That is certainly still the case for Pádraig Harrington and many others but for an increasing number of today’s PGA Tour elite, the ‘Moneyball’ strategy that transformed baseball from a simple contest between bat and ball into a behind the scenes battle of statistical forward planning, is becoming increasingly important.
Michael Lewis’s bestselling 2004 book ‘Moneyball’ and the subsequent movie told the story of how Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane transformed his club from perennial losers into the 2002 American League West pennant winners.
Broadly speaking and for non-baseball geeks, Beane threw out the orthodox approach to scouting players and instead adopted a statistics-based method.
Some golfers, such as current FedEx Cup standings leader and Farmers Insurance Open champion Brandt Snedeker are taking the same attitude to the golf courses they play, seeking advice from an English consultant called Mark Horton to assess the best areas to aim for on a golf course based on statistical analysis.
While it seems to be working for Snedeker, a sceptical Harrington is not convinced it is a strategy to succeed on the most hallowed course of them all, Augusta National.
Asked about the in-form Snedeker’s chances in next month’s Masters, the opening major of the year, Harrington said of the 35-year-old world number 16: “He putts great at times and you know what, he’s proved he can win - win, win, win. He’s the ultimate in a good putter who gets real streaky, so he’s good all the time but he can get really, really streaky. Yes he has had the odd bad time but again as professionals we should never focus on our bad weeks because they don’t matter.
“The really good weeks is what matters and he is capable of having a very good week. Would you throw him out at the Masters as the one (to beat)?
“He’s got a guy who does his strategy for him... tells him where to hit, he’ll go, ‘this hole last year played over par, so you should always play to the middle of the green here and you’ll be gaining on the field. If you hit it left of this pin, that’s where all the birdies are made - anyone right of this pin bogeys.......
“So he has a strategy on every hole going out there. It will be interesting to see how that works at Augusta.”
Three-time major winner Harrington agreed it was very close to baseball’s Moneyball approach but added it was not the way he wanted to play.
“It is totally stats based. Completely. (Snedeker) and Billy Horschel I think, they have the same guy, he’s out on Tour, and essentially he tells them, ‘This is where you hit it, this is how the hole plays, this is a birdie hole and the winner plays these holes (under par), this is where he gets birdies...’.
“I believe Moneyball when it comes to baseball. But when it comes to my own sport, I’m a bit more intuitive and I wonder is Augusta more intuitive than that.
“There’s a lot of times you’ve just got stand up and hit the shot, as in there isn’t somewhere to hit it 20 feet right of the hole because 20 feet right of the hole will come off the green, you have to hit it to inside 15 feet or you’re in trouble.
“We’re all interested in this guy and what he does. Personally I don’t feel like I can play golf that way. But for (Snedeker) it certainly works and he likes it.”
Harrington, currently ranked 130th in the world, still has work to do to qualify for this year’s Masters and after a few days at home in Dublin following a tie for 43rd in his Honda Classic title defence the 44-year-old will be in San Antonio, Texas, this week at the Valspar Championship, seeking the victory that will punch his ticket to Augusta National.
“I’ve putted better this year, which is leading to better scores. I’ve played better, hit the ball better, especially off the tee, you know, not anywhere near as erratic – dependable off the tee, which is nice. But I still get ahead of myself in terms of expectations.
“I will say, every time I go out, and it’s Sundays I haven’t been playing well this year, I think I’m going to win. Really, I’m going out there and I might be six shots back and I’m thinking ‘I’ve got to shoot 64’. I’ve huge high expectations and just putting myself under too much pressure. Yeah, pressure would be the word, putting myself under too much stress to perform and then going out there and getting disappointed.”
The reality, though, is somewhat different, as Harrington realised following a consultation with long-time sports psychologist Bob Rotella following a closing 71 at the Honda Classic.
“I was telling him, I got on the plane and as I was drifting off I went through my round and I’d played nowhere near as bad as I’d felt on the golf course. That’s a terrible place to be. That’s a bad sign, when you’re out on the golf course and thinking ‘God, I’m not playing well, I’m not hitting it well’ and when I look back on it that wasn’t true at all. I’d given myself the perception of it and created that but I’d actually played much better than I thought.
“I was obviously just too hard on myself.”