How Math and Lasers Can Make You a Better Golfer


A few years ago, number crunchers and stat geeks infiltrated the MLB front offices and changed the way America’s pastime is played. Now they’re doing it to Scotland’s.

In 1999, the PGA launched the stat-gathering, laser-wielding ShotLink system. Now volunteers strategically surround each hole at each tournament, surveying the landscape with camera-like lasers. Those lasers track and measure every shot with insane accuracy—the margin of error is just a few centimeters.

They’ve sparked golf’s own “Moneyball” era. New information is flooding the scene, and TV broadcasters don’t have to fill airtime with stuffy stories about their grandchildren as they wait for measurements anymore. Cameramen don’t have to guess where the best spots to film are. And number junkies don’t have to settle for the same stale stats that have been staples of the game for decades—they can cook up new ones.

Nearly 600 of them, actually.

The flurry of information is changing how the pros play. Players can track every nuance of their game with unseen specificity: If Tiger wants to know how he does in bunkers 30 feet from the hole, there’s a stat for that. If Lefty wants to evaluate his approach shots, there’s a stat for that.

Players can pinpoint problems in their game like never before, giving them a better idea of what to practice—and what kind of shots to avoid. A player who once had a fuzzy idea of what caused his putting woes can finally say, “Ah! Those 16 footers going downhill are to blame.” And then he can attack the problem.

No wonder number crunchers are becoming as common as caddies. Duffers like Luke Donald and Stuart Appleby are becoming vocal data junkies, and by hiring a few number nerds, they’re increasing their chances of earning more dough.

Here’s how. Two professors at Penn found that players were more likely to miss a birdie putt than a putt for par—even if the distance was the same. Why? Because of a phenomenon called “loss aversion.” People prefer avoiding losses to making gains, and golfers are no different. They're more hesitant when shooting for birdie—a habit that increases their chance of leaving a shot short. According to Sean Martin at Golf Week, “If a top-20 player in 2008 was able to overcome this bias, he could increase his earnings by more than $1 million.”

Although ShotLink has made players more aware of their mental roadblocks, the game hasn’t gotten easier. More golf course designers are using ShotLink data to make the pin harder to find. By studying shot patterns, designers can manipulate the tee box, mowing patterns, and hazards to give pros more gray hairs.