Golf analysis has reached some pretty amazing levels over the last decade or so. The amount of statistical data that we can find on all sorts of things from swing data to putting performance is just unbelievable really. The danger is of course that we can get lost in all these facts and figures. Out of all the tracking/stats out there, which ones should we be paying attention to, if any?
Performance Data vs Swing Data
Before diving into the details, we can already divide ll this information into two distinct categories which we could call performance data and swing data. Performance data is anything that records what we are actually doing on the course and how it relates to our score. On a basic level, number of putts would appear here. I spent a bit of time recently writing about greens in regulation which would also be from this category.
The other type of stat is related to our swings. This has become far easier to obtain in the last few years because of advantages in technology from equipment like gc quad and trackman. Once again, at the most basic level, measuring driver swing speed fits here.
both of these types of stats are pushing in the same direction, namely playing better golf, but are working towards this in two different ways. Firstly, looking at how we play out on the course and secondly what we are actually doing with the club as we swing and how this affects our success.
Analysing Your Swing
Let’s start with the second group of data. A few years ago, any analysis of swing mechanics would simply come down to having the experienced eye of a pro looking at your swing. If you have a horrible over the top move or are making divots 6 inches before the ball, this is quite easy to spot and a good coach will of course be able to help. Unfortunately, there is a lot going on in the golf swing and it is impossible to actually pick it up with the naked eye. In fact, some things which we now know to be true through modern tech were seen in quite the opposite way a few years ago. The ball flight laws and the effect that club path and face path have is perhaps the most obvious example.
This is where modern technology has been revelation. Many (perhaps most?) regular golfers have at least some idea of their swing speed. If you have ever been through a fitting, you will actually know a lot more than this too. For example:
club head path
And the list goes on. I have a friend who is going through a high tech swing analysis at the start of next year and he will see a complete representation of his swing in three dimensions, with everything from his weight shift to the variance in attack angle as he comes into the ball. This is obviously incredible stuff and I have no doubt that he will spend an amazing few hours discovering just how horrible his swing really is (I jest if he is reading this!)
Information Overload in the Golf Swing
Of course, the question then becomes, what do you do with all this information after? I think that this is a potential problem, at least for the average golfer which, let’s face it, we are. A professional golfer is playing with very fine margins and knowing that he can play with a degree or two of attack angle and a slightly different kick point to his driver shaft is probably useful. Maybe he can squeeze another fiver yards out off the tee or hit an extra fairway every couple of rounds. This really might be the difference between a good living and a great one on tour.
The thing is, this golfer is already doing a lot of things very well. Perhaps more importantly, he has a team of experts from coach to equipment provider around him that can fine tune these details without worrying about such mundane issues as cost that would probably be a barrier for the rest of us. And interestingly enough, many professional golfers really don’t take a huge interest in the minutiae of these sorts of stats.
I have seen plenty of WITB (what’s in the bag) interviews with pros when they basically don’t know what shaft they have in their clubs or what exactly it does. This isn’t a criticism by the way, quite the opposite. They are all about performance. I am sure that many golfing addicts, myself included, perhaps are far more interested in the details from equipment to swing mechanics. We don’t have the bottom line of getting the best possible performance because nobody is paying us to get it right.
What do we Really Need To know about our Swing?
This brings us back to the point of the article. How much do we really need to know? In terms of swing analysis, I would say not nearly as much as you might think. In the swing, everything is connected and you can’t change one part in isolation. Knowing that you have an early release might seem important so that you can fix it, but you also have a whole load of compensatory movement going on so that this early release still lets you hit the ball. You can change one thing without effecting another.
I do think this information is fantastic for teaching pros if they know how to interpret it and work with it. Likewise, for fitters. Telling a student and showing them with video/numbers to back it up is a huge stride forward but I would recommend against knowing every detail of your golf swing. I have been down this path and it doesn’t make the game any easier. In fact, I would say it is almost impossible to play decent golf when you have every element of what is wrong with your swing in your head all the time.
If you can find a coach who can reduce all this background noise to a couple of simple things, you have probably struck gold. Working on small fixes and limited information is going to be the key.
