#TGW: Golf by Numbers

Feb. 25, 2016

By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word

– We have here a good moment to dive deep on Jeff Pierce, Georgia Tech’s newish assistant golf coach and changer of methods. This is about a not-so-old hand meshing with the new kids on the block with the goal of getting better.

Some of his work began to bear fruit last weekend at the Puerto Rico Classic, where the Yellow Jackets young and inexperienced unit tied for sixth place and put together their best 54-hole score of the year. Looking at the tournament leaderboard page, you’ll see an “Analytics” category.

That’s not typical to college scoreboards, at least not yet. Not all players and coaches are fancying digits beyond yardages, clubs and scores in Rio Grande, P.R.

Analytics, though, are the essence of Pierce and the Jackets are boarding his golf-by-numbers train. They’re catching the wave that’s been crashing over many sports. With the study of each swing and shot, golf is finding big data.

“The players have embraced it with no hurdles,” said Pierce, who joined the Jackets late in the fall. “If they give me all their data . . . it’s addictive; you see improvement over time. It’s like `Money Ball;’ you can’t run from improvement.”

When Bruce Heppler hired Pierce, Tech’s head coach went somewhat against his own grain. He has long has been — and still is — a coach-by-feel man.

Heppler has helmed 11 ACC Championship teams, including eight in the last 10 years, chiefly by recruiting quite talented players and then massaging their psyches to where they get the most of themselves on the links and in school.

He’s not about tweaking swings nor recommending equipment changes, but the boss is open minded.

When former assistant Brandon Webb last August became the head coach at Middle Tennessee State, Heppler looked far and wide for help.

He’d met Pierce, previously a senior instructor at Butch Harmon’s Floridian in Palm City, Fla., and still summer director of instruction at the Elk River Golf Club in Banner Elk, N.C.

“He had known coach Webb, and when we went down to the Floridian to play in a tournament two years ago, Brandon introduced me, and he came out and watched us last year,” Heppler said. “He started working with [former Tech golfer] Anders [Albertson] a little.

“I got to know him a little bit and started thinking about what we needed and decided to run the opportunity past him in the fall.”

With the least experienced squad of Heppler’s tenure at Tech, the Jackets needed an edgy adjustment to expedite maturation. It’s not that the coach didn’t believe in analytics, or the use of data to refine technique and equipment selection, but he long considered that lower on his list of program protocols.

Numbers have been available to the Jackets for a while, for each golfer to embrace or forsake at his leisure. Not any more. As Tech scuffled up and down in the autumn, Heppler last fall made it mandatory.

If they don’t get enough numbers in school, they get plenty now.

“Data is collected by the players during every round they play. Literally every shot is recorded and documented during qualifying, tournament play, and practice on the course, the same as my Tour players,” Pierce said.

“The sum of the data over time allows me to objectively look at how a player is performing, or how that player’s equipment is performing.”

Over time, if a player’s 5-iron numbers don’t fit between their 4 iron and 6 iron statistics, equipment is considered. Changes have been made thusly.

In the event a certain club keeps producing a fade or a draw beyond what was desired, perhaps a change needs to be made with regard to stance or grip.

The Jackets were inconsistent in the fall, which was somewhat but not entirely predictable. Pierce joining Heppler was no linear deal, either.

The new guy was entrenched in a professional coaching career and in short order, Pierce had created a healthy clientele working for Harmon at the Floridian Resort.

“I began with and continue to hold Brooks Koepka as my No. 1 priority,” he said. “We began work three years ago while he was playing Challenge Tour events, where he won three times in a year to be promoted to full European Tour status.

“His first European Tour win was the Turkish Airlines Open in the fall of 2014 after we spent a significant amount of time dissecting his statistics, his putting, and consequently his equipment.”

As Koepka rose, other golfers noticed and migrated toward Pierce.

“After his win in the fall of `14, followed by his 2015 Waste Management Open win on the PGA Tour in February, I began attracting the attention from a few other players,” Pierce said. “Since 2014, my client list has included Ricky Fowler, Brandt Snedeker, Dustin Johnson, Derek Fathauer, Jonas Blixt, and numerous web.com/developmental tour players.”

