Nonexistent when Minnesota’s own Tom Lehman captained the 2006 U.S. Ryder Cup team in Ireland, statistical analytics won him over when he was a vice captain for the American victory at Hazeltine National Golf Club two years ago.
“There was no such animal then,” Lehman said. “I’m old school, so I wasn’t really sure. You can’t reduce golf to statistics. There’s too much intuition and things like that. But I became a believer at Hazeltine.”
The firm the American side hired to crunch the numbers told captain Davis Love III his team couldn’t lose in 2016 if they turned the three-day competition into a short-game contest, from 100 yards in. The stats said the U.S. clearly had better wedge players and putters, so Love set up the course as easy as possible, with little rough and accessible pin placements.
The Europeans complained the course was too easy and lost for the first time in eight years, 17-11.
Both U.S. captain Jim Furyk and European captain Thomas Bjorn have reams of statistics to advise them before the Ryder Cup begins Friday. Included are “strokes gained” stats in six categories. Developed by a Columbia University professor using the PGA Tour’s ShotLink data, they measure a player’s performance against the rest of the field.
Strokes gained, total: U.S. Ryder Cup players comprise seven of the top 11 this season, including four of the top five: No. 1 Dustin Johnson, 2.28 shots better, No. 3 Justin Thomas, No. 4 Tiger Woods, No. 5 Bryson DeChambeau. No. 2 Justin Rose is the only European team member in the top five.
Strokes gained, off-the-tee: Seven Americans are in the top 10, but four of them — Luke List (second), Gary Woodland (fourth), Keith Mitchell (eighth) and Patrick Cantlay (10th) — aren’t on the team. But big bombers Johnson (first, at .92 strokes better), Bubba Watson (fifth) and Brooks Koepka (ninth) are, as is long-hitting and Ryder Cup rookie Jon Rahm (third) and Rory McIlory (sixth) for Europe. Don’t sleep on British Open champ Francesco Molinari (seventh).
Strokes gained, tee-to-green: Johnson leads in yet a third category about driving the ball, and Thomas is second. But Molinari, Rose and McIlroy go 3-4-5 from there.
Strokes gained, approach-the-green: If it’s all about hitting it close to the hole, captain’s pick Tiger Woods — a Sunday winner at the Tour Championship — is king (.938 strokes better) in a category that has four U.S. players and one European (No. 4 Henrik Stenson) in the top five. Watson (t-111th) is outside the top 100 here.
Strokes gained, around-the-green: If it becomes a chipping contest, only three players from both teams are in the top 15: Patrick Reed is second (.534 better), Rose seventh, Woods 11th, but throw all the stats away when Reed — aka Captain America — plays great for the red, white and blue.
Strokes gained, putting: Only Europe’s Alex Noren (fifth), Webb Simpson (sixth), Phil Mickelson (10th) and Rose (17th) rank in the top 20, but European captain picks Sergio Garcia and Ian Poulter always seem to putt out of their minds come Ryder Cup time.
The U.S. team consulted the stats and set up Hazeltine easy and to win in 2016. Lehman expects Europe to set up their course to play difficult instead when the first ball is struck Friday at 1:10 a.m. Twin Cities time.
“I’m sure they’ll set it up to make you hit it straight,” Lehman said. “That’s my guess: Let’s make the Americans hit it straight. That’s probably that way I’d do it.”