Three years ago, Sal Syed was a 7 handicap. Not bad for a guy who had never taken a lesson.
Today Sal is a scratch golfer.
Usually one has to take a chainsaw to their game to lop seven strokes off their handicap – we’re talking swing change, lessons and lots and lots of practice.
While we can’t speak for the practice part, we can tell you Sal didn’t change his swing, and he still hasn’t taken a lesson. Instead, Sal analyzed his game with surgical accuracy and let the data tell him what to do.
Sal, you see, is CEO of Arccos, and his journey to scratch shows just how valuable advanced analytics can be.
“My Putting Sucks!”
Sal is a pretty smart dude, with a BA's in Computer Science and Math from Ohio Wesleyan and an MBA from Yale.
“As we started Arccos, I was golfing a lot at Yale,” explains Sal. “We started tracking traditional stats – fairways hit, greens in regulation and number of putts.”
That set of stats told Sal a very ugly, but very incomplete, story.
“I was hitting 14 out of 18 greens in regulation, but I’d have like 40 putts. So I was like ‘Oh my God, my putting sucks!’ So I practiced and practiced, but nothing was improving.”
It wasn’t until Arccos added a modified strokes gained analytic that Sal learned the truth behind the old Ben Hogan axiom - if you want to sink more putts, hit the ball closer to the hole.
“Arccos showed me my approach handicap was high – I was hitting my approaches like a 12 handicap,” he says. “But my putting was like a scratch, so I was working hard to improve something that was already pretty good.”
“My approach game was leaving stuff short and missing to the right, so I started working on stuff before a round. I’d hit more approach shots while warming up than I ordinarily would, where I used to be taking more putts, because I thought putting was my problem.” – Sal Syed, Arccos CEO
That, in a nutshell, is the difference between raw data and advanced analytics. Raw data tells you the what - that you're a 7 handicap averaging 40 putts per round, but a deeper dive can often tell you the why.
“It’s really about smarter decision making, knowing what my strengths and weaknesses are, and playing to my strengths,” says Sal. “I’ve had three holes-in-one in the past three years, and the only reason is that I know for sure how far my irons go. On a Par 3, I’ll pace back two yards at the teebox if I have 137 to the flag, to optimize my odds of a hole-in-one because I know my 9-iron goes 139.”
Advanced analytics isn’t just knowing the numbers; it’s about knowing why the numbers are what they are and how to use that information to improve performance. Michael Lewis, Billy Beane, and Brad Pitt made advanced analytics famous with Moneyball, and it’s been just over the past 3 or 4 years that we’re seeing that same level of golf analytics becoming available for the likes of you and me.
“If you think about it, golf gives you an Excel spreadsheet for a score card. No other sport does that,” says Sal. “It’s just numbers and a grid, and then you’re putting more numbers in. Golf is all math, and whoever makes the better mathematical decisions is going to have a huge advantage.”
Syed says golf is even more suited to advanced analytics than baseball.
“I was speaking on a panel at MIT’s Sports Analytic Conference, and we were discussing the applicability of advanced analytics in terms of helping improve performance and analyzing strengths and weaknesses. On a scale of 1-to-10, baseball is a 10, basketball is a 7 and every other sport is from 1 to 5. Golf is like an 11, because every event is isolated and discreet. It’s not like you’re reacting to a pitch – you can get even more granular, advanced and accurate than you can with baseball.” – Sal Syed
A Caddie In Your Pocket
Yeah, Jordan Spieth won the Open Championship this year, but don’t for one-second discount the role caddie Michael Greller played in keeping Spieth’s head right in that final round.
“100 years ago, C.B. MacDonald – one of the founders of the USGA – wrote that the caddie is an institution and a mentor well versed in the game and the course,” says Syed. “And if you go against what the caddie recommends, you’ll invariably make a bad shot.”
Most sports tend to be fluid and dynamic, requiring subconscious, instinctual decisions by individual players. Golf is different in that you have to make a deliberate and conscious decision before every shot. Bad decisions – and bad results tend to snowball.
“That allows you to get into your own head,” says Sal. “You get frustrated, and you continue making bad decisions and, as a result, not perform to the best of your ability.”
Arccos Caddie was introduced this past May, with the goal of bringing a Michael Greller or a Steve Williams to your right front pocket.
“Only 3% of golfers actually have access to a real caddie. That means 97% don’t – that whole experience has gone missing,” says Sal. “The ability to step back and objectively think about the situation goes missing. We’re trying to bring back something that’s gone missing in the sport.”
