August 10, 2010

Whistling Straits

With the PGA Championship returning this week to Whistling Straits, a spectacular pseuo-Irish Pete Dye golf course on Lake Michigan north of Milwaukee, I thought I'd link to this review I wrote of the course when it was new in 1999.

(For my 2005 magnum opus on the art of golf course architecture, see here.)

Also, Michael Agger is writing a long series this week in Slate on innovations in the study of golf statistics, which looks pretty good.

For example, one finding is that tour players are more risk averse in their tactics than is optimal. They try harder to avoid a bogey than to make a birdie, but they get paid by the total strokes for the week, so that doesn't make much sense.

In terms of the applicability of moneyball techniques, one issue that distinguishes team sports, such as baseball, from individual sports, such as golf, is that baseball teams can have both statistics-driven training and selection techniques available to them, while individual golfers have only training. Touring pros can't deselect themselves, without taking up an exciting new career in giving golf lessons at the country club.

For example, the Bill James revolution in baseball encouraged teams to start asking their players to try to walk more and hit more home runs, even at the cost of additional strikeouts. Sometimes hitters could change their style, sometimes they couldn't. If they couldn't, teams became more likely to get rid of them. (See the career of Raul Mondesi, who was worshiped as a god of the diamond until more sophisticated baseball stats came into fashion.)

Golf moneyball could, theoretically, be very useful for that fraction of players whose personalities are amenable to changing approaches. In baseball, we've seen some players adapt to the new statistics by getting more walks, but we've seen a lot of other players fail to do that. I suspect that the current aversion of pro golfers to statistical analysis is not wholly obscurantist. When advanced statistics do become fashionable in golf, we will likely see some pretty good golfers fall apart as they attempt to incorporate the insights of the new golf statistics and, in the process, ruin the delicate balance of their games and psyches.

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

'Pseuo Irish'?

Anonymous said...

First soccer, now golf. You risk Whiskey calling you a beta.

Albertosaurus

anony-mouse said...

Social science: good for society but bad for golf? How can that be?

Whiskey said...

I like Golf. So no, no beta calling. Golf is possibly the most relaxing sport to watch on TV. It got me through any number of rough spots.

jody said...

actually i have been thinking for years that competitive golf was more like baseball than other sports. the best players still only have success 1 in 3 tries or 1 in 4 tries. they both seem like a game of numbers and averages. heck they both even involve swinging at a ball.

Anonymous said...

Jody -
I agree with you. Golf and baseball are the only two sports where there is a chance that people with relatively undistinguished long term careers can accomplish seemingly impossible feats on a single day. Think of the number of guys who have thrown perfect games or hit record lows in a single round of a Majors Event and then gone on to accomplish nothing else remarkable in their careers.

TGGP said...

Off-topic: surprised Steve hasn't yet linked to his "Left Coast's Right Turn" on Hollywood. Or maybe I didn't notice or forgot.

Anonymous said...

Excellent review of Whistling strait. I didn't see much good in the Slate article however.

Pro Golfers are 'risk adverse' because they leave their putts short? Absurd. Everyone knows you can't make it if don't get it to the hole. How about a more simpler explanation, bad putting. And if a pro leaves it short 4 times a round, goes past the hole 2 times a round, and gets the line wrong 5 times, that makes it what? Risk adverse?

AllanF said...

Steve, I like, and am totally unsurprised, that you consider the golf architecture piece your magnum opus.

People, especially the haters, that think they know Steve should take note.

Now, if only he'd get off the statins.

ricpic said...

The comparison of baseball to golf is idiocy. A batter in baseball with a batting average of .333, one hit for every three times at bat, is an elite player. A golfer who hit the ball into the rough twice for every hit down the fairway or onto the green wouldn't be a competitive amateur nevermind being a pro. Sheesh.

Saint Louis said...

"[O]ne finding is that tour players are more risk averse in their tactics than is optimal. They try harder to avoid a bogey than to make a birdie, but they get paid by the total strokes for the week, so that doesn't make much sense."

Maybe I'm missing something, but I don't see why that wouldn't make sense. The choice is not between potential birdie and potential bogey; rather, it's between potential birdie and potential bogey or double or triple.

