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Learning from Statistics
Someone once said that there are lies, damn lies, and then there are statistics. For politicians the distinction between the first two may not be a matter of much importance while statistics has become a crutch in one situation and a bed-of-nail in another.

The manipulation of statistics has become an art form and 'stats', as they are referred to by the smart set, have become an opening conversation gambit, a putter-down in bars and the ultimate filler-in of TV commentators. Stats have over-run everything from archery to water polo, they have taken over in soccer and are mind boggling in golf.

It is in golf that the 'stats' have made the greatest in-roads and it is in golf that we best see the utter meaninglessness of the whole endeavour of data gathering and number crunching.

Seve Ballesteros, I see, has just slipped into second place in the putting stats table with the staggering statistic of 28 putts per round. Few would disagree that this is a truly remarkable figure for it means that he is one-putting 80% of the greens.

But Seve is distinguished by his absence from the Order of Merit table. Can one therefore conclude that putting is of little consequence in golf? Don't ask Seve this question. As a stand-alone statistic this question represents, however, an inevitable conclusion.

Clearly driving off the tee is what is important. Keeping the ball on the short grass is what the game is all about and driving accuracy must be where the money is made. Well, apparently not.

Peter O'Malley leads the driving accuracy table with 84.1% of fairways hit. But Peter is only 13th in the Order of Merit table. Richard Green has hit 81.7% of fairways and he is in 53rd place -and John Bickerton is in 51st place having hit 78.1% of the fairways. Clearly driving accuracy helps but is not all that important.

Does length really matter? It surely must be the case that distance off the tee conveys a major advantage. Riccardo Gonzales hits the ball an average of 303.8 yards, two yards further than his compatriot and closest rival, Angel Cabrera and five yards further than the Italian, Emmanuel Canonica.

Two yards would not appear to matter much. Gonzales is 26th in the Order of Merit and Cabrera is in 10th place. Five yards would seem to matter, hoever, for Canonica is in a lowly 132nd OM place.

It becomes clear that it does not appear to matter how far you drive the ball and how many times you hit the fairway is equally insignificant. So, what do the top moneymen do that mere mortals do not?

Can 'sand saves' tables throw some light on where it counts? Getting up and down from bunkers is probably the key. We have a table for this too! Brett Rumford leads this with 82%. I don't know what this means but it must be significant for there is a table for it. Brett is 0.4% better than Tony Johnstone at 'sand saves' and all of 6.7% better than John Senden in third place. Rumford, however, is in 55th place in the OM, Johnstone is in 89th and Senden occupies the 77th spot.

It is probably safe to conclude from this that it matters not a lot whether you can 'sand save' or not. Bunkers are clearly of little import.

Now, let's recap. What we have learned so far is that the distance you hit the ball is of little consequence and where you hit it doesn't matter much either. Neither is getting into a bunker nor saving yourself from it of any significance. And, surprisingly, the number of putts you take matters not a jot with respect to how much money you make.

What appears to count is hidden behind the smokescreen of the stats tables as 'greens in regulation'. Here is where we start to see the big money appearing. Padraig Harrington, fourth in the OM has hit 77.7% of greens in regulation. Sergio Garcia, seventh in the world rankings, has hit 77.1%. Greg Owen upsets this conclusion, however, for he has hit 76.9% of the greens and ends up in 32nd place in the OM. Is there any justice?

The 'putts per green in regulation' category also highlights the big money. Mike Campbell leads this with 1.719, whatever that figure means, and is followed by Bjorn and Harrington. The presence of Seve in fourth spot is disconcerting since he cannot even be found in the OM table and the top three are in 12th, 7th and 4th places respectively. Shouldn't that be the other way round?

Clearly, what helps is to hit the greens in regulation figures and putt in regulation figures as well. My mother always told me to be regular and clearly she was right. But if this conclusion is correct, it should be reflected in the stroke average table. Harrington leads this with an average of 69.34 strokes per round, followed by Goosen, Garcia and Montgomerie.

All of these guys figure in the OM but Harrington is only in fourth place while Goosen tops the table. Is that fair? What this means is that it doesn't pay to play at your best all the time but to be selective about when you play to your best. I know a lot of 20+ handicap players who learned this simple fact when yet in the cradle!

In conclusion, then, summarising the statistics, it can be said, almost with absolute certainty, that that there is some correlation with the number of strokes you take and how well you play. If you are a professional golfer there is, further, some correlation between that and how much money you make.

Some of you may have worked this out independently. It must, however, be reassuring to learn that statistics go some way to support your conclusion.

©    3 - DECEMBER 2001

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