Arccos partnered up with Microsoft in what is undoubtedly the deepest, broadest and widest real world application of analytical data in golf. It not only takes into account your past performance and your history on a specific hole, but it also looks at your history on similar holes on other courses.
“Golf holes have only so many distinct varieties. So when the dogleg happens here, what’s your tendency? It knows what clubs you’re better with - you might be better with your 9-iron than your wedge. It knows your unique strengths and weaknesses and it knows people who are similar to you and how they’ve faired on this hole. It knows the trouble spots and it knows where scoring comes from.” – Sal Syed
Arccos Caddie also checks in with the local weather bureau and knows what the wind is doing, how you perform in the wind and the impact of the wind. It then recommends an optimal strategy for that hole. And it’s all USGA conforming.
In the software/app world, if you don’t have something new every few months you can quickly become yesterday’s news. With that in mind, Arccos Caddie this month is adding a new feature, called Plays Like Distance.
“On TV, you can hear the type of conversations caddies have with their players,” says Sal. “The caddie will pace off the flag and say ‘It’s 148, but it plays like 132 because it’s downhill and downwind.’”
Plays Like Distance takes into account elevation, wind and other environmental variables and gives you, as the name would suggest, what a shot will actually play like. Your typical GPS app or watch, of course, doesn’t know uphill from downhill, it doesn’t know what the wind is doing or in which direction it's blowing, and it doesn’t know whether it rained yesterday and how it would affect roll or how soft a green might be playing. Plays Like Distance does all that in real-time.
“We’re pulling in weather from multiple data sources, and running algorithms based on historical facts that are pretty darned good. It’s pretty accurate – basically better than any human can do under similar circumstances.” – Sal Syed
While Arccos Caddie is USGA conforming, The Plays Like Distance feature – at this time – is not. Syed says the application is in the works.
Too Much Tech?
How much info is too much? When does all this data become overwhelming? And at what point is the amount of work needed to collect the data (i.e., tagging or other in-round fussing) simply become more hassle than it's worth?
“The key is to collect and present information in a simple way,” says Sal. “Here’s an additional data point, then it’s up to you. You’re the CEO of your golf game; you make the call.”
“We’re always talking with users, and we want to simplify the golf experience to make it more enjoyable. I think it’s more complicated now because you, as a golfer, are completely alone and don’t have the input of a caddie. I feel golf is more complicated without a caddie than it is with a caddie, or with Arcoss Caddie.” – Sal Syed
Syed says Arccos is very much focused on the traditional golfing culture, and everyone in the company plays at least once a week. The goal is to make the system as seamless as possible, and Syed admits there’s still a little bit of work to do.
“For example, when you have a penalty shot you have to go into the app and do an add,” he says. “When you pick up a putt, we’re going to give you those one-tap gimmes, so you want even have to tell the system. It will know when that happens.
"It’s important to us to make a system that’s not getting in your way all the time. But the information has to be the right information at the right time. That’s why Plays Like is key because it’s born out of observation and conversations with real golfers. ‘What do you think it plays like?’ You hear that conversation 20 or 30 times a round. If you don’t have a caddie, you’re having that conversation in your own head.”
And although short on specifics, Syed does admit Arccos knows some golfers don’t like the whole phone in the front pocket thing. “As you’ve heard it, we’ve heard it too,” he says. “For this year you’ll have to keep the phone in the pocket, but hopefully we’ll have some cool announcements in the future.”
If you’re in to shot analytics technology, there’s certainly no shortage of options out there for you. Whether it’s Arccos, Shot Scope, Game Golf, Sky Caddie or any one of the others, the technology is evolving quickly and the challenge, of course, is how to make collecting and using that data simpler than just filling in your scorecard/spread sheet with Fairways Hit, GIR’s, Up ‘n Downs and Putts.
“When you’re out golfing, you’re out golfing,” says Syed. “You should not be collecting data. That should happen by itself.”
Price and Availability
Arccos Caddie is a premium purchase within the Arccos 360 app, and it accesses a database of over 75 million shots and 368 million geotagged data points on more than 40,000 courses. You get a 5-round free trial and then get to choose from a tiered subscription program: either $7.99 per month, $39.99 for six months or $49.99 for 12 months (plus a 30-day free trial). The Arccos 360 unit itself sells for $249.99.
For more information about the entire suite of Arccos products, visit ArccosGolf.com.