Mark Broadie – The Godfather of Golf Analytics

Our guest this episode is the godfather of golf analytics, Mark Broadie. Mark is a professor of business at Columbia Business School and invented the “strokes gained” method of measuring golf performance. His book Every Shot Counts has become one of the most popular books in golf. 

First adopted by the PGA Tour in 2011, Broadie’s breakthrough “strokes gained” analytics have given professionals and amateurs the ability to measure a player’s performance against the rest of the field. He’s since worked with much of the golf world including Golf Channel, FOX Sports, TaylorMade and many top instructors and players.

In this interview with Mark, we learn:

  • How a business professor became the leading voice in golf statistical analysis
  • The major problem with traditional golf statistics
  • How he created the concept of “strokes gained”
  • Why tracking strokes gained can help amateurs compare their game to professionals
  • How you can you identify exactly where your golf game needs improvement
  • The secret to why Luke Donald became the #1 player on Tour despite being a below average length driver
  • The statistic that pinpoints exactly why Tiger Woods is the best player of his generation
  • The most important shot that all amateurs need to practice

Interviewer: Walter Lis. Running Time: 24:48
Click here to download an MP3 file.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

CHICAGO GOLF REPORT:         When did you realize that you had a proclivity for analytics? When did you find you were a statistics and numbers guy?

MARK BROADIE:   Probably sometime when I was in elementary school. I just sort of liked the math and the applications of math, and math applied to sports growing up as a kid. Like many kids, following baseball and other sports there are a lot of numbers there and a lot of interesting connections between sports and math.

CHICAGO GOLF REPORT:         When did the transition happen from the world of finance and investing to golf?

MARK BROADIE:   I graduated from Cornell with a bachelor’s degree and then Stanford with the Ph.D. and then I took an academic professorship appointment at Columbia Business School. And as you mentioned I was doing research in quantitative finance, financial engineering for quite a few years.

I’d always been a golfer in my spare time, and always had at the back of my mind that there is an opportunity to apply analytics to the game of golf, but it was on the back burner for years.

And then I finally started seriously thinking about it again and then doing something probably around 2000 or 2001. So, it was being able to combine two passions.

My professional interesting in analytics with my personal interest in golf, and the two sort of came together. Now it’s been quite a few years ago, but it’s been probably an idea bubbling around in my head since high school.

CHICAGO GOLF REPORT:         Would you say the combination of the kind of concepts that you said were bubbling around in your head was the book Every Shot Counts?

MARK BROADIE:   Well that was more trying to take things that I found and present it to a wider audience of interested golfers and writers and coaches and players. But I wrote the book after I had many of the findings and I said this may be of interest to more people.

It wasn’t sort of the other way around. I didn’t say I’m going to write a book and then figure things out.

I’d been working in this area for quite some time, and it was a matter of gathering the results and organizing it and trying to present it in a way that others could understand and appreciate.

CHICAGO GOLF REPORT:         One of the elements that you’re known for is the concept of strokes gained. Can you explain what strokes gained is and how did the idea come to you?

MARK BROADIE:   The problem with traditional golf stats is that they were just sort of counting stats. How many putts did a player take in a round, and that misses a lot of the right measures of performance. For example, everyone knows that if you sink a one-footer that’s not the same as sinking a sixty footer. Yet they both count as one putt on the score card if you’re keeping track of putts, and that just doesn’t make any sense.

So, the idea of strokes gain is to take into account the shot difficulty or the putt difficulty which primarily is given by the distance of a putt. On the PGA Tour, the average number of putts from about thirty feet is two. So, what does that mean? They mostly two-putt from that distance and they have an equal number of one putts and three putts. So, the average or the par from thirty feet is about two.

So, one putt from thirty feet is going to gain one stroke on the field, and a two-putt is going to be average or even with the field, and a three-putt’s going to lose a stroke on the field. So that’s pretty simple, and you have to start dealing with fractions or decimal numbers when you go to other distances. The average number of strokes for a pro golfer to hole out from eight feet away on the green is 1.5. One and a half strokes because they one putt half the time and they two putt half the time, and they almost never three putt.

