The Man With Two Brains: Strokes gained guru Mark Broadie’s pioneering analytics have radically altered the game

September 11, 2018

On a sticky, end-of-summer New York afternoon, Mark Broadie stands on the first tee at Pelham Country Club, a rare occurrence for him of late. As the go-to guy in golf analytics, Broadie keeps so busy crunching other people’s numbers he doesn’t have time to post his own.

It is 81 degrees, with a wind from the northwest at nine miles per hour. Broadie knows this. He’s checked a weather app. The hole is a 462-yard, par-5, uphill, gentle dogleg. The percentage play is a driver up the right. Broadie knows this, too, because when it comes to golf-related facts and figures, there aren’t a lot of things he doesn’t know.

“We’ve had a lot of rain, so there’s not a lot of roll,” Broadie says. “And unless I’m getting roll, I can’t reach the green in two. But I try to get my second shot close for an easy up and down.”

At 61, lean and low-key, Broadie cuts an understated profile that belies his outsize impact on the game. To his peers and protégés at Columbia Business School, where he has taught since ’83, Broadie is known as the Carson Family Professor of Business, with an expertise in the pricing of derivative securities. But to members of golf’s firmament, he’s something of a walking Watson — as in the computer, not Tom.

That reputation stems from Broadie’s pioneering data-driven research, which began nearly two decades back, inspired by what you might call his golf obsession, and which continues to this day. Drawn from his analysis of millions of golf shots, struck by pros and amateurs alike, that research has yielded insights with farther-reaching implications than Broadie himself ever foresaw.

First adopted by the PGA Tour in 2011, “strokes gained,” Broadie’s breakthrough analytics tool, has become a fixture in golf’s Moneyball age. Though he was not alone in seeing the shortcomings of old-saw categories such as greens-in-regulation and putts-per-round (which, beyond being unhelpful, can be outright misleading), he was the first to do something about it. With strokes gained, Broadie was able to set the data straight by placing it in proper context. It allowed him to measure a player’s performance against the rest of the field while providing an isolated view of specific aspects of their game.

What started out in 2011 as merely a strokes-gained putting stat has, in the past seven years, spawned many other categories in the Tour’s ShotLink database, including revelatory strokes gained measures on tee shots, approach shots and shots around the green. Their combined influence on golf have been likened to the sway of sabermetrics over baseball, changing how Tour pros play and practice, how coaches coach, how caddies caddie.

An obscure term just a handful of years ago, strokes gained has entered golf’s mainstream lexicon, tossed around on television broadcasts and parsed by players in post-round interviews. Its proliferation has also helped turn Broadie from Ivy League professor into golf-world pooh-bah, his expertise enlisted by Golf Channel; by FoxSports in its U.S. Open coverage; by TaylorMade in its assessment of emerging talent; and by top instructors and a swelling number of Tour stars themselves.

“In the early days, I thought of our work with Mark as giving us an edge over the competition,” says Pat Goss, the men’s golf coach at Northwestern, who, in 2011, in his side gig as Luke Donald’s swing coach, became one of the first insiders to recognize the import of Broadie’s work. “Nowadays, I think of it as something we need just to keep up.”

Mark Broadie in his Columbia University office
From his snug office at Columbia, Broadie plays an analytical game with which a growing number of top Tour pros have grown familiar.

Others operating in a similar mindset include the Molinari brothers, Francesco and Edoardo, Jordan Spieth’s swing guru, Cameron McCormick, and Rickie Fowler’s caddie, Joe Skovron, to cite a few of the many with whom Broadie has worked.

Asked last summer how he planned to hone his game for the ’17 FedEx Cup playoffs, Rory McIlroy revealed that he wasn’t off to look for answers in the dirt. He was off to meet with Broadie.

“I’m a big believer in stats…and strokes gained is the best stat that has come into our game for the last, well — ever,” McIlroy said at a post-tournament press conference. “I’m excited to sit down with him and talk about all that stuff.”

