The fabled Ryder Cup competition is taking place this week in Paris, France. Every two years, teams of golfers representing the United States and Europe compete in a variety of golf formats to win the prestigious Ryder Cup—and at least two years of bragging rights. Because of the format, there’s always been a lot of unique strategy that goes into the Ryder Cup that doesn’t come into play for a standard golf tournament. Now, the PGA of America is taking things up a notch by applying detailed analysis using Microsoft BI.
The Ryder Cup Is Unique
I grew up on golf. My grandfather was the captain of his golf team at Stanford. My father, brother, and uncle are all avid golfers. I spent many hours as a young child riding along on the golf cart with my dad or going to the driving range to practice with him. I rarely find the time to play, but in my head golf is still at the top of the list of things I would like to do if I had the time.
My father has also always been a devoted viewer of professional golf tournaments. When he wasn’t out on a golf course playing himself, pretty much every weekend afternoon was dedicated to watching professional golf. He would record the tournaments on VHS tapes and archive them for future reference. Being my father’s son, I also grew up watching golf and appreciating the major tournaments—the US Open, British Open, PGA Championship, the Masters Tournament…and, of course, the Ryder Cup.
The Ryder Cup was always a little more exciting and a little more frustrating at the same time—because it is a unique event. Where most golf tournaments are individual competitions where every golfer competes against one another, the Ryder Cup pits teams from the United States and Europe against one another. Each team is comprised of 12 players, and the teams participate in a series of matches that involve more strategy than a straight head-to-head golf competition. That’s where analytics and the relationship with Microsoft comes in.
Ryder Cup Strategy and Analytics
Golf is one of the most data-rich sports in the world and the Ryder Cup is the most complex competition in golf. On Friday and Saturday, the teams play four fourball matches and four foursome matches—with two players from each team participating against each other. In the foursome matches, the two players alternate turns playing the same ball and the team with the lower score wins the hole. With fourball matches, every player plays their own ball, and the better score between the two players is used. Again, the team with the lowest score on the hole wins.
The captain of each team plays a significant role in the strategy and tactics. 8 of the 12 members of the team are chosen by default based on overall rankings in the sport—but the captain gets to hand pick the remaining 4. Those four don’t necessarily need to be the next 4 highest ranked golfers—and generally aren’t. The captain will choose golfers for specific skills—driving distance, accuracy, chipping, putting, etc., as well as how they do on different types of courses. The captain is also responsible for choosing the pairings—and matching up players who complement each other’s skills in a way that hopefully gives the team the best chance to win.
That process has always involved a fair amount of data and research, but leveraging Microsoft Power BI vastly expands the scope and depth of detail that can be evaluated and significantly streamlines the process of analyzing data in real-time to make the best strategic decisions in the moment.
Partnering with Microsoft
With easy-to-use data visualization tools in the hands of captains, analyzing tons of data and player performance to create the best match-ups has never been easier. Previously, the PGA of America used paper documents, which became easily outdated during the season, requiring additional analysis. Now, with Microsoft Power BI, the PGA of America can understand player performance with real-time insights, elevating their game on and off the course. Heading into the 2018 event, the U.S. Ryder Cup captains are leveraging these data rich insights to create the best strategy for the U.S. team.
The concept of leveraging data and analytics is not new—but technology has raised the bar. The European Team was already using computer analytics models and had been winning consistently for some time. Ahead of the 2016 Ryder Cup that took place at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Minnesota, the PGA engaged Scouts Consulting Group as the Ryder Cup USA Official Research and Analytics Partner. Microsoft provided some assistance in 2016—writing code for three days straight to develop visualizations and dashboards to convey the data clearly.
The US team won the 2016 Ryder Cup. For 2018, Scouts Consulting remains the official research and analytics partner, but Microsoft has also been invited to engage on a more comprehensive basis, providing support for the Ryder Cup team decision-making process in three areas:
- Player Statistics – Develop solutions for visualizing all the necessary player data and analytics that will help the U.S. Captain choose the finest four Captain’s Selections to complete the 12-member U.S. Ryder Cup Team.
- Golf Course Visualization – Provide relevant information to enhance U.S. familiarity with Le Golf National and help the U.S. Ryder Cup Team capture its first victory on foreign soil since 1993.
- Ryder Cup Week Situational Awareness – At a moment’s notice, perhaps in the narrowest of time frames between sessions, deliver real-time statistics that can confirm an observation, dispel a notion, or even prompt a unique pairing.
Improving Ryder Team Strategy
I spoke with Mike Downey, Principal Evangelist for Sports and Entertainment for Microsoft. First, let me just say that I aspire to have that be my job title when I grow up. That just sounds like an awesome job. But, I digress.
Downey shared some of the ways that analytics—and specifically analytics through the lens of Microsoft Power BI—can help improve strategic outcomes for the Ryder Cup team. The Microsoft team focused on empowering Jim Furyk—captain of the 2018 US Ryder Cup team—with the information he needs to put the best players and matchups out on the course to compete against the European team.
I also spoke with Jeff Price, Chief Commercial Office for PGA of America. Price explained that before the 2016 Ryder Cup, the PGA essentially allowed each team captain to determine just how deep they wanted to go when it comes to examining data and analytics. Some captains were much more thorough and analytical than others. He specifically noted that Tom Kite, a member of four different winning Ryder Cup teams and captain of the 1997 Ryder Cup team, had reams of notebooks and relied on mountains of data even before “Moneyball” was a thing.
Going into 2016, PGA of America knew that the European team was leveraging computer analytics and felt the US team was at a distinct disadvantage. That is when they hired Scouts Consulting to provide the 2016 Ryder Cup team with an analytical and more thoughtful approach to the information to help the team captain make informed decisions.
According to Price, partnering with Scouts Consulting and Microsoft for better research and analytics puts the US team back on a level playing field with their European counterparts. The data doesn’t make the decisions for the captain, but having real-time statistics and analysis certainly enhances and influences the captain’s ability to make the best strategic decisions possible.
Downey talked about some of the ways the Microsoft team approached the issue. He described how they had to consider the questions the team captain needs to answer, and what data and analysis can best help with guiding those decisions. What are the skills that should be examined? How do you determine the right or best pairings for specific scenarios, or golf course terrains, or weather conditions? How do the unique strengths and weaknesses of players in different aspects of the game conflict with or complement one another?
It’s also important to be discriminating about what you look at or how much data you analyze. Price cautioned, “You could overwhelm with data. The key is, by listening to our objectives and understanding the decisions that need to be made, Microsoft provides an ability to synthesize and make data actionable in real-time.”
The playing field may be leveled. Now, we will just have to watch as the 2018 Ryder Cup unfolds, and see how effective the US Ryder Cup Team is now that they’re armed with real-time statistics and analysis to make the best strategic decisions. Hopefully they will be able to defeat the European team, win the Ryder Cup once again, and retain bragging rights for at least another couple years.