Therefore, sinking an eight-footer gains a half stroke on the field and missing an eight-footer loses a half stroke on the field. You can see that a one-putt from eight feet gains a half stroke. A one putt from thirty feet gains a full stroke.

So even as they both count as one putt if you’re keeping track of putts, they are very different performances that strokes gain will reflect in the strokes gain calculation. Does that make sense?

CHICAGO GOLF REPORT:         You took that a step further and now it’s strokes gained basically throughout the entire course correct?

MARK BROADIE:   Exactly, and you can measure strokes gained on approach shots, on short game shots on drives, and it’s the same idea of measuring performance relative to a benchmark.

And we all know a good shot when we see it, so if a player is a hundred and eighty yards away from the hole and knocks it onto the green within ten feet, that’s going to gain strokes on the field. If a player is seventy yards away on the fairway, and they dump it in the sand trap, that’s going to lose strokes because that’s worse than an average shot.

Everybody has an intuitive sense of what a good shot and a bad shot is. Good shots are going to gain strokes on the field, but in a fractional way and poor shots are going to lose strokes.

That has a great advantage over counting fairways or driving distance, because it’s very hard to translate how much is hitting the fairway worth in terms of strokes. You really need to think in terms of fractional gains or fractional loses.

A drive that no matter pretty much how far on the PGA Tour, if it hits the fairway going in the rough, the rough is going to cost them about a quarter of a stroke or a little bit more compared to an equal length tee shot in the fairway. Therefore, you need to think in terms of fractional gains and loses and how that adds up over a round. Which strokes gained sort of allows you to do in a way than just counting fairways does not and driving distance doesn’t either because that’s not even measured in the units that you want, which is in the end strokes.

CHICAGO GOLF REPORT:         We’ve talked mostly about the PGA Tour, but is the concept is still sort of the same for the regular twenty handicapper in terms of each shot is either a stroke gain or stroke lose ultimately?

MARK BROADIE:   Absolutely, you can do strokes gained for a twenty handicapper, for a ten handicapper, or a five handicapper. And it’s a choice of what bench marker you want to use.

For a twenty handicapper, you can still measure yourself relative to the PGA Tour, just at the end of the round you’ll probably be losing about twenty-five strokes compared to that high benchmark. But if you wanted, you could compare yourself to a scratch golfer benchmark or if you wanted to become a ten handicapper, you could compare your game to a ten-handicap golfer. And that’s sort of originally where I started off. I wanted to know where do the ten shots come from that separate a ninety golfer from an eighty golfer.

And it’s very hard to answer that question just looking at traditional stats of fairways, greens, and putts. But from this lens of strokes gained you can find out that if on average, a typical ninety golfer improves to be a typical eighty golfer, where do those strokes come from.

It turns out that about six and a half of those strokes come from better shots outside of a hundred yards. And about three and a half of those strokes come from better shots from inside a hundred yards.

That sort of makes sense, and it’s true on almost all levels of the game in a general sense. But particular players could be stronger at putting or weaker at driving, they can have their own strengths and weaknesses. But generally that rule of about two thirds of the game comes from shots outside of a hundred yards, and about one third of shots inside a hundred yards tends to hold across all ranges of golf skill levels.

CHICAGO GOLF REPORT:         A great example of that is a player that has connection here in Chicagoland area: Luke Donald. He was a sort of an aberration when he was number one in the world since he was considerably the shorter player of the tee but possessed a phenomenal short game. I guess he would be the perfect example of a person who could find strokes gained using other things other than distance?

MARK BROADIE:   Absolutely, and I think one of the misconceptions about Luke Donald is the notion that he became number one simply because of his putting. And it’s true, he was that year and for years before and years after, the best putter on the PGA Tour, gaining almost a stroke per round.

But in order to be number one in the world, he was gaining closer to two and a half or two and three quarters of a stroke per round on the field. So putting you know gave him a big part of that gain.

