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Golf star Francesco Molinari: Why I use big data

Brian Sozzi

Using big data to help improve one’s odds of winning isn’t just a task for wealthy quant traders on Wall Street looking to score epic profits. Big data analysis continues to find its way into the sports arena, and among the elite players out on the golf course.

“I am an analytical player,” Turin, Italy-born PGA Tour star Francesco Molinari told Yahoo Finance in an interview. Molinari isn’t here simply analyzing yardage to pin data via a range finder (illegal on tour) or an Apple Watch (can’t use those either). No, he is carefully scrutinizing his own performance data — everything from putting stats to ShotLink data.

So far, Molinari, 37, has been nicely rewarded for channeling his inner quant.

Molinari — currently No. 24 in the world golf rankings — has had a remarkable showing on tour the last few years. Known for consistency, he has made five straight FedEx Cups and won the 2018 Open Championship, his first major championship win. Molinari led the 2019 Masters with seven holes to go before Tiger Woods chased him down on the back nine.

All in, Molinari has won six times on the European Tour and three times on the PGA Tour. He has hauled in more than $15 million in winnings during a pro career that started back in 2004.

Not too shabby.

Yahoo Finance spoke with Molinari — who is teeing it up alongside fellow PGA Tour stars Tiger Woods at this week’s Genesis Invitational on the famed Riviera Country Club — about his 2020 game plan on and off the golf course.

Major championship winner Francesco Molinari gets ready to tee off. Molinari tells Yahoo Finance he is big on using data to help improve his chances of winning.

Brian Sozzi: What areas of your game are you working on right now?

Francesco Molinari: It’s an ever-evolving process. Little tweaks here and there. Obviously the off-season is a great time to make some bigger changes compared to the regular season. I think my ball-striking wasn’t as good the last few months so I would like to get that back into top shape. But then also, looking at the stats during the winter we were lucky on the tour we get all the ShotLink data. So I do a bit of research on that and use some numbers to see where we need to improve and do better.

Sozzi: How hard is it to top a year like the one you had in 2019?

Molinari: There is always the pursuit of always trying to get back to perfection. I am an analytical player, so I look at numbers at the end of the season and every year it varies. But there are always chances to get better and improve. Obviously that is my focus this year and hopefully the results reflect the improvement.

Sozzi: You mentioned you are an analytical player. What type of data do you study?

Molinari: Shots gained is always one area of the game. My caddie and I look a lot strategically at the courses we are going to play. When we do the schedule for the year, we start looking at different courses and looking at the historical data for every course. Some courses it might pay off to be more aggressive whereas others you want to be more conservative.

Data is a huge part of our sport just like it is in every modern sport.

Sozzi: Do you think you have too much data at your disposal and it may be better to go on feel?

Molinari: It needs to be a combination of the two. You don’t want to completely forget your instinct and your feel. At the same time, data is a great tool that we have to see historically what has been working on certain courses. This week we are at Riviera. The 10th hole is a great example of one of the best three or four holes we play each year. I think your instinct would suggest to go more conservative, but looking at the numbers historically going for the green statistically is a half a shot better in terms of scoring.

Sometimes your instinct might fool you.

Sozzi: It’s time again for the Masters. What does your prep look like?

Molinari: It’s always in the back of your mind. It’s kind of dangerous if you start too early to prepare for it. There are lots of tournaments every week on tour. My approach has always been more to focus week to week. Of course having a general plan on how I want to get to Augusta and other majors is important.

Sozzi: What did you learn from the Masters last year where you led with just a few holes to go?

Molinari: I have learned from the whole week. The way I played the course was probably the right way for me. I tried to play to my strengths in a way. I think of myself as a strategic player. There are some younger boys out here on tour now that can hit it longer than me. So it would be nonsense to try to keep up with them. I need to play to my strengths and do that as well as I can.

Last year Augusta showed me that if I do that I am going to give myself chances to win tournaments. I will try to do that again this year.

Sozzi: You seem to be a cerebral player whereas others are more vocal on the course.

Molinari: I always told myself I don’t want to be someone I am not off the tour. That’s how I am in everyday life. I just try to keep being myself and true to myself. Like I said, it goes back to being a strategic player and playing to my own strengths. I serve as an ambassador for Aon and what they do with the risk/reward challenge is a great opportunity for me to show you don’t have to always hit the ball longer than other people to outscore them.

Sozzi: It’s early in the season, but any thoughts on the 2020 Ryder Cup? It’s a format you know very well having competed in the past.

Molinari: Just like the Masters, it’s a long way away. It is in the back of our minds and we all want to make the team and go play well for our team. I think the best way to get there is to focus on the week to week and getting a little better each day. I have been lucky in the past to be involved in some great Ryder Cups and some incredible moments like Medina and Ian Poulter having that great run and giving us momentum for the rest of the week. It’s very special for me.

Sozzi: Any extra motivation among players on the European Tour right now for the Ryder Cup given the loss to the U.S. in the President’s Cup?

Molinari: We have a lot of respect for the American team. They have got a young generation of really talented and successful players. But at the same time, if we play to our strength we will give them a good run. That’s all we can focus on. We definitely want to go there and do well.

Brian Sozzi is an editor-at-large and co-anchor of The First Trade at Yahoo Finance. Watch The First Trade each day here at 9:00 a.m. ET or on Verizon FIOS channel 604. Follow Sozzi on Twitter @BrianSozzi and on LinkedIn.

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