Tribune golf writer Ed Sherman wrote an interesting column last Friday–or at least a column with an interesting quote.
The piece was about how the United States Golf Association might soon outlaw new clubs with U-shape grooves in favor of the old V-shape. As I understand it, based on looking at a cross-section diagram, where the V-shape groove is as a diamond might cut it, a wedge, a U-shape groove is as a chisel might cut it, a trench. As one might imagine, the U-shape allows skillful players to put spin on the ball even when hitting out of the heavy grass of the rough, which has allowed the top pros to bomb away with their new big-head drivers with impunity.
Chicks might dig the long ball, but the USGA evidently does not, and that’s where the quote comes in. “The skill of driving the ball accurately has become much less important in achieving success on Tour than it used to be,” Sherman quoted USGA senior technical director Dick Rugge as saying. “Our analysis of statistical data measured by the PGA Tour since 1980 shows, historically, that driving accuracy was as comparably correlated to winning as putting. Beginning in the 1990s, however, driving accuracy became much less important. Today, the correlation between driving-accuracy rank and money rank on the PGA Tour is very low.”
All right, enough golf. What’s remarkable here is a top sports executive using statistical analysis to dictate how trends are going and how the sport needs to be tweaked to maintain its purity. Imagine if baseball had looked at the rising home-run statistics of the 90s and said, “Hey, we need to look into whether the balls–or the players–are juiced.” Instead, baseball turned a blind eye to the entire phenomenon. If Bud Selig were running the PGA Tour, he’d say fans love the long ball and let’s ignore whether technology is changing the game.
The ironic thing is this is yet another example of How Bill James Changed Our View of Baseball, the subject of a new book of essays edited by Gregory F. Augustine Pierce. James’s statistical analysis has had immense influence throughout sports but is still widely considered voodoo in the traditional world of baseball, where only maverick executives like Billy Beane rely on it. Funny how what goes around comes around–and frequently goes out the other ear.