LUKE DONALD
Luke Donald

His superior wedge play and short game shots around the green bought him another half a stroke. But he was also at that time a better than average driver, so he was hitting more fairways than average even though his distance was about average or a little bit below.

But what most people didn’t realize, when he was number one in the world he was also number one in approach shots. And that includes all shots outside of a hundred yards, excluding tee shots on par fours and fives.

He was gaining 1.2 strokes per round with his approach shots. So he was hitting better shots from a hundred and twenty-five yards, from a hundred and seventy-five yards, from two hundred and ten yards than not only the Tour average but he was in the top five in all of those categories.

So his only weakness was driving and he was about tour average, but he was just fantastic. Not only at putting and wedge play, but also in his approach shots.

CHICAGO GOLF REPORT:         I believe that you’ve corroborated information with Tiger as well during his prime and it was more than just him hitting the ball a lot further than a lot of people, but it was also that accuracy that led him to such dominant success.

MARK BROADIE:   Absolutely, and Tiger’s an interesting case because his approach shots were so good for so many years, that he would have been in the top ten of the world based on his approach shots, even if he was an average putter, average short game, and average driver of the ball. He was that good with his approach shots.

But what makes Tiger so special is he was also a great putter, and he was also a great wedge player, and he was also a pretty darn good driver of the ball. And you add that with his number one ranked approach shots, and that put him more than a stroke ahead of the number two player in the world.

The gap between Tiger and the number two was almost as big as the gap between the number two and the number ten player in the world. It was just remarkable how dominant Tiger Woods was, and it was for a combination of factors and not just his putting, not just his driving, not just his length. As you might imagine he was an outlier in the good sense of the word because he was so good at everything.

Tiger Woods

CHICAGO GOLF REPORT:         With a player like Tiger who has gone through multiple instructors throughout his career, do you envision a point, where you can measure the impact of an instructor on a player?

MARK BROADIE:   That’s something that I thought about and is so hard to measure. I think for amateur golfers, you could run an experiment and take two instructors and give them a number of players or students and see what happens and try and measure the impact of an instructor.

But for PGA Tour players, it’s very difficult because you don’t have the opportunity to see what would have happened had Tiger Woods had a different instructor. That’s just an experiment you can’t run.

He was such a good player, it was hard to attribute and to figure out how much of his success to contribute to one instructor versus another. It’s just really difficult with any instructor and any player at that level to identify how to make that attribution.

One way to see it, suppose you have an instructor that says, “you know I think you would do really well if you made this change to your swing. That’s the number one thing that we need to work on.”

And the player says, “you know I don’t think so. Let’s work on something else.”

So the coach or the instructor might have honed in on exactly the right thing that that player needed, but if the player decides not to do it, whose fault is that? The instructor for not convincing him, or the player for being stubborn? Who knows.

So that even within one instructor you don’t really know how decisions about what the practice and what changes to make are made. It’s really difficult question. I wish I knew the answer, but unfortunately, I know enough to know that it’s really difficult.

CHICAGO GOLF REPORT:         Sticking with the PGA Tour, are there any players now that you feel comfortable making a prediction that you think are on the rise based on the data that you are looking at?

MARK BROADIE:   Yeah, I think that’s an interesting way to phrase it, because it’s pretty easy to predict that a Jordan Spieth or Dustin Johnson or Rory McIlroy is going to have a good season. It’s a question of whether they have one win or two wins or three wins.

But when you want to look I think at outside the obvious, one player I think is on the rise is Patrick Cantlay. He is not a name that your listeners might be familiar with, but he’s somebody that I think is going to do very well this season.

CHICAGO GOLF REPORT:         Staying now with the amateur golf fans, are there any metrics that you would typically tell a twenty handicapper to be focusing on within the strokes game realm?

MARK BROADIE:   Sure, if I didn’t know the player, and you said a twenty handicap golfer, the number one area that I would focus on would be shots from about one hundred and fifty yards, because there are such skilled differences among amateurs at that range.