That press-conference mentions of Broadie are increasingly common doesn’t stop him from marveling at them. “When I got started on all this, I figured I’d publish a few papers and that would be it,” he says. “I wasn’t thinking about getting attention from it. It was an academic pursuit in the purest sense. I was after knowledge for knowledge’s sake.”

If Broadie’s current status was somewhat unexpected, there were inklings in his childhood of where his life might lead. Raised in suburban New Jersey, the son of an accountant and a homemaker, Broadie excelled in school and enjoyed a range of sports. He took up golf in his early teens by swinging his father’s clubs in the backyard. In retrospect, his approach to the game was too cerebral for its own good.

“To me, taking lessons seemed like cheating,” Broadie says. “I thought that part of the challenge should be teaching yourself.”

Rather than seek counsel, he gleaned his understandings of the swing by poring over golf-instruction books and magazines, and by watching middling players at a club where he sometimes caddied. The result was an unsightly set of fundamentals. Standing too far from the ball and employing an excessively strong left-hand grip, Broadie became a master of the screaming hook. Compounding his problems was that he, a natural lefty, had learned to play with righty clubs and never switched.

In time, he self-corrected, whittling his scores into the 80s, which still wasn’t good enough to make his high school team. In college, at Cornell, he played sporadically, and then more frequently while earning a Ph.D. in applied mathematics at Stanford, an institution blessed with a friendly year-round climate and a killer campus course.

With his move to New York in 1983, Broadie adapted to the rhythms of the city, which is to say he pretty much mothballed his clubs. They remained mostly in storage until 1987, when Broadie, prompted by his interest in financial markets, took a one-year sabbatical to work as a researcher at Lehman Brothers. His Wall Street tenure brought him into closer contact with other golfers. Soon, he was bitten by the bug once more.

In 1991, Broadie joined Pelham, attracted by the club’s diverse membership and its proximity — just 30 minutes away — to his home in Manhattan. That same year, he surprised himself, and many in his cohort, by winning the club championship.

“Mark had a kind of funny swing that has only gotten funnier over the years,” says Mike Diffley, Pelham’s frank-talking head pro, then and now. “But he was clutch that week and he made a lot of putts.”

That’s one view. As Broadie sees it, how critical a factor his flatstick was is impossible to know because there are no detailed records of his matches. Which brings us to the crux of his golf-research career. The more golf Broadie played, the more the game presented him with questions for which he had no answers. To find them, he was certain he needed data. And golf data in those days wasn’t merely scarce. It was nonexistent.

By the early 2000s, Broadie resolved to start amassing it himself. Of the game’s many riddles, the first one he hoped to untangle was what separated an elite player from an 80-shooter such as himself, and an 80-shooter from a 90-shooter, and so on across all levels of the game. The simple answer, of course, was that better players carded lower scores. But what enabled them to do so? Their distance o the tee? Their deadliness with wedges? Their limited numbers of balls lost in the woods? Organized around such questions, a groundbreaking research project was born.

Mark Broadie on Low Library steps
A former club champion at his home course, Broadie still sneaks out on the rare occasions when time allows.

Broadie’s first subject was his head pro, Diffley, an accomplished player and former winner of the Met Open. Broadie asked to join him for a round. Their first 18 together gave way to multiple outings, each of which followed the same routine: Diffley would hit shots, and Broadie, scribbling in a scale-model course map, would note exactly where each one settled. Broadie would also play his own ball, and jot down the results of his shots, too.

“I knew Mark was a smart guy — you know, professor and all — so I figured he wasn’t doing all this just for fun,” Diffley says. “But I can’t say I knew everything he was up to.”

Other Pelham members didn’t have a clue. “We’ve got lot of New Yorkers here, so they use colorful language,” Diffley says. “They would look at Mark measuring all my drives and pacing o the distance to the hole of every putt, and they’d turn around and say, ‘What the f— is going on?’”

What was going on at Pelham was also happening at dozens of New York area courses. With help from colleagues, graduate students and computer programmers, Broadie was collecting and collating detailed information on amateur-player-reported shots around the region — more than 100,000 before all was said and done. Around the same time, the PGA Tour’s ShotLink system, launched in 2003, was filling up with data from the game’s best players.

