Why Scientists Love to Study Golf

Saturday, March 31st, 2012

There are many reasons why scientists love to study golf:

One is that golfers stand in one place when they do their thing, and initiate the action on cue rather than react to an object or person coming at them, as in most other sports. Thus they can be wired to the hilt and every little motion and brain wave pondered.

Among the most interesting studies presented in Phoenix, by a Canadian professor of kinesiology named Joan Vickers, explained why the “quiet eye” technique, which she first reported 15 years ago, works so effectively. Using a helmet fitted out with an external camera and other peripherals, she was able to precisely track the eye movements of golfers as they putted. In the seconds before a stroke, duffers’ eyes tend to dart around without purpose or function while elite players control their gaze. Vickers’s research revealed how the neural processes associated with the quiet eye help the brain organize itself to make a good stroke while simultaneously overriding competing neural processes responsible for distractions and anxiety.

Not all of the studies at the conference point to immediately practical benefits, but this one did. Vickers’s advice is that when you’ve adopted your stance and are ready to putt, gaze calmly and steadily at the hole (or target spot) for about three counts, bring your eyes back to the ball in one count and fix your eyes on the back (or top) of the ball for two counts. Then make the stroke and continue to gaze at the ground, where the ball was, for at least one more count.

If there’s a frontier in golf research, it’s neuroscience. With the increasing availability of machines that can peer into brains as they function, there has been rapid progress in understanding the biological mechanisms by which people transform information, such as from a golf lesson, first into actions and ultimately into automatic motor skills that don’t require conscious thought to enact.

Another reason golf appeals so deliciously to researchers is the availability of quality statistics, particularly the PGA Tour’s ShotLink database. Since 2003 the Tour has recorded detailed information about every shot hit by every player in every PGA Tour round. “It’s harder to tease data out of team sports, because the action is so diffuse,” said Mark Broadie, a finance professor at Columbia Business School. “In golf it’s one golfer, one ball, one shot. It’s very clean.” Since pro golfers are single-mindedly motivated toward one goal, winning tournaments by taking as few strokes as possible, studying such topics as their risk-reward strategies and competitive awareness have real-world implications in business and management, he said.

Broadie and his co-researcher, Dick Rendleman of Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, are the ones who determined that the World Golf Rankings favor players who earn points primarily outside the PGA Tour. At their presentation in Phoenix, summarizing research for a paper to be finished soon, they compared the world ranking of the top 200 players to a ranking of those same players’ skill levels calculated using a statistical model they also devised, which simultaneously takes into account players’ adjusted tournament scores and the difficulty of the courses. In every two-year period going back to 2003, the bias was stark. “For every given skill ranking, the official world golf ranking for PGA Tour players averaged 36 positions worse than for non-PGA Tour players,” Rendleman said. At one point Pat Perez was ranked 95th in skill, according to their model, but 195th in the world rankings.

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