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Mar. 14, 2022

Focusing on the details

The use of technology can no longer be overlooked—not even in the world of sports. Golf is a game of competing by score; players compete for the lowest number of strokes. For a tour pro, even the slightest difference can be lifechanging.

Golfers constantly train their bodies and refine their techniques, aiming to hole out in as few shots as possible. But data analysis and the application of insights gained from that analysis offer additional factors that can help improve performance. In recent years, sophisticated measurement devices have made it possible to obtain a detailed numerical score for the quality of a player's drive, rather than simply using score statistics. The calculated data varies widely, starting with the general speed for a club swing. Other data points that can be captured include: the direction of the head before and after impact with the ball; ball speed; spin; trajectory height; and the width of curves to the left or right. Portable ballistic measurement devices are somewhat expensive at several million yen per unit. However, they have become indispensable items for players on the PGA Tour in which the top professionals compete.

Hideki Matsuyama is one player who uses such a device when training. He sets it at his feet and practices his swing repeatedly. He glances at the numbers on the screen as he makes detailed adjustments to the movements of his body and club.

Matsuyama says that, of all the indicators displayed on the monitor, his first priority—before a match, for example—is to check his swing speed. “I make a habit of checking it to see how I'm doing today,” he said. For any athlete, one’s condition changes from one day to the next. Matsuyama gets up more than three and a half hours before teeing off. He meets with his personal trainer and then does a vigorous warmup before he enters the course. Even if you don't break that routine, “your body's sharpness and swing speed will vary,” he said. This is why the work of “spotting gaps” is so important.

“In the morning, your body is stiff, so your drive will lack speed. Even in the afternoon, a difference in temperature can also prevent you from getting the right speed. Ball travel distance also varies between summer and winter. Even in the same competition, there’s a difference between the first day and the last day, between when you're fighting win the championship and when the result will not be affected,” he said. Those fluctuations in the distance of each drive can be devastating for a golfer. This is especially true for top professionals.

When Matsuyama swings his driver, he needs to reach at least 52 m/s. “If I don't get to 52 m/s, it’s really bad—I know I'm going to have to fix it.” His drive speed reached 54 m/s in the ZOZO Championship that he won last October, for example. “In the Masters, it was a little bit faster.” One’s inner emotional state can also affect the movements of the body.

When confronting the data, Matsuyama still holds strongly to the belief that “it is very important to know how much to trust the numbers.” Objective data is effective for providing universality. But when it comes to hitting the ball, only humans can do that. They are made of flesh and blood and change from one day to the next. “If you just keep chasing data, you tend to forget your own feelings and what you were trying to do.” Swing data is a tool for lowering the score. But if one allows oneself to get carried away by the data, it becomes counterproductive. Only when golfers give meaning to those numbers can the data lead to improvements in the quality of their play.

It is the combination of athletes’ extraordinary sensibilities with innovative data strategies that enables them to advance. Last year, Matsuyama began a concerted effort to improve his swing. He narrowed the gap between the ideal movement that he had in his mind and the numbers shown by the measurement devices. That process of comparing and adjusting was one factor that led Matsuyuma to his Green Jacket win.

One year on from Matsuyama’s triumph, the 2022 Masters will be the first time that a Japanese player will compete for a consecutive win. Only three players—Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo, and Tiger Woods—have succeeded in achieving back-to-back wins before. Even now, preparing to face the majors as a champion, Matsuyama carries on practicing his swing relentlessly. Using technology and a dialogue with his inner self, he spends his days pursuing the best. He will continue striving right up until the moment when he stands on the tee at Augusta again.