteros. Additionally, in a strange turn of events, they won the last two matches on Saturday with Ian Poulter’s eye-popping, fist-pumping, putt-making magic that gave them momentum. David Feherty, as he has a knack for doing, summed up the feeling brilliantly by calling the matches a 10-6 tie.
And just as Crenshaw had done in 1999, Olazabal front-loaded the singles matches with his strongest players, while in one of the most baffling decisions in Ryder Cup history, U.S. captain Davis Love III put the most clutch and dependable player in history, Tiger Woods, out last. His match would not matter, because having won the 2010 Ryder Cup, all Europe needed to do was get to 14 points, which they did when Martin Kaymer made a 6-foot putt to beat Steve Stricker, 1 up. It was poetic justice for Captain Olazabal, who I’m sure never forgot the premature celebration of the United States team in 1999, after Justin Leonard holed a fate-kissed putt on the 17th green in their match.
25. Golf Channel Debuts
Some say Golf Channel owes its success to the arrival of Tiger Woods and his universal appeal. While the advent of Golf Channel and the arrival of Tiger may have been the sport’s most fortuitous confluence since Arnold Palmer and TV, I’d argue that while Woods has clearly changed the way golf looks and is played, Golf Channel has changed the way the sport is consumed.
Golf Channel’s 24/7 coverage informed consumers in a way in which it never had been and inspired other sports to start niche cable channels. It made icons out of superstars, and by illuminating the middle ranks of professional golf it has created the most stars since the Big Bang, which is not a knock on the players, but a compliment to the ideas of founder Joe Gibbs, the influence of co-founder Arnold Palmer and the broad reach of NBC Sports.