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Data Drives the Latest PGA Frontiers

One of the PGA Tour’s most controversial competitors may be onto something huge. Two years ago, Bryson DeChambeau made headlines for suddenly beefing up following an overhaul of his training regime. With a prestigious amateur career behind him, one which saw his name scrawled next to the likes of Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus, the surprising move caught the attention of pundits and other pros.

Golf doesn’t typically favor the brawn that DeChambeau was suddenly showcasing. Unlike contact sports, there hasn’t been much emphasis on muscle mass… but DeChambeau’s decision wasn’t based on vanity. Instead, ‘The Scientist’ was looking at hard data to help him glean an edge over the competition. 

Aside from meticulously specialized clubs, DeChambeau pursued what statistical analysis hinted at: that a massive drive could mean the difference between him beating competitors like Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas, or not. And it worked—in 2020, DeChambeau posted the longest drives of any pro.

It saw him place fourth in the 2020 PGA Championship, then first in the US Open later that year. Still, his early successes haven’t meant a clear path to the top. Despite the hype and intrigue surrounding data-driven golf training, DeChambeau isn’t listed as a favorite in any upcoming competitions. 

For example, golf betting markets from Betway list Sam Burns as the favorite with odds of 15.00 for the Houston Open; odds for major events next year, like the 2022 US Masters, list DeChambeau behind big names like Jon Rahm, Rory McIlroy, and Justin Thomas. All three are known for their technique and skill in putting, the opposite of what DeChambeau looks to leverage.

Still, it seems that more and more pro golfers are relying on data to help inform their training regimes.

A Numbers Game

Golf is a numbers game. Even casual golfers looking to improve their game will turn to stats to help them track their performance or set a handicap. Most often, golfers track their fairway drive, where they land on greens, and how many putts they need to finish a hole.

Others will interact with stats when wagering on major events, like the ones listed above. A pro’s most recent stats, as well as their historical stats at a given course, will inform who bettors wager on and what lines sportsbooks put out.

But pros are also busy tabulating their performance and crunching the numbers for insightful nuggets of data. In fact, many of them carry yardage books to tally every minute detail of their performance, which caddies also help with during majors. Golfers are acutely aware of their strengths and weaknesses—not only in general, but also related to each course, each club, and each opponent.

Typically, the most important stats covered by fans, pundits, and pros alike are SG/approach the green, scoring average, SG/off-the-tee, and SG/tee-to-green. 

The Drive to Evolve

Many golf fans and pros know the phrase ‘drive for show, putt for dough’, popularized by Denny McCarthy. Traditionally, a golfer’s stats will focus more closely on putting accuracy than a strong drive. In other words, skill and technique matter more when golfers are close to the hole; this is true for dominative performers like Johnson, who are incredibly accurate in putting.

DeChambeau’s new stance challenges this long-held belief, and new data backs up his position. When looking at the aggregated stats posted for the 2020 PGA Tour season, a golfer’s tee-to-green performance mattered most when it came to placing higher in a tournament.

This means that golfers who could drive longer and closer to the hole were more likely to finish in a higher position; those who struggle to putt accurately can instead emphasize a strong, accurate drive to place them closer to the hole. To do this, they need to bulk up and improve their driving range.

So far, DeChambeau is the only vocal pro who insists the future of golf will be based on stronger tee-to-green drive stats, but this is likely to change—especially if he’s able to leverage more major wins using his long-drive model of success.

In the meantime, the ‘old guard’ of the PGA seem intent on putting focus. And, for the time being, DeChambeau’s touch-and-go victories will need far more proof of viability before fellow pros start adding fifty pounds of muscle mass like DeChambeau did at the start of 2020.

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