Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Total Driving

A few months ago, I mentioned that I was looking for a way to combine two stats into one more meaningful stat. We’ve all seen the Driving Distance and Driving Accuracy statistics, but what would be a good way to merge them so we could tell who the best players are off the tee?

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“Total Driving” stat which is exactly NOT what I was looking for. They simply take a player’s standings in Distance and Accuracy, add them together and the lowest total wins. As of this writing, Joe Durant leads in this stat because he is third in Accuracy and 69th in Distance. This isn’t completely useless but it falls short on two accounts – it uses a player’s rank in both stats rather than their actual distance and accuracy numbers, and it considers both stats as equals.

I rejected my early trials at Total Driving because they either favored one or the other stat leaders too much. I wanted to favor the longer hitters a little bit (for reasons I’ll explain shortly), but not so much as to make accuracy meaningless. I also wanted to make it rely on the actual data a player was generating, not just their ranking in that stat. A couple of weeks ago, I came up with this combination and it delivered results that finally made sense to me:

[(Yds per drive times average of fairways hit) plus Yds per drive] divided by 6

You can ignore the “divided by 6” part if you wish – it is only there to make the totals less cumbersome and doesn’t make the spreadsheet any more complicated. The first three elements are the gist of it. The results logically scale down bit by bit as a player’s distance and accuracy decrease. For example – through the Ginn Open, both Sandra Gal and Momoko Ueda were averaging 263.9 yards per drive. Gal was hitting fairways at a .685 clip, Ueda at .607. This resulted in Gal scoring at 74.11 (outstanding) and Ueda at 70.68 (about average for the Tour this year). It works the other way too – Meena Lee and Morgan Pressel are hitting fairways at a tremendous .795 rate but Meena is outdriving Morgan 243.3 to 239.7. So Lee beats Pressel 72.79 to 71.71. Each yard of distance winds up gaining a player between 0.2-0.3 in Total Driving score, although this average per yard decreases as the accuracy scale goes down.

Na Yeon Choi and Erica Blasberg score as virtually equal drivers, 73.64 to 73.61. They arrive at those scores by very different methods. Choi outdrives Blasberg by nearly 13 yards a pop but Erica hits the fairway at .756 compared to Na Yeon’s .671. Both of them rank in the Top 30 of Total Driving and they got there by doing one factor really well and the other reasonably well. Becky Morgan is hitting the fairway better than 80% of the time but since she only averages 233 yards, her score is a below-average 70.14. Wendy Doolan and Laura Davies are both in the Top 12 in distance, but Wendy’s .577 accuracy makes her just slightly above average while Laura’s awful .488 puts her 125th in Total Driving. If you are really bad at one of these numbers, you are going to have a bad rating.

If an imaginary golfer – let’s call her Linda Lee – were to average 300 yards per drive and hit 100% of the fairways, her score would be 100.00. Lorena Ochoa isn’t Linda Lee, but she is the best driver on the LPGA Tour by a significant margin and was last year too. Here are the Top 30 current drivers (stats through the Ginn Open) with just a few of the numbers so you won’t go blind:
1. Lorena Ochoa 77.10
2. Becky Lucidi 76.07
3. Karen Stupples 76.03
4. Hee Young Park 75.76
5. Sophie Giquel 75.09
6. Alena Sharp
7. Lindsey Wright
8. Anna Grzebian
9. Hee-Won Han
10. Katie Futcher 74.53
11. Suzann Pettersen
12. Karin Sjodin
13. Louise Friberg
14. Yani Tseng
15. Sandra Gal 74.11
16. Sophie Gustafson
17. Yu Ping Lin
18. Cristie Kerr
19. Teresa Lu
20. Na Yeon Choi 73.64
21. Erica Blasberg
22. Minea Blomqvist
23. Jin Joo Hong
24. Maria Hjorth
25. Jane Park 73.25
26. Annika Sorenstam
27. Audra Burks
28. Paula Creamer
29. Eun-Hee Ji
30. Angela Park 72.90

Bear in mind, these aren’t the 30 best players on Tour – I never said tee shots are the entire game. As for those listed here who aren’t in the HD Top 30, you could look at their other stats and probably figure out why yourself.

If you look closely, you’ll notice that everybody on this list averages at least 250 yards per drive except for Paula Creamer (248.0), Audra Burks (246.0) and the amazing Yu Ping Lin. Lin averages only 237 yards but hits the fairway 86.9% of the time. She is precisely the player whose results I had to wrestle with in every incarnation of this new stat. I had to juggle how much I was going to let Accuracy sway this, and Yu Ping was my primary barometer for that emphasis. I arrived at this formula by using last year’s stats – Lin hit .810 on the fairways and only cleared 227 yards in 2007, putting her in 88th place. That position seemed justified and her improvements in both categories this year (10 more yards and an even higher percentage) justify her position in the Top 20 now.

In
my most recent Top 30 ranking, I mentioned that Angela Park had supposedly tried some swing changes to generate more distance and has struggled since because of it. Why would she do that? Because everybody wants more distance. Creamer wants more, Pressel wants more - hell, OCHOA wanted more. If there was Viagra for Driving Distance, they would all take it. Even if it costs them some accuracy. And that’s why I wanted to weigh Distance more than Accuracy – the players themselves believe that distance is more important, and the results show it too. 13 of last year’s Top 30 in Distance finished in my Top 30 – only seven of the Top 30 in Accuracy did. And what is “accuracy” anyway? Sitting in the first cut of rough counts as a missed fairway, same as driving OB. Two or three more yards is worth the occasional extra shot out of the rough. Anything to get a shorter iron in your hands for the next shot.

Getting back to Angela Park…she won Rookie of the Year and finished with a Top 10 Hound Dog ranking in 2007 while ranking 29th in Total Driving. It’s hard to complain about those results. If she wanted to add a little distance, she should have done what Ochoa did – work out a couple of hours a day during the off-season. That would help her stamina as well as potentially add distance. I’ve seen players do this tweaking stuff dozens of times with their swing – it is NOT a quick fix, Angela, it’s a quick break! Your swing took years of practice to develop and you were one of the best on Tour with it. Making any swing change can throw your game off for months (ask Cristie Kerr and Brittany Lincicome if you don’t believe me). The changes might even help you off the tee but disrupt your iron play, for example. How is THAT a shortcut to gaining distance over working out? As you can see, Angela ranks 30th in Total Driving right now so maybe that rumor isn’t true about her. If not, it IS true about another player (Larry wouldn’t say who) who has played well in recent months but wasn’t going quite far enough on those tee shots to suit her. I’m no expert on golf swings and I certainly don’t have the entire story here (maybe the player had a really obvious swing flaw and it needed correcting sometime), but this seems like a case of “it wasn’t broke but they fixed it anyway”.

I’ll get off my soapbox now. A great by-product of the design of Total Driving – it only takes me about two hours to plug in the numbers so I’ll feel like updating the chart above more than once a year. As I analyze players and look for reasons why they might be playing better or worse than a year ago, Total Driving gives me another tool to figure that out.

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