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The shape of better golf - Australian Golf Digest The shape of better golf - Australian Golf Digest

Data’s boring. The results are not. 

Shot data remains so new, it seems players, coaches and media observers aren’t at all clear on what it does and whom it serves. Shot data serves no one at all if that data is inaccurate, of course, but an inability to interpret shot data renders it equally useless.

Through the years, golfers have continually sought technological advantages via equipment, physical conditioning and mental preparation. Shot data is the next weapon top players are attempting to deploy on their own behalf. In the golf context, players initiate the great majority of student/teacher interactions, but even the best players are often blind to their own areas of weakness. In this way, shot data is a tool that may serve PGA teaching professionals most of all.

I serve as chief executive of Circles, a shot-data platform now being deployed by top swing and performance coaches around the world. One coach in this stable of feted instructors, Richard Woodhouse – director of instruction at KDV Sport Golf Academy in Queensland, and the 2020 PGA of Australia Coach of the Year – illustrates the sanguine effects of shot data better than I can.

“The reality is, every player has his or her own subjective standard about what part of their game is good or bad,” Woodhouse says. “The premise of stroke data is to bridge the gap between the player’s subjective feedback and the reality of their objective outcome data. I’ve got a player who plays off scratch, but he putts like a 5-handicapper. He believes that if he makes 30 percent of his five to 10-foot putts, that’s pretty good. That’s what he tells me.

“Well, the Circles data shows us both that a scratch player should be making 46.67 percent of his five to 10-footers. As said player is an aspiring professional, using our Pro-Ready benchmark, we know he should aim to make 55.30 percent of those putts, as tour pros do. That’s hard to argue with. That calibre of data changes the way a player feels about his game. It changes how a player interacts with me. It changes his or her practice habits and priorities. Expectation management is critical in order for any player to remain motivated towards their goals. That’s what Circles is about: creating the right expectations – expectations that suit a player’s actual goals.”

Shot data isn’t for everyone. But if you’re a golfer who plays off 15 or lower and wants to optimise performance, or if you’re a teaching professional with golfers that fit this description? Shot data (preferably shot data from Circles!) is a tool no player or coach can afford not to deploy. The verbiage in that previous sentence was not chosen idly: the digital nature of shot data, if deployed smartly, will also revolutionise the ways players think about their games and teaching professionals do their jobs.

To build on Woodhouse’s point above, players are notoriously poor interpreters of their own performance. And yet, in order to foster meaningful improvement, any coach needs to understand a player’s performance level on the course. How have coaches traditionally gathered that insight? By listening to golfers discuss their on-course performance. Or, by accompanying that player during a competitive or teaching round – something that requires a four-hour time commitment, over and over, with no guarantee that said teaching rounds truly mimic competitive conditions and pressures.

What’s more, nearly all player/coach interaction is player-driven, i.e. the player requests a fix in a specific area. This is the reality, alas, a highly unfortunate and inefficient one. It’s like me going to the dentist and telling him, “Pull this tooth”, without any sort of X-ray data.

Like a dentist, the PGA professional is an expert. What information does the coach need to do their job well? Think of shot data as the X-ray. A player’s interaction with the Circles platform is like running the X-ray machine before coming in for the lesson.

Circles’ online platform (drawmorecircles.com) provides players and their coaches with a deeper, more contextualised understanding of golf performance, without relying on a player’s opinion of his or her game. Released for broad use this spring, Circles’ powerful and proprietary artificial intelligence, or “machine learning”, identifies the details that matter about a player’s scoring performance. It delivers the first assessment – to the player and coach – after just five rounds of data have
been logged.

The more rounds players log with Circles, the more data-driven insights the platform provides. This ever-more specific presentation and interpretation of this data is what sets Circles apart from other platforms. As such, Circles engenders more efficient, targeted practice sessions, more constructive coaching interactions and better, more lasting performance results.

Circles is not some data factory. It was created by PGA professionals, like myself – like my colleagues Richard Woodhouse [bottom] and Guy Wilson, director of instruction at the New Zealand-based Institute of Golf (and Lydia Ko’s original swing coach) – working with some extraordinarily savvy data scientists.
As such, the data our platform produces informs and guides how players and coaches think about someone’s game and how they work to improve it.

What does that mean? It means Circles-generated shot data helps players and coaches understand what the player wishes to achieve: level and timeframe. It also identifies the information and insights players and coaches will need to bridge any performance gap between where the player is starting from and what they’re aiming for. As any teaching professional understands, this alignment of expectations on the improvement roadmap is perhaps the hardest thing to achieve and maintain in a teacher/student relationship.

In this respect, coaches, especially those in charge of university or national teams, may appreciate Circles most of all. Because forging that relationship with 10 to 20 players at once is nearly impossible – unless the Circles platform is delivering actionable data to the coach after every round played/logged.

Because that’s exactly what the platform does. Each time a player logs a round, a process that takes five to seven minutes, the Circles platform sends the coach an e-mail with updated reports that track the player’s strokes gained and score-to-par trends. Improvement opportunities and recommended training activities are similarly updated and shared after every fifth round is logged. These automated reports allow a single coach to quickly track, understand and build upon individual development plans belonging to multiple players, even if they are
oceans apart.

“Circles has enabled me to move effectively into an online business,” explains Noah Sachs, a US-based golf performance coach and another Circles devotee. “Plain and simple, it allows me to work more remotely with more students. I don’t have to text them or get on Zoom and ask the how they’re playing. I get an e-mail after every round. I can see how that player is doing over a five-round period – in all scoring and performance categories that matter most to that specific player. Or a 10-round period, or a six-month period. And I can do with any number of players, at once, completely remotely.

“As a practical tool, Circles gives players and coaches unbiased, clearly presented, actionable information about where the player is, and where player and coach should consider prioritising their time.”

In short, Circles enables more progress in less time. It enables coaches to spend more time on the lesson tee instead of writing reports and rummaging through stats. The ramifications, when it comes to revenue-generation, are pretty obvious.

Circles was devised to serve elite players and their coaches. That remains the core of our user profile. In fact, we just released our Pro-Ready benchmark, which allows aspiring tour players, men and women, to see exactly where they stand prior to turning professional. (Simple tour averages often don’t take into consideration the average 3.1 strokes-gained difference between the courses these aspiring professionals are playing compared with PGA tour venues. With that brand of specific performance data in hand, a player’s coaches can tailor training and practice to address specific deficiencies.)

However, we’ve learned that shot data is just as useful to the majority of amateur players. After all, what does an 18 handicap mean, other than how a 90-shooting player compares to a scratch player? Just set the Circles benchmark to scratch, and any 18-handicapper can see exactly where his or her performance issues lie – after only five rounds logged. What’s more, the information Circles gleans from those five rounds is what any coach needs to start building truly lasting, productive relationships. More so than having another potential student show up in your office and explain, “I want to fix my slice”. 

Craig Dixon is the chief executive of Circles, the firm behind the golf data and performance platform, DrawMoreCircles.com. A certified PGA professional since 2001, Dixon travels the world providing golf-performance and data-consulting services to coaches, players and parents. His specialty is helping clients understand their data and turning these insights into meaningful performance targets, so as to elicit top performance from dedicated athletes. Dixon’s clients have included China’s Olympic Golf team, dozens of individual players on the PGA, Korn Ferry, European and Challenge tours, dozens more AJGA champions and university scholarship recipients, plus the world’s youngest-ever world No.1, fellow Kiwi Lydia Ko.