On-Course Performance Data
This brings us to the area of tracking on-course stats. I have done this extensively in the past and I do regularly look at the available information for the best players in the world too. Once again though, can we have too much of a good thing?
The question is probably one of balance. As I explained in my article about PGA putting stats recently, you do need to be careful when looking at numbers. I used the example of tracking the number of putts per round, something many golfers do. In this case, we all want to take fewer putts. However, hitting more greens in regulation will almost certainly increase the number of putts we take.
We are playing better golf because we are hitting more greens (an important stat as I explained here). More GIR=better scores=lower handicap. If we only followed number of putts though, we might think we were getting worse.
This is also true in other areas of the game. For example, a lot of golfers track the number of fairways they hit. This seems to make sense. More fairways should be correlated to better scores surely? We are shooting for the green from the short grass more often.
Once again, it isn’t that simple. Let’s say that you put in some time in the gym over the winter and work on increasing swing speed. This leads to an extra twenty yards from your driver. It might also lead to a fairway or two fewer being hit off the tee. The same degree of dispersion with twenty more yards distance makes this automatically the case. These twenty extra yards are going to be more useful in decreasing score than simply hitting the fairway.
Also, a simple fairway hit or miss doesn’t tell the whole story. If you are hitting 50% of fairways, but the misses are in the first cut, that is great, especially if distance is acceptable. If you hit 60% of fairways but you blow one or two off the planet out of bounds every round and are playing three off the tee, this is going to make it extremely tough to score. If you hit 100% of fairways because you prefer to tee off with a seven iron, you still aren’t going to be scoring well because the second shot into a green will generally be far too long.
Too Much Detail?
The other side of this particular coin would be to really delve into the stats in far more detail. For example, number of putts. We have shown that, on its own, this isn’t the most useful stat out there. So what should we add? Putts per green in regulation? Average proximity to the hole after the first putt? Holes per three putt? Strokes gained putting in relation to the field in every competitive round?
You can probably see the issue here. There are so many potential things that we could look at. In fact, if you look at the PGA stats page just for putting, there are not far off 100 different things that are listed, just for putting, from the average distance of eagle putts made (not really a big one for my game it has to be said!) all the way to the number of putts per round in the second round of every tournament.
PGA players can access these stats if they wish because they are being compiled all the time. For the rest of us, this isn’t the case. So these leads us back to our big question, which stats are actually worth tracking if you are looking to improve your game?
The Most Important Golf Stats to Track
This is obviously a personal opinion, but I think that there are a few things worth keeping tabs on that do make a difference.
First of all, I think it is worth trying to find out driver clubhead speed. This is quite easy to do now, using anything from a smart phone app (not the most accurate) to spending time in a big box store hitting bay. I don’t think you need to do this weekly, but having some sort of idea is actually pretty useful. If you are trying to get fitter and more flexible, you can see if it translates to distance gains, for example. Also, it is worth knowing if, like me, your swing speed is dropping off thanks to father time.
Secondly, I would track a few on-course stats. The most important in my opinion is GIR (greens in regulation). As I explained, I actually include green misses that finish on the fringe and puttable, but this is a personal choice. Regardless, it is a stat that correlates strongly with score.
The second on-course stat is penalty strokes. The reason that I think this is important is because I didn’t realise how often I was actually hitting out of bounds or into a hazard until I tracked it. It was costing me almost every round a few years ago, especially off the tee! For most of us, the difference between breaking eighty and shooting ninety isn’t the iron shot to two feet, it is the three off the tee or dropping next to the water hazard.
The final one for me would be up and down percentage. I don’t break this down into sand saves or by distance. Simply, I want to improve the number of times I can convert a missed green into a par. Once again, this was a weak area for me but I didn’t realise how weak until I compared my game with shots from similar handicaps looking at shots gained, for example.
There are, of course, many other things I could track. I do sometimes count my fairways, for example. Likewise, I will measure a few drives using a rangefinder now and again too. However, these aren’t the bread and butter of my game. If I am not losing too much swing speed, having the minimum of penalty strokes, hitting more greens and getting up and down more often when I miss, I am probably playing some pretty decent golf.