Behind the Secret Stats App That’s Been Informing Euro Captain Darren Clarke

September 29, 2016

CHASKA, Minn. — The European team at Hazeltine National this week has six rookies, five assistant captains, a handful of motivational speakers, and, it would appear, an interior decorator.

It also has a pocket-sized secret weapon.

For the past 14 months, team captain Darren Clarke has been working with a data analytics company to assist him with key decisions. Through a custom app built specifically for him, Clarke has tracked his players’ strengths, weaknesses, whereabouts and much more. The information has been tabulating and updating in real time, right on Clarke’s phone. On Friday morning, the Europeans believe, the number crunching will begin to bear fruit.

The analytics company is called 15th Club, and its mission is simple.

“We’re focused on helping golfers win,” co-founder and CEO Blake Wooster said in an interview here Wednesday afternoon. “Everything we do is helping golfers gain a competitive edge.”

Wooster, 36, took a winding route to this Ryder Cup. He grew up in Wales, studied sports science in college and has been working in sports analytics for nearly two decades. His company is based in London’s tech-heavy Shoreditch neighborhood. Ten engineers and data analysts work in the office, while another eight staffers are scattered around the world.

The company is a spinoff of Wooster’s first venture, a soccer analytics outfit called 21st Club. (That name is a nod to 21st-century decision-making, and the fact that there are 20 soccer clubs in most European leagues.)

Business has been good. Wooster says 21st Club has several clients in the English Premier League, and a couple more in Major League Soccer in the U.S. How does a soccer analytics company branch into golf? It started with an unexpected phone call in April 2015 from an old soccer friend of Wooster’s.

“He said, ‘I know we haven’t seen each other in 10, 15 years, but I’ve been watching what you guys do in soccer and I think it’s got a great application in golf,” Wooster recalls. “I said, ‘Really?’ The transition from football to golf didn’t seem obvious to me.”

That friend, Duncan Carey, was the head golf professional at Astbury Golf Club, in Shropshire, England. The club’s ambassador just so happened to be Darren Clarke. Carey offered to set up a meeting with Clarke, who at that time was rumored to be the next European captain. Wooster showed the Irish golfer what his company had been doing for soccer teams.

“I’ve got to have this for the Ryder Cup,” Clarke said.

Suddenly, Wooster had a big assignment.

“I called my head of operations and said, ‘I’ve got some good news and some bad news: The good news is that I think we’ve just become the analytics partner for team Europe in the 2016 Ryder Cup. The bad news is that we’ve gotta have a product ready in the next two or three months,’ ” he says with a laugh.

Carey left Astbury to become the 15th Club’s head of golf. Wooster hired four software engineers to build the product. Two months later, Captain Clarke had a customized dashboard with everything from players’ hobbies and interests to performance data. It also included projections on who would qualify for his team, plus a calendar of players’ schedules, so Clarke could easily identify events at which he could maximize face time with Ryder Cup prospects.

The app also feeds Clarke valuable information about rookie performances in past Ryder Cups, a key metric for a European team that will send out six first-timers. It also serves up juicy data on the opposition, such as the order the U.S. typically sends out its players.

As Clarke added vice captains, each of them also received the app.

Clarke and 15th Club were in constant communication over the past year, as the captain came up with more questions for his data team to answer. Wooster says that at one point Clarke handed him a list of 25 questions, which included items such as, Is there a determent to benching a guy for two days and then playing him on Sunday? Do veterans play better than rookies? How do teams with a high number of rookies fare? The 15th Club mined the numbers for the answers.

Over the course of the year, the European players likely to qualify, or at least be considered, also received custom-built software to track their performance data. For 10 minutes or so after every round, Rory McIlroy, Lee Westwood and others would plug in club selection, yardages, putts and other assorted figures, which would then be fed to Captain Clarke and the 15th Club team for further analysis. Because the European tour does not offer Shot Link data like the PGA Tour, Wooster’s team essentially created their own version. They call it Waggle.

