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Golf Quants Shave Strokes Using Math-Driven Data Analysis

Golfing Quants Shaving Strokes Using Math-Driven Data Analysis
Henrik Stenson of Sweden lines up a putt during a practice round prior to the start of the 114th U.S. Open at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club on June 11, 2014 in Pinehurst, North Carolina. Photographer: Tyler Lecka/Getty Images

Sal Syed got his MBA from Yale University because the school has the highest-rated golf course of any U.S. college. The game is still determining his path.

Syed, 33, is a co-founder of Arccos Golf LLC, the first real-time shot-tracker that gives everyday golfers the same pool of statistics available to professionals such as Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy, who compete in the U.S. Open this week.

While golfers spend about $4 billion annually in North America on the newest clubs and balls in the quest for improvement, Syed and friend Ammad Faisal say the sport is underserved when it comes to quantitative data analysis. Arccos, which has research and development support from Callaway Golf Co., wants that to change as it releases its system this summer.

“The idea is to quantify all of golf,” Syed said in an interview. “Golfers are nuts about data. We wanted to create something golfers were going to use to understand their game and get the best out of it.”

Syed convinced Faisal, a childhood friend from Lahore, Pakistan, to leave a banking job on Wall Street to join him in starting Arccos, whose financial backers include Jimmy Dunne, the senior managing principal at Sandler O’Neill & Partners LP. Dunne won club championships at both Shinnecock Hills Golf Club and Sebonack Golf Club on Long Island, and is the president of Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach, Florida.

Immediate Data

Arccos features small sensors twisted into the end of golf club handles that deliver data directly to a user’s smartphone after a one-time pairing process. By incorporating the global positioning system function, golfers can instantly see how far they’re hitting the ball, get breakdowns on average distances per club, track their putts and the numbers of greens and fairways hit, and see the direction of most of their misses, possibly allowing them to change tactics during play.

During a round last week at Yale, the C.B. MacDonald- and Seth Raynor-designed layout ranked 70th in Golf Magazine’s list of the best U.S. courses, Syed opted to predominantly use his 3-wood over the second nine holes after getting in-round feedback that it had been more accurate than his driver and was delivering almost the same distance off the tee.

“This is the tip of the iceberg in data gathering,” said Syed, adding that Arccos eventually will track temperature and elevation change to show they may affect shot-making. “Someone once told me, ‘You can’t improve what you can’t measure.’”

Arccos is named after the inverse of the cosine trigonometry function, a nod to the engineering of the system that Syed says is the “secret sauce.” The analytics program, which includes the PGA Tour’s strokes-gained formula, breaks down a golfer’s handicap into five components: driving, approach shots, chipping, sand shots and putting.

New Technology

“The instant feedback it gives its users will be invaluable to the player and his or her instructor as to the accuracy of how he really plays as opposed to how he ‘thinks’ he plays,” said Bob Ford, the head professional at Seminole and Oakmont Country Club, a record eight-time U.S. Open site. “Learning distances of clubs, directional tendencies, etc. It’s a very valuable tool.”

Arccos isn’t alone in a field of new technology in golf aimed at game improvement, from mobile applications that measure a golfer’s distance to the green on each hole to glove-mounted sensors that analyze a player’s swing and give feedback on club head speed, swing plane and swing tempo. Even the U.S. Golf Association is using hand-held GPS trackers to gather data on how to speed up rounds.

Game Golf introduced a product similar to Arccos in January, with sensors on club handles transmitting to a device on the golfer’s belt. Data, including club selection, distance and fairways hit, is then synced -- after the round -- to a player’s mobile device or the Game Golf website, which also features a social media hub that allows players to share scores and statistics.

Graeme McDowell

Graeme McDowell, 34, is among the PGA Tour players testing and providing feedback for the product, which has had more than 35,000 rounds uploaded, while the PGA of America partnered with Game Golf in part because it can help PGA teaching professionals with training and instruction.

“We know we have inspired competitors to try to leapfrog us,” Game Golf Chief Executive John McGuire said by telephone. “Because of our growth, our partners, being USGA-approved, we feel we’ve built a solid moat around us.”

Unlike Arccos, Game Golf can be used in competition because it doesn’t provide real-time data. The U.S. Golf Association, which helps write the rules of golf and is the organizer of this week’s U.S. Open, has said Arccos can’t be used in tournaments because the real-time information it provides on the golf course might provide an advantage.

‘Neat Tool’

“If you’re going to be able to access that during play, during that day, we just don’t think that’s the right thing,” John Bodenhamer, the USGA’s senior managing director of rules, competitions and equipment standards, said in a telephone interview from Pinehurst. “If it can help your game in the future and you can benefit from knowing what you’ve done that day, it’s absolutely fine. We think it’s a neat tool.”

Syed said that instant feedback is exactly what makes Arccos unique in the shot-tracking industry. Arccos, available for pre-orders at $299 with an August shipping date, also has to deal with the stigma attached by some golf traditionalists to using mobile phones on the course.

Phone Use

To ensure the GPS properly tracks the distances and direction of shots and records putts, players have to have the phone with the Arccos app with them during the round.

Faisal, 33, who spent seven years at Bank of America Merrill Lynch working in the energy and power division, said consideration was given to using an intermediary device, but that too many people forgot to take the necessary steps required to record each shot. Faisal said since so many people have mobile phones in their pockets anyway, Arccos opted to incorporate that technology, which required just a one-time sync to automatically track data.

“You’re not here to be manually collecting data, you’re here to golf,” Faisal said.

Much of the credit for Arccos’s technology goes to Callaway, which created the shot-tracking sensors within its research and development department. When Chip Brewer was hired as Callaway CEO in 2012, the company decided to focus on its core business of clubs and balls while licensing other areas, including the patents for its shot-tracking sensors.

Venture Funding

Syed and Faisal licensed the technology in November 2012 and last year raised $5 million in venture funding, with less than 10 percent coming from individual investors like Dunne and the rest coming from New Haven, Connecticut-based Launch Capital. Callaway spokesman Scott Goryl said the company now acts simply as an adviser to Arccos, which has a staff of about 20 in Stamford, Connecticut -- most of whom are engineers -- along with 17 employees in India.

“Callaway gets the credit for identifying the opportunity and developing the first working prototype of the technology,” Syed said shortly after making his second birdie of the round at Yale. “It looked like a lab project and we basically refined it, polished it. It was our job to make the user experience pop out, make it work much more smoothly.”

Gimme Putts

Quantitative analytics has been used to improve performance from Wall Street to the sports world -- from data-driven investment philosophies to the statistical focus in Major League Baseball that became the subject of Michael Lewis’s book “Moneyball.” Arccos’s founders aim for it to provide the next frontier in data gathering for everyday golfers.

“It’s like Moneyball for golf,” Faisal said. “It’s the perfect sport -- it’s all numbers. This can take it to the next level.”

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