Your Data are not My Problem: A Statement

Sometime in the throes of a State College, PA Winter, 2002-2003: For a golfer, a PS2 and 8″ of fresh snow could be a dangerous thing. Does the name “‘Pops’ Masterson” mean anything to you? Anyway, if those two sentences painted visions of shooting a 54 around The Old Course, or taking gaudy lines on an EA Sports PGA Tour 2004 Fantasy Course then perhaps you, too, shared the Spring-time disappointment that no, you could not control the spin of the ball AFTER you struck it.

I digress.

Modern teaching is (correctly and necessarily, in my opinion) festooned with data collection. In coaching, we have a saying: “Assess, don’t guess”. Data points are a necessary part of setting baselines and tracking progress. I use shot tracker data for my own swing and it’s proven itself to be a worthy tool in the arsenal in the life-long pursuit of golfing nirvana. However, there is a troubling underswell to some of the modern “takes” on golf that seemed rooted in expectations derived from a more data-driven approach to learning golf.

The Dim Ages: Scorecard and Pencil Data Collection

It’s still common but not long ago this was the primary method of data collection for the amateur golfer: tracking greens-in-regulation, fairways hit, putts, and maybe sand saves. More advanced statistics could include the location of any miss in order to track trends needing to be addressed at the range. “Hey, I’m missing short and right on approach shots inside of 160 yards. Next time out I need to take one more club and perhaps do some range work on short irons and target selection.” Result-based data like this dictated subsequent action. The data was descriptive first and then prescriptive later. The golfer either took action to change it or got the same result for the same thing.

Importantly, rarely did one hear a comment using these data as support for an opinion about the golf course.

The other data point used then, handicap index, has always found a place in a golfer’s opinion: “I’m a 7-handicap and…”

Ever notice how that statement is almost always a single-digit marker?

But in those analog data days, we rarely ever heard a data-driven opinion on golf.

The Simulation Era

As I write this, my keyboard is on my lap. The desk space is taken by a Honeycomb Alpha Flight Yoke, a Honeycomb Bravo Throttle Quandrant currently configured for a complex single-engine propellor, a Thrustmaster A320 Sidestick and a Logitech Radio Panel for my Flight Simulator setup. I am certainly no stranger to bringing immersion home in what I choose to simulate. Flight Simulators today are largely judged on their flight and weather models and not as much on their aesthetics, though modern GPU technology has made great strides for the later. It is not an immersive experience for a flight sim unless there is at least some semblence of realism and risk. Despite these standards, nobody who knows anything about flying would equate home simulator experience with real-world flying.

I don’t believe this level of scrutiny has reached golf simulation yet.

The vast amount of data now available to the daily-fee golfer and the ability to build a home simulator for those long State College, PA winters can create a somewhat realistic picture of actual golf. No doubt, it can certainly assist in measuring improvement in the absence of on-range or on-course experience.

But the line must be drawn when golfers begin using their 1.48 Smash Factor and 105 MPH clubhead speed as a rhetorical position on golf maintenance or architecture. You may not hear this specific phrasing, but I suspect those are the numbers that embolden some other expectations.

“Yeah, I gatekeep your opinion…”

A friend of mine from CrossFit is an MLB Umpire and I think we silently bond over the fact that most people think they can do our jobs better than we can. /joke

I truly do love hearing every thought from every golfer about golf courses. I do! It’s one of the appeals of the game and the fact that a golfer can even form an opinion is a connection to the sport and the golf course important to the interpersonal bonds the game can cultivate.

But I also gatekeep those opinions and find many of them absolute rubbish. In a sense, this is also part of my job as golf course superintendent. I do have to filter through a lot of noise to either get to the heart of what causes the opinion to form as well as get to the level of commitment the person rendering the thought has to the success of the overall whole of club/course.

In other words: If you think hitting a fairway should grant you a perfect lie every time – I’m not likely listening to you.

But if you say you had an unusually unfortunate day with lies in the fairway – I’m subsequently assessing the conditions of the fairway.

Can you spot the difference in these rhetorical positions? Did you make the connection between this section and the one immediately above it?

When is the last time a golf simulator gave you a lie in a divot in the fairway? Could you make a data-based claim that such a lie is, in any way, a significant factor on the subsequent result? What is a flight simulator without a realistic weather model that could potentially present IFR conditions on a VFR flight? One is a toy and the other is an actual simulation of reality.

Might be time to put away your toys…

I think we’ve all struggled with taking our game from the driving range to the first tee. Competition and stakes – be they formal or among friends – are the crucibles through which we burn away those impurities and struggles. I suggest that there is one more element to consider, however:

When moving from the driving range or simulator or practice net to the golf course, the golfer is inviting the golf course to intervene. To confound. To present problems and questions. Your data are NO T the answer but rather the pencil you wield to assist you in answering the question or overcoming the problem. Each tee shot introduces the ball into the unknown and in some cases the unknowable. That’s the mystery and that’s the hazard and that’s the joy. Ultimately, the only data point that matters – the only data point that sums up and measures all the other data points – is the amount of times you strike the ball with the club before the ball lies in the hole. Foremost, golf is a sport where you use a club to manuever a ball. A club. Not the rules. Not your data. The golf course has an inalieable right and obligation to intercede with that pursuit but you, the golfer, must approach every problem with the club and stroke first – and only in failure or ability to do so or in the execution of the stroke – use the rules to move the ball.

As Donald Ross once said, paraphrased: “There is the course, play it any way you please…”


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