A risky shot that could give you an opportunity to make birdie will rarely get you better than a birdie even if hit properly. But if you miss it, you could be looking at penalty strokes and possibly double or triple bogey. And if you are risk averse and just aim for the fat part of the green, although you might still have a long birdie putt, you still have a chance.

Saint Louis said...

It also seems to me that Sunday is always the most exciting day of the tournament. Obviously, being the last day it is a climax, but also, I would guess, most of the players shed their aversion to risk on the last day as it becomes clear they're not going to catch the leader by making a lot of pars.

I wonder what it would show if someone studied the scores of players and how they changed over the course of a tournament. My guess is that on Sunday (and Saturday to some extent, being after the cut) players have more really good and more really bad rounds since they are less risk averse. The study would be complicated though by the fact that tournament committees deliberately make the most difficult pin placements and tee positions on the final day. Weather would also be a complicating factor. Although you can get changes in weather throughout the course of a four hour baseball game, it's nothing like the changes over the course of a four day golf tournament.

Kevin said...

About thirty minutes from home will be the site of the 2015 US Open http://www.chambersbaygolf.com/layout10.asp?id=173&page=3342. This will probably be the only chance I will get to see a Major. I'm hoping for high winds since this is also close to the site of Galloping Gertie.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tacoma_Narrows_Bridge_(1940)

Anonymous said...

Saint Louis,

You're completely correct. For example, a bad tee shot can cost you a stroke, a good one just sets you up for an easier iron shot. And a go-for-flag iron shot - that succeeds - will get the ball closer to the hole, but you still have to make the putt. If it fails you've a lost a stroke.

Figgy said...

First off, very good analytical piece on Whistling Straits; and it was WAY back when - even more impressive.

Secondly: as we sit on the precipice of the trophy-deciding round, one can't help but notice the preponderance of "young lions" at the top of the board (how could you NOT notice it with CBS talking about it constantly?) But it begs the question - is Whistling Straits a young man's course? I've heard many in the golf commentary business say how brilliant Dye's design was in providing a variety of options to the golfer. But is it possible the best of all options is to hit the ball long and straight off the tee, leaving yourself a short iron or even a wedge for the approach shot? Although it's a penal course if you miss the fairway, there does seem to be ample room on the fairways. It's not like Winged Foot or Oak Hill, where for the US Open they grow the rough and tighten the driving areas. Also, the greens aren't all that Dye-abolical, not when you compare them to the roller coaster greens on courses like Oakmont, Pinehurst #2 and Shinnecock. On those tracks, you have to "think your way around the course", which gives the veteran guys a better chance to win. You see Tiger and Phil at just a bit under par, which would often be in the running at a major tournament in the US but here at "the Straits", they are way back in the pack with no chance to come away with the Wanamaker trophy. However, the young, flexible guys who fearlessly pound the ball a mile are 8 under and better and poised to win their first major. Jim Furyk being up there throws a little cold water on this theory but, while a short hitter, Furyk is among the straightest hitters on the tour and thus could be in the hunt in any of the majors. I seriously doubt he'll factor into the result today however - it'll be the young guns contesting for the final jewel of 2010 today.

So did Pete Dye unwittingly make a course for blasters instead of a thinking man's "Links" course? Not enough evidence at this time but if so, do they really want to play a major here every 6 years?

Anonymous said...

Looking at all the great golf courses in a book is like looking at a Playboy because I'll never have all those women,just like I'll never play most of those courses. It's all a tease.

Have you played any of the great UK courses? Royal County Down,Royal Dornoch? St Andrews etc.
What about US courses?

Steve Sailer said...

I've played, seen a tournament at, or snuck onto Ballybunion, Lahinch, Pebble Beach, Cypress Point, Spyglass Hill, Pasatiempo, National Golf Links of America, Shinnecock Hills, Oakland Hills, Medinah, Olympia Fields, Riviera, Torrey Pines, Crystal Downs, Whistling Straits, Blackwolf Run, Cog Hill, Kemper Lakes, Butler National, and Chicago.

Anonymous said...

You even got on Chicago,Cypress Point ,Crystal Downs. Wow. Those are very difficult ones to get on.

Steve Sailer said...

Snuck on.