From the Tour’s perspective, the numbers were a way to enliven TV broadcasts and improve fan engagement. Broadie put them to a different use. Ultimately, all the info he and his team gathered was fed into a computer program called Golfmetrics.

A new day in golf analytics had arrived. Although Broadie hadn’t set out to rattle the establishment, many of his findings proved convention-shaking. Notable among them was one that poked a hole in the gospel of the short game: the familiar observation, widely taken as adage, that the fastest way to lower scores was to sharpen your skills from 100 yards and in. Not that the data showed the short game didn’t matter. What it demonstrated, though, was that a better measure of a player’s prowess was how he or she performed on longer approaches — specifically, from 150 yards.

“Of course, every golfer has their own DNA, with different strengths and weaknesses,” Broadie says. “But the basic idea is that if you tell me your median leave from 150, I can tell you how good you are.”

Broadie’s revelations exposed the flaws in other of the game’s more stubborn assumptions. Drive for show and putt for dough? Maybe sometimes. But on average, the strokes-gained-putting differential between a golfer who shoots 70 and one who shoots 80 is a relevant pittance (1.5 strokes) compared to
strokes gained or lost from 100 yards and out (6.5). A similar differential holds true in comparisons of golfers across the board. The takeaway: In a battle of importance, ballstriking reigns supreme.

The beauty of Broadie’s research was that it offered something for almost everyone. Just as a top instructor like Pat Goss could draw on the data to pinpoint strengths and weaknesses in Luke Donald’s game, and devise a practice strategy that maximized the former and minimized the latter (focusing on Donald’s wedge game turned out to be key in his rise to number one in the World Golf Rankings), so could a weekend duffer discover in the numbers a vital lesson about expectations.

To wit: If you’re inclined to throw a club after failing to stuff an approach from 150 yards, get over yourself; the average Tour pro leave from that distance is 23 feet.

Mark Broadie on Golf Channel set
The Broadie visit at Golf Channel dates to when Holly Sonders was swing geek Martin Hall’s favorite pupil on “School of Golf.”

Broadie’s research has paid dividends for Broadie, too, in his work as a GOLF columnist (p. 28) and a FoxSports consultant, interpreting stats for U.S. Open broadcasts; and as a consigliere for TaylorMade. Although Broadie declines to discuss the details of his dealings with the club maker, he’s comfortable saying that his data-based projections of future performance helped solidify the company’s decision to sign Jon Rahm to an endorsement deal.

As for future projections for golf analytics, Broadie sees nearly boundless opportunity for exploration, limited only by the availability of good data. One area he has in mind is strokes-gained categories that account for factors such as wind, turf conditions and the contours of a shot. Another is quantifying performance under pressure, a topic Broadie has been working on of late. He believes he’s onto something.

“For mental toughness, the only stat that attempts to measure it is bounce-back,” he says. “And I think there are better ways.”

But even Broadie needs a break from analyzing other golfers. As the afternoon wore on at Pelham, the performance of most interest to him was his own. Despite a rusty swing, he was getting along nicely, aided by a strategy rooted in sound data. Among the records he keeps in his office at Columbia are computerized logs of many of his rounds, replete with scores and shot-dispersion patterns — handy information for a guy who likes to have a plan for every hole.

Take the par-three eighth, where he’d now arrived. At 145 yards, the hole ranks as the easiest at Pelham, but it has a history of giving Broadie trouble. In 2005, the year he started cataloging his own rounds, Broadie played it 18 times, always with a nine-iron, but only hit the green on a third of those occasions. His scoring average was 3.22. Intent on improving, Broadie scoured his records and noticed a pattern: nearly all of his misses were short of the green. Lesson learned. Time to swap the 9-iron for a three-quarter 8.

“The challenge to that was that a three-quarter 8 is not a shot I’ve worked on much,” Broadie said. “But there’s no doubt it is the right play.”

Pulling an 8-iron, he waggled and swung. Riding a light wind, the ball landed on the green and settled at the back of the putting surface, 21 feet from the pin. By any measure, it was a better-than-average shot.