How Data and Analytics are Changing Golf

Strategy   |   Heather Harris   |   Mar 23, 2023

Michelle Wie West is an LPGA icon and one of the biggest names in the sport of golf. At age 10, she was the youngest player to qualify for a USGA amateur championship. “I got good really fast and started applying at professional events. When I was 12 years old, qualified for my first LPGA event.” Wie West continued to progress quickly, and she recognized that she would need the power of data and analytics to continue to refine and grow her performance levels.

Growing up with a father who was a statistics professor, Wie West recognized that statistics in golf are important. In those early days, spreadsheets and statistics weren’t Wie West’s strengths, but she knew they were important and that she needed to rely on them. As her career has grown and expanded into being an investor and businesswoman, West has deepened her knowledge of and reliance on analytics.

She added, “For me and my whole game, I use a lot of data and analytics, but I also play with a lot of feel as well too. So, the most important thing for me was to marry the data and the feeling.” As her game evolves, so does the specifics of the analytics and data she uses. At one point in her career, her goal was to become more consistent, and she leaned heavily into statistics to achieve that goal. The focus was to be 80% on the fairway, 80% on the greens, and have no 3-putts.

Analytics and Shifts in the Game

Since that time, there have been many changes in golf, transforming the $90b industry. Key metrics in golf include distance and strokes gained; many golfers now use Strokes Gained to update their practice habits, strategy, and address weak areas in their game. Both of those player measurements have seen improvement due to the power of analytics. Players are hitting the ball longer while also getting more accurate. Twenty or thirty years ago, there were fewer long players, and they weren’t very exact.

With the insights gleaned from data to help improve player performance, distance and accuracy have both improved dramatically. Wie West shared, “It all comes down to putting and short game and wedge game and your scoring clubs.”

With the importance of statistics and analytics increasing in the sport of golf, there are many apps and technologies to assist players. Many players hire a third-party company to help them keep track of their statistics. For example, Sportsbox AI, a company in which Michelle invests, is a 3D data technology app that registers the swing using eight different camera angles.

When recovering from injuries, Wie West relies on AI-based tools to monitor if she’s lifting enough or too much weight for each rep in the recovery and training protocol. The machines can also analyze her movement and identify where there are strengths and weaknesses to help guide the recovery or training process.

Another area where players lean into the power of data and analysis are maps of the greens created by laser-based measurements that capture the slopes of the greens to a 0.1 degree precision. In this case, Wie West says, “The USGA is trying to limit as much technology as possible on the golf course.” And, even for her game, she says, “There’s so much data … so much analytics … and it can get too much. That’s why I’m a field-based player, but I do like to try to marry them together and make sure what I’m feeling is actually supported by data.”

Using Data to Improve the Fan Experience

Wie West also talks about how golf fans and the media both also expect to see more data and analytics as part of the viewer experience. Fans and the media expect there to be a data-driven explanation for statements such as, “A player is good off the tee.” They want to know the “why”, and they want that “why” to be based on data and analytics.

Additionally, the sport of golf is growing and attracting younger players, and many more women. Entertainment-based golf spaces like Topgolf and Popstroke are gaining in popularity. There are more par-three courses and nighttime golf. West added, “I think you’re seeing that the PGA Tour … is all about having fun. It’s all about entertaining. The PGA Tour players understand that. Same with us at the LPGA Tour. We see ourselves as entertainers. We know that we have to be entertaining when we’re on TV.”

Expanding the Game

Now, Wie West says she wants the game to become more accessible. One of the ways she is working towards that is with her involvement with Sportsbox AI, a 3D technology company that produces a mobile app that gives players insights about their swing and performance at a more accessible price point. She elaborates that “3D data before was only accessible towards really high paying clients, really elite golfers, elite coaches because it was expensive.”

Finally, as a businesswoman and investor, Wie West says she is still learning and gaining confidence. She leans heavily into data driven PitchBook, adding, “With investing, I am still learning, and I don’t have that confidence that what I’m feeling is right all the time. It’s just really nice to be able to pull the data and then to know if I’m feeling really good about something and the numbers support that, that I know I’m making the right decision.”

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