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How Math and Lasers Can Make You a Better Golfer

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A few years ago, number crunchers and stat geeks infiltrated the MLB front offices and changed the way America’s pastime is played. Now they’re doing it to Scotland’s.

In 1999, the PGA launched the stat-gathering, laser-wielding ShotLink system. Now volunteers strategically surround each hole at each tournament, surveying the landscape with camera-like lasers. Those lasers track and measure every shot with insane accuracy—the margin of error is just a few centimeters.

They’ve sparked golf’s own “Moneyball” era. New information is flooding the scene, and TV broadcasters don’t have to fill airtime with stuffy stories about their grandchildren as they wait for measurements anymore. Cameramen don’t have to guess where the best spots to film are. And number junkies don’t have to settle for the same stale stats that have been staples of the game for decades—they can cook up new ones.

Nearly 600 of them, actually.

The flurry of information is changing how the pros play. Players can track every nuance of their game with unseen specificity: If Tiger wants to know how he does in bunkers 30 feet from the hole, there’s a stat for that. If Lefty wants to evaluate his approach shots, there’s a stat for that.

Players can pinpoint problems in their game like never before, giving them a better idea of what to practice—and what kind of shots to avoid. A player who once had a fuzzy idea of what caused his putting woes can finally say, “Ah! Those 16 footers going downhill are to blame.” And then he can attack the problem.

No wonder number crunchers are becoming as common as caddies. Duffers like Luke Donald and Stuart Appleby are becoming vocal data junkies, and by hiring a few number nerds, they’re increasing their chances of earning more dough.

Here’s how. Two professors at Penn found that players were more likely to miss a birdie putt than a putt for par—even if the distance was the same. Why? Because of a phenomenon called “loss aversion.” People prefer avoiding losses to making gains, and golfers are no different. They're more hesitant when shooting for birdie—a habit that increases their chance of leaving a shot short. According to Sean Martin at Golf Week, “If a top-20 player in 2008 was able to overcome this bias, he could increase his earnings by more than $1 million.”

Although ShotLink has made players more aware of their mental roadblocks, the game hasn’t gotten easier. More golf course designers are using ShotLink data to make the pin harder to find. By studying shot patterns, designers can manipulate the tee box, mowing patterns, and hazards to give pros more gray hairs.

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What Tennis Shoes Looked Like in the Early 1900s
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Mental_floss co-founder Mangesh Hattikudur is at the US Open today. Between matches, he'll be serving up some tennis history and random knowledge.

Image credit: whatsalltheracquet.com

In the pre-Swoosh era, the best shoes for lawn tennis had giant treads and looked like they could be worn to church.

Follow ibmsports on Instagram for scenes from the U.S. Open.

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The Benefits of Grunting During Tennis
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Getty Images

Mental_floss co-founder Mangesh Hattikudur is at the US Open today. Between matches, he'll be serving up some tennis history and random knowledge.

Emitting a Monica Seles-style grunt as you wallop a ball across the court has more than a few benefits. Most people link the biggest advantage to breath control—kind of like yelling hi-ya when a karate expert chops a board in half. And in fact, studies have shown that you do get extra oomph from a short, sharp yell, helping you exert more focused energy than you would without it.

But there’s another advantage to letting out a belly groan with every shot: distraction!

For highly skilled tennis players, hearing how a ball comes off a racket is useful information in processing a quick response. A grunt obscures that information, and it isn’t just the world’s best who get affected. According to a 2012 study from the University of Hawaii and the University of British Columbia, players are significantly worse at anticipating the ball’s direction and speed when a hitter grunts. As The Conversation puts it, “if a shot is traveling at 50mph, the relatively small delay in response that grunting causes (about 30ms) would result in the ball traveling an extra two feet by the time the opponent responds.” That might not sound like a lot, but a little grunt could actually throw off your opponent’s footwork and help you eke out a win.


Follow ibmsports on Instagram for scenes from the U.S. Open.

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