“We’re the only guys collecting strokes gained on the European tour,” Wooster says. “But it’s more than that — it’s what you do with it.

“If there are 15 parts of your game, and maybe we break it down and red-flag three of them, and maybe it’s something you address before you even know it’s a problem,” says Jake Nichols, 15th Club’s head of golf intelligence. [Ed. note: Nichols is also a contributor.] Wooster discovered Nichols from Nichols’ personal blog. Today the 27-year-old Tunkhannock, Pa., resident is one of 15th Club’s most reliable numbers guys.

In preparation for this week Nichols took at deep dive into how Hazeltine played in previous majors championships and applied that data to begin shaping recommendations for Clarke. He also accounted for the unique quirks in this week’s course setup.

“In 2009, driving distance and accuracy were a big thing here,” Nichols says, given the rough was so thick. “But this week, on a certain hole we might advise Darren that the only hazards are bunkers. A shot 10 feet wide may be fine now, and that could help him decide who should tee off on that hole.”

This week the 15th Club crew will be a permanent fixture inside the ropes and the European team room. They may not have the final say on Clarke’s strategy, but they do have input. “We’re another voice in the room,” Wooster says.

Clarke has put a lot of faith in his numbers guys, but they’ve earned it. He used their expertise while captaining the European team in January at the EurAsia Cup, a biennial, Ryder Cup-style team event between Europe and Asia. This year’s edition was staged in Kuala Lumpur, and the European side included five members of the current Ryder Cup team. In 2014, Europe and Asia tied in the debut event, so the two sides shared the Cup. Another close contest was expected. Clarke had no assistant captains with him in Malaysia, so he leaned heavily on 15th Club for both data and consulting.

The Europeans won 18 ½ to 5 ½.

“We smashed pre-tournament expectations,” Wooster says.

Because there are many vice captains and other interested stakeholders at this Ryder Cup, the 15th Club holds less sway than it typically would, but Wooster is fine with it. “It should be a combination of what the data says and what Darren and his captains want to do,” he says. “But we’re broadly aligned on most things. Rose and Stenson together, for example, play very well together. You’re not going to have too much to disagreement on that.”

The company’s business is growing. In addition to the Ryder Cup team, the company has added several players as clients. One early adopter signed on right after that EurAsia Cup: Danny Willett. You may remember him from a certain green jacket ceremony a few months later. To prep him for Augusta, 15th Club provided Willett with data on his own game and suggested how to play each hole to emphasize his strengths — i.e., what club to hit off the par-5 15th, as well as contingency plans if things go awry, such as where to lay up.

Rory McIlroy also began working with 15th Club shortly before his win at the Irish Open — “I called that win!” Nichols says now — while Lee Westwood and Matthew Fitzpatrick are also among the European pros now plugged in.

The momentum around data-driven analysis in golf is undeniable. In recent years, Columbia University business school professor Mark Broadie created the “strokes gained” metric that is now the defining stat for measuring a player’s putting performance against the field. Broadie, a GOLF contributor, also extended the stat to other areas of the game, including driving and approach shots. Earlier this month, U.S. captain Davis Love referenced his own new team of quantitative analysts, an outfit called Scouts Consulting Group, which assisted him with his captain’s picks.

Clarke has not mentioned the 15th Club publicly this week, but earlier this year he offered some thoughts on his new consultants.

“It’s way beyond what I started off with in the Ryder Cup in 1997 with Seve [Ballesteros],” Clarke said in a Golf Channel interview. “Seve just shouted at you, ‘You’re hitting it here! You’re doing this!’ It’s all changed a lot since then.”

For 15th Club, the future looks bright. In fact, they’re coming to America. “We’d love to start working with U.S. guys,” Wooster says. “We’re about to start working with a few American colleges that are starting to use Waggle.”

If things go well for Europe this week, 15th Club may soon have more new prospects than they could have ever imagined.