When Luke Donald was set to replace former Ryder Cup European captain Henrik Stenson last August, one of the first calls he made was to Edoardo Molinari.
Molinari, a former U.S. Amateur champion, three-time DP World Tour winner and Ryder Cup team member himself, had already begun to analyze his stats as vice-captain, and Donald immediately asked him to continue in that role.
“He’s very smart, very excited,” the captain explained at last week’s event. “He also understands from a player’s perspective, having played in the Ryder Cup himself, the pressure and everything that comes with it. And he knows numbers can make a difference.
After Europe’s victory over the United States on 16½–11½, Molinari was called the team’s “secret weapon” due to his behind-the-scenes preparations.
In these questions and answers, he talks about his work, analyzing the numbers and satisfaction with the implementation of these plans.
As a player, you always tracked every shot in competition and built your own golf analytics company while continuing your career. Tell me about this path and why you are so invested in it.
I started recording my own statistics in 2003, when I was still studying engineering in college in Italy. I was never the most talented golfer, but I felt it helped me a lot in improving my game. Over the years, I developed more and more sophisticated KPIs for my own game, and finally, in late 2019, several players asked me if I could help them analyze their games as well. At first I thought it was just a hobby, but it became so popular that I had to hire a few people to help me and now it is a proper business.
Just as some professional golfers’ careers ranged from crafting persimmon head wood to 460cc titanium drivers, you have moved beyond an era where statistics were considered a novelty for their tangible importance today. What changes have you seen in the way the industry understands and uses these metrics?
Nowadays, more and more players and their teams use various types of analytics to help them improve and achieve better results. Honestly, I’ve always felt that stats are a must because it’s almost impossible to have a clear picture of your game for a long time if you don’t track them properly. Even if you look [only] you’re missing a lot of detail in the ShotLink numbers.
I assume that when Luke appointed you as vice-captain, you understood your role as someone who mattered on the staff. What was the first research you started doing back then?
The first thing I did was create a system for rating and comparing players on the PGA Tour and DPWT. This was always going to be the basis of what I needed for Luke and the European Ryder Cup team, as I want to make sure we have the best 12 players on the team. Being able to select six players was great, but we also wanted to make sure we selected the six players who were best suited to win the Ryder Cup.
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When it comes to selecting captains, how integral was the idea of identifying players who fit the course? What about looking for players whose games meshed statistically with other players in one of the two partner formats?
When it came to captain picks, we had to take many different factors into account. Players whose games were better suited to Marco Simone, players who best suited others who were already on the team (especially in the fours), players who were at their best in the weeks before the Ryder Cup and finally players we had in mind that he could perform at his best under the enormous pressure of the Ryder Cup environment. When we considered all options, we still had problems with strong players in the back four, so we had to bring in some players better suited to this format.
Europe started by winning all four matches in the first session of the quads. What is the preferred pairing strategy in this format? Similar players together? Opposites? Or maybe it goes deeper?
On the analytics side, we had a simulation system where we could run all possible pairs of all players (132 possible different pairs if we include all possible even/odd combinations), make them play against Marco Simone thousands of times, and look at the predicted average score and volatility for each combination. This was very detailed as it took into account the strengths and weaknesses of each player at every distance, from tee shots to short putting.
However, it wasn’t just based on statistics, as we also looked at players’ personalities, individual preferences of players they would like to play with and players they would not like to play with, and finally which balls they played with. There were a few fours that we would have loved to use but couldn’t because the players were playing with balls that were too different from each other and weren’t comfortable switching.
At the end. The hardest part was getting the pairs right in the fours and it took a lot of time, but I think we did a decent job considering we won the fours 7-1. Fourball pairs are much easier because you have a lot more flexibility and how one player plays doesn’t really affect the other player’s play.
How has analytics impacted your course setup? Were there any particular shots where you believed that the Europeans had an advantage over the Americans? And if so, how did you use this knowledge?
Since May 2022, we have been observing the statistics of both European players and US players, especially those players who have certainly played for both teams and played the most matches. It became quite clear that the American players were better at 150 yards, while the Europeans were better at 175 yards. We had almost no advantage in accuracy off the tee, but for the first time in history we were slightly longer.
Without going into too much detail, we set up the course to hide the areas where our players were weaker than the US players and made sure that the most golf was played in the areas where we were better. Rory said it best a few weeks earlier when he said, “If Marco Simone shoots the tee, plays the long iron and puts, we have a good chance of winning.” The idea is to increase your chances, but players still need to act.
Can you give an example of a course setting tactic – moving the tee back or forward, maybe squeezing the fairways at certain points – that was pulled from your statistical database and proved effective during the week?
The game was rough but playable (not like Paris). We built a new tee on the 18th hole to make it easily accessible and forced players to use it rather than set up for wedge distance and many other little things. Data from three years of Italian Open competitions has certainly helped prepare the field for a specific type of player.
Justin Rose said something on Sunday night that really stuck with me: “Having a good duo on a European team doesn’t mean playing with your best friend.” Was there a delicate balance between identifying players who wanted to compete with each other and those who made the most sense analytically?
As I said, it’s a balance of many factors. Our players are so close together that almost everyone was happy to play with anyone else – and more importantly, everyone understood and believed in their role on the team, whether that meant playing five games or just three. Justin was a prime example of this, putting his ego aside for the good of the team and doing everything he could to score some points for our team. He set an example of a true leader.
The entire team seemed to buy into the idea that analytics would best position them for success, which in turn boosted confidence, which in turn created momentum. Was it difficult to convince the best players in the world to support these ideas?
It’s amazing how well all of these ideas were received by our players. I think when it comes from another player they buy it more than usual. Luke was a great communicator and subtly introduced many of these ideas to the players. There was great clarity, motivation and confidence among all players and caddies at the start of the week.
They enjoyed it so much that they all knew exactly what to do on the golf course, and Luke never had to interfere while they were playing because everyone was clear on what to do in each situation. I think the last thing you want to do is tell a player what he should or shouldn’t do in a pressure situation. Just let them play and make sure everyone is well prepared before leaving.
What would your response be to someone who watched the Ryder Cup and said, “Analysis doesn’t matter, one team just beat the other.”
I completely agree that analytics are only a small part of the Ryder Cup. The captain and players have always been and will be the main players, but good analysis can sometimes give a team an edge that can go a long way towards winning the Ryder Cup. All modern players are very equal and if you can shift the odds a little more in your favor, you would be crazy not to do so. Again, analytics is just one of many different things that Luke has done. He was a great captain because he was able to use many different factors to build the best team possible and motivate his players to play great golf.
I wouldn’t expect you to cite any examples, but have you seen any instances where the US team started to lose ground and abandoned some of their analytical strategies?
There were some strange decisions, but it’s hard to comment on something I can only see from the outside. Some picks and some pairs of fours really surprised me, but again I don’t know the full reasoning behind them so I prefer not to comment. All I can say is that it is very difficult to get everything right and even a small mistake in preparation or planning can cause big problems.
Final question: After all the hours and all the energy you have put into helping this team succeed, how satisfying does it feel to have accomplished all of this?
Of course, I was very proud of how the week turned out. What gave me the greatest satisfaction, apart from the result, were the kind words that Luke and most of our players said about me, either directly to me or in the media. I spent a lot of time on this and it’s very rewarding to listen to them and understand that I played a small part in helping them regain the Ryder Cup.
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