Late last summer, an opening cropped up for new clients.

“I had the intent to return in the fall and winter, and the [Floridian] club made a few changes, and basically my spot got eliminated, and I was a little bit on my own,” Pierce said. “The situation changed a little.”

Pierce changed his situation, keeping much of his clientele, not to mention his summer job in North Carolina. He added the Jackets as well, and maintains residences near his hometown of Glasgow, Ky., south Florida (near the Floridian) where many pro golfers live, North Carolina and now Atlanta.

This 28-year-old single man is all about golf at both the collegiate and professional levels. Pierce will be at every Major on the pro level, and most WGC events while also coaching pros in south Florida and even in their home towns.

“The beauty of the relationship with Tour players is that the time we spend most of the work on is the time that Tech is out of school and in dead periods,” Pierce said. “I’ve been able to create relationships with the PGA Tour players that don’t create an `emergency’ situation to pull me away from Atlanta unpredicted.

“My goal with world-class players is to give them enough of an understanding that I’m never required to be there to fix unexpected problems. We have yet to have a situation that has me torn between Tech and the Tour.”

Heppler saw this coming.

“In the short term, there is some travel. That’s kind of his family time,” Tech’s head coach said. “We’ll work around that. Just like sometimes I have to go home to be with my family, sometimes he has to go to his family.”

If all goes as envisioned, this will be less of a consideration soon.

The rehabilitation of Georgia Tech’s golf practice facility off of 14th Ave. is nearly complete. With input of former Jackets like Matt Kuchar and Stewart Cink, the valued tract figures to be partially useable by late spring, and entirely available soon thereafter. It will afford year-round options regardless of weather.

Pierce hopes to localize his practice, and base it across the street from his new Atlanta residence.

“The new practice facility in Midtown, influenced by multiple Tour players, will be my home for instruction of world-class players,” Pierce said. “A closing argument from coach Heppler was that he was going to provide me with a world-class facility to teach out of, and it is going to be exactly that.

“Last year, I actually consulted coach Heppler and coach Webb as they toured my facility at the Floridian to reconstruct the best practice facility possible for Georgia Tech. My deciding factor to coach at Tech was that I had every single variable accounted for to make sure I was teaching out of the best place in the world, and Georgia Tech is creating that.”

Heppler has been impressed with the way Pierce is relating to the Jackets.

“He didn’t come in like, `I know how to teach, and I’m going to change this and change that,’ ” the head coach said. “He sits down with guys and asks questions, and tries to find out what they’re trying to do . . . “This generation [of young people] is not known for communication; a lot of text messaging. I’m fascinated by his approach. Sometimes we have guys text each other while we’re in a van, or text while at dinner. I’ve been kind of fascinated by his information gathering . . . He’s not like, `I’m smarter than all of you.’ “

Pierce appears to be fitting, and he’s not exactly an ill fit. At age 28, he’s not far removed from playing days at Morehead State (Ky.), where he was an Academic All-American for three years, and led his team in scoring for two.

He’s working on the present, and Heppler’s thinking about that, too. Yet the future is coming. Perhaps Pierce can factor forward as nearly all Tech golf recruits look to futures that may include professional golf.

“I’ve got a very good visual of what the very best in the world do, and being able to bring that into Georgia Tech . . . how we practice, how we look at data, the way programs are built for professionals at the Tour level,” he said. “If I can bring that into seven or eight guys at Georgia Tech, they have a five-year jump [on careers].

Jacob Joiner, Vincent Whaley, James Clark, and Michael Hines and Chris Petefish still fall under Heppler, which is to say their brains still belong to the boss.

At least the coach has hard copy to reinforce his points.

“I’ve seen more enthusiasm since coach Pierce came, and . . . I think eventually we’ll see,” Heppler said. “When you work with young people and you have what coach Pierce has, when you do that you have instant credibility.”

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