And there’s so many of those shots in a row that if a player can improve from hundred and fifty yards, and by that, I mean a hundred to a hundred and seventy-five say, but around a hundred and fifty yards, that would give the player the biggest bang for the buck.

That’s general advice, not to say that you shouldn’t practice your putting, you shouldn’t practice your short game and driving, and all parts of the game you ought to practice. But the biggest bang for the buck I’d say would be for amateurs in the hundred and fifty-yard range, give or take twenty-five yards, and maybe from a hundred to a hundred and seventy-five or something like that.

But, everybody has their own strengths and weaknesses. And in order to tailor the advice to a player I’d say what I’d really hope what would happen is that players would go to the instructor with a strokes gain report, and say this is where I am now, what do you think we should work on?

Then keep track of their strokes gained throughout the season to see if the swing changed or whatever the player is practicing, or whatever the player and instructor are working on together is actually working. Because it very well could be that the play is great from a hundred to a hundred and fifty yards relative to their handicap. And maybe they need to work on their short putting, or maybe they need to work on their greenside bunker play.

So, for the strokes gained is all well and good, but how does the amateur get the strokes gain information? There are a number of apps out there, so I encourage people to look at others, but we have an app called Golf Metrics.

Golf Metrics is designed to be very easy for a user to input their shot data to get the most analysis out of the app. And so, what a player needs to do after installing the app on their phone is just to enter just how far away they are from a hole on a shot. And whether they are on the fairway or the rough, or the sand or in a recovery position.

And to not slow you down when you are doing this on the course, you can take about ten seconds to enter this information while you are waiting to hit your tee shots, or when you are walking from the green to the tee. So that when you come off the course at the eighteenth hole, ten seconds later basically you have an strokes gain report. And if you do that after a few rounds, you’ll very quickly see where you’re gaining and losing strokes, relative to whatever benchmark you want.

If you are a twenty handicap golfer, it will also tell you that, well may be you’re a ten handicap with approach shots and a fifteen handicap driver, but a twenty-five handicap putter. Or my putting then is a relative weak spot. I need to work on that.

I think it’s a great tool for players to identify their personal strengths and weaknesses to be able to take it to an instructor. And it also gives you a very good idea of how strokes gain work, because every time you enter a shot, all the shots on a hole, it will show you your strokes gain for every shot.

Sometimes it’s an eye-opener to realize that this shot that I hit into the woods, cost me three quarters of a stroke. Or this three putt, I’m losing one and a half strokes if you three putt from eight feet or something like that.

It helps players give a better sense of how strokes gain works, and what are good shots and what are bad shots. Every time you hit a fifty-yard shot and you don’t put it on the green, you see a big negative strokes gain come up. And I think it’s really good to develop that intuition and refine it as you go.

CHICAGO GOLF REPORT:         I’d like to finish up now with one final question. In terms of the work that you are doing right now and the golf analytics, what excites you and what are you working on that you think can take this passion that you have to the next level and help define and improve the game of golf?

MARK BROADIE:   There’s a couple of things that I’m working on. I think the one that would have the most interest to average golfers would be a more detailed analysis of strategy. Call it course management or decision-making on the golf course, and I have a little bit of that in the Every Shot Counts book.

But I’m doing a lot more with using golf data and analytics to help players make better on course decisions and I think there is great potential there. I think most golfers are losing strokes just because they’re making decisions that are against the odds. That if you play the percentages that an amateur golfer can gain one, two, three, four strokes just by playing a little bit smarter.

So golf strategy is one area that I’ve been working on very hard for the last few years. And another relative to professional golfers is looking at performance under pressure. I think people have a pretty good sense of who the clutch performers are, but having a more quantitative measure I think would be fascinating, and to trying and figure out who putts better under pressure, who drives the better or worse under pressure I think would be very interesting to see.

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Walter Lis

Walter Lis is the managing editor of Chicago Golf Report, which launched in 2010.

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