Better (simpler) golf stats

The closest I’ve come to a hole-in-one (so far…)

Golf fans these days are inundated with statistics on the pros. Perhaps the most useful of these is “strokes gained”, which shows how well a player is performing against the field for any given area of their game in terms of the ultimate impact on their score. Professionals have never had a better understanding of which parts of their game are contributing to their success (or failure) and where they should really be spending their practice time to help them move up the leaderboards.

However, the story is very different for most amateurs. While “strokes gained” is a great metric, it relies on detailed tracking of individual shots and outcomes and a field of competitors to use as a benchmark — two things most amateurs don’t have. There are alternatives, but most fail one of the two critical requirements for a status program to be useful:

  1. Easy to keep. When you’re playing a round of golf, you want to focus on the playing part. Detailed statistics are too hard to track — which generally means we don’t do it.
  2. Actionable. Statistics are only useful if they can point to some specific way we can improve. If not, then what’s the point?

Statistics like “strokes gained” fall into the first category. Very actionable — but way too hard to keep track of for even the most committed amateur. However, the most common fallback is to track something like fairways hit, greens in regulation, and putts per round. These are easy to keep, but don’t tell you much about where to improve. For instance, did you miss a fairway because of a poor drive, an exceedingly long hole where you were unlikely to hit it anyway, or a poor shot? Did you have more putts because you hit evergreen 20 feet away or because you missed up and downs?

Because of this, many players start to track (putts per GIR, up and downs, greens in regulation per fairway in regulation. And while these stats are more useful, they become harder to track. Plus you end up with so many, trying to figure decipher them becomes a challenge. When you have too many numbers to track, you end up ignoring them all. All of which is why most amateurs I know end up not keeping any real stats consistently.

As a player and a data nerd, I have struggled with these issues repeatedly. I have tended to fluctuate between keeping basic stats I didn’t like, keeping complex stats, than giving up and keeping no stats. Nothin every really stuck for me — until I cam up with my own set of stats.

I have developed set of stats that I think are both (relatively easy to keep) and actionable. The key aspect of the approach, is that each stat is kept as a success rate. This allows me to more specifically track what part of my game is the biggest area for real improvement. The magic here is really in defining the right criteria for success as well as the criteria for attempts. For instance, if I hit a ball into the tree — I don’t have a real attempt at an approach shot, so failure to put the ball on the green shouldn’t count against my

I keep this stats are based on 3 major areas of the game: the Power Game (full swings), the Short Game (pitching, chipping, sand), and Putting. For each area, I track stats on two types of shots to track success for. Below I’ve laid out all those areas and how I define attempts and successes in each.

Power Game

Driving
Attempt Criteria: Any drive on a par 4 or par 5. I do exclude any attempt at reaching a green on the drive.
Success Criteria: Putting the ball in a place for a reasonable next shot. This generally means a reasonable shot to the green on a par 4 or in a good position on a par 5. That means that shots in the first cut of rough count as a success if they’re in good position.

Approach Shots
Attempt Criteria: A shot intended to hit the great with a reasonable chance to do so. This would exclude shots from deep rough, behind trees, or too far away to be reasonable to reach — which I generally define as a more than my hybrid.
Success Criteria: Reaching the green at an appropriate distance from the hole. This criteria varies depending on the club I’m hitting in. With a hybrid or long iron, it just needs to be on the green. For a mid-iron, generally within the right quadrant of the green. And for my short irons, it needs to be inside of 25 feet. I think this is really critical, as a pitching wedge that hits a green at 40 feet really is a failed shot — and should be counted as such!

Short Game

Pitching/Chipping
Attempt Criteria: I combine pitches and chips as I have many shots I consider somewhat in-between. I think of this as 50 yards and in with an unobstructed look at the green — I don’t count behind trees, crazy lies, etc.
Success Criteria: For harder shots, within 20 feet of the hole. For easier shots, within 10 feet.

Sand Shots
Attempt Criteria: A sand shot from a green side bunker with a reasonable lie. For larger bunkers, anything over about 20 yards I don’t count.
Success Criteria: Get the ball within 20 feet of the hole.

Putting

Lag Putts
Attempt Criteria: A putt from the green from outside of 20 feet.
Success Criteria: Get the ball within 3 feet of the hole.

Makeable Putts
Attempt Criteria: Putt from inside of 20 feet.
Success Criteria: Get the ball within 3 feet of the hole and not short (so only half of the 3’ circle counts).

I find these metrics to be both easy to keep and extremely useful. They clearly tell me where I’m doing well and where I need to improve to lower my scores. They keys to this system are really (1) defining success properly and (2) defining attempts properly. This helps us avoid penalizing our stats when we shouldn’t (ie missing a green from 200 yard in the trees) or being over-generous with ourselves when we shouldn’t (ie hitting a green from 100 yards, but 40 feet from the hole).

Of course, it may make sense for other players to adjust the success criteria for their level of play — and one of the hard things is being honest about the attempts/success for each round. But if you use this system well, it can give you great insight into what’s working well and where you can focus your practice time to make the biggest improvements in your scoring.

I would love any feedback on this system and approach — I’m always looking for ways to improve. I’ve also started building a mobile app to keep these stats for me. If you’d be interested in getting early access to the app when it’s ready for use, just fill out this form and I’ll be in touch when it’s ready.

Originally published at https://jeffkeltner.com on January 5, 2021.

SVP bizdev @upstart. father, husband, entrepreneur, geek. love fintech, edtech and startups. ex-@google, ex-@ibm. studied computer engineering @stanford