I talk more about the LPGA Tour than most people in golf. I’m a fan of the product, and I have enjoyed seeing the schedule grow in depth and worth in the last decade.
When I talk about the LPGA, particularly on Twitter, I typically encounter two types of responses.
The first is dismissive. Who cares about women’s golf? or Why should I care? These people have a bias against the LPGA that’s seemingly rooted in the belief that women’s golf is inferior entertainment to the PGA Tour.
The second is dismissive, just in a different way. These people are fans of the LPGA, when they can watch it, because they find the women’s professional game relatable to how they play on weekends. The “Celebrities: They’re Just Like Us” line. The underlying belief is that because, generally speaking, female pros hit the ball shorter than male pros, that the game played on the LPGA is more comparable to that of the recreational player.
Both perspectives present problems that can be solved with the same solution: data. Cold, hard data.
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The LPGA has a big data problem — namely, that the Tour lacks the equivalent of ShotLink.
Going back to 2003, the PGA Tour has been employing the ShotLink data collection system to give fans all the details of each shot from each player at most tournaments. (The PGA Tour’s international events and opposite-field events lack ShotLink, which should be remedied as soon as possible.) The system has been refined over the years to capture more data with every shot, bringing in cameras to track shots, too. Pair that information with data collected from launch monitors positioned on the golf course, and the PGA Tour can tell fans a clear story of how good their players are.
We know how well each PGA Tour player performs from practically every possible situation on the golf course. We know if a player is lethal with wedges, struggles with the putter or has a tendency to miss left.
All of that data has also been translated into the concept of strokes gained. Mark Broadie and the Tour have created a measuring stick for how players gain an edge on the field and break down tournament performance into the game’s five components. That data has informed the fantasy golf, daily fantasy golf and golf betting communities, helping them to understand the sport better and drive engagement. This data will no doubt be used increasingly to offer bettors an opportunity to wager at the individual shot level, meaning a boon for the PGA Tour in data rights deals and for sportsbooks in increased handle.
The LPGA lacks all of this. They still have the same rudimentary statistics that can be derived from scorecards and human measurement of driving distance. The story that data tell isn’t particularly helpful. All we know is the LPGA plays shorter courses and female pros don’t hit the ball as far as their male counterparts. We know LPGA players score well, and they can take it deep on a week-to-week basis, but we don’t have a real measure of how they do it in aggregate or how individual players do it.
Observers can offer explanations. Inbee Park has an incredible short game. Lexi Thompson mashes the ball but struggles with putting. Jin Young Ko did everything well in 2019. However, there’s no data story behind it.
With ShotLink-style measurement, the LPGA can tell fans the real story. They can share data with skeptics that puts women’s golf on the level it deserves, and it can destroy any notion that what the LPGA players do on a week-to-week basis even resembles what us hacks do recreationally.
I’ve had the good fortune to play in a pair of Symetra Tour pro-ams, and the pairings party is always a bit of an odd experience. Men in the room sometimes seem to look down on these pros, wondering how much the pros will be able to help them — as though the amateurs are going to carry the team. Then those men get out on the course with their pros and quickly realize they’re no match for the pros. It’s an eye-opening experience for amateurs to learn that pro golf is a whole different level of competition.
The LPGA doesn’t need ShotLink-style data to compare its players to the PGA Tour or male professional golfers. That’s not the point at all. Most anyone can recognize the LPGA product and the PGA Tour product are substantially different in style. However, with detailed, shot-level data in their possession, the LPGA can tell the true story of their athletes to the sporting public, and they can appeal to potential fans who just need a little extra something to be convinced that this product is worth their time and emotional investment.
That data would also open up a world where daily fantasy players and sports bettors could engage with the LPGA. Golf has proven big for DFS and sports betting, and opening up that world to the LPGA could pay significant dividends in fan engagement and sponsor interest.
Getting this kind of data doesn’t need to take long. The LPGA has a strategic alliance with the PGA Tour, and perhaps the folks in Ponte Vedra Beach can help the LPGA in obtaining equipment, setting it up for trial events, crunching the numbers and bringing the LPGA up to the same level of analysis and data presentation.
The LPGA has a great product. It’s fun to watch. The players are accessible. The quality of golf is higher than its ever been, and it’s an alternative to the bomb-and-gouge style on the PGA Tour. With modern data, that product becomes even better.