Opinion

“If we can measure it, why guess?” Q&A with tour coach Hugh Marr

Words by
Dan Davies
“If we can measure it, why guess?” Q&A with tour coach Hugh Marr

Hugh Marr is one of the most respected high performance coaches in golf. He has worked with Ryder Cup players, winners of PGA and European Tour events and national teams, and is the founder of the Coach Mastery programme, which is designed to “better golf worldwide through the development of expert coaches”.

In 2021, he joined a very exclusive club when he was given the title of PGA Master Coach. Hugh’s philosophy is built on “high-quality, objective feedback”, which, he maintains, is fundamental if you want to become a better player. “Without that feedback loop, the player is guessing," he says. "And if we can measure it, why guess?”

Within golf there seems to be widespread acceptance that there's a wealth of performance data but players and coaches are not getting the maximum benefit from it. Would you agree with that?

Hugh Marr: One hundred per cent. The data is available now but in terms of the interpretation of data, we are light years behind. Why? Because no one is asking questions. This industry is very trend-driven; people are after the next big thing, the next big secret. The same thing is happening from a data perspective. Driving it long and straight is now the panacea that everyone has to have if they want to be any good. Well, that's not true. It may be largely true for the vast percentage of players, but there are always going to be outliers. The interpretation of the data is way behind. For Clippd to win, what’s important is not providing the data but helping Clippd users to interpret the data effectively.

You talk about strength bias in your coaching philosophy. This is something that we are developing further at Clippd in the ‘What To Work On’ functionality, in which we will soon be able to rank areas of a player's game based on the importance of a skill to their scoring, how that area of their game is trending, and the opportunity to improve based on past performance. In other words, identifying relevant areas to improve and offering the clearest decision support.

Hugh Marr: You need to know your superpower. That's the spine, that's the core of your golf game. On top of that, you need to start building the areas for relevant improvement. Where do you get what I call the painless gains? Where do you get the biggest bang for the least buck? If you embrace that principle on day one of your career, you'll do alright because you'll always be able to find a painless gain somewhere.

Hugh Marr with Andrew ‘Beef’ Johnston

You argue that knowing who you are and what you have is the way to improve. What we're doing with Clippd is showing you your DNA as a golfer, arming you with the understanding of what good golf looks like for you. Do you subscribe to the fact that there are outer limits with every golfer?

Hugh Marr: Yeah, of course. Everyone’s got a talent ceiling. But ultimately, this is where good use of data wins out. If you're looking for painless gains and you're looking for those tiny, relevant wins that will get ever smaller, the exponential shrinkage will happen over time. That gives you the best chance of finding that ceiling and ultimately, in a lot of instances, it would help you to break through that ceiling. The argument I use all the time is if you give the top 100 players in the world the perfect training programme for each of them, how would we be able to rate the top 100? In the end it comes down to talent. It can't be anything else.

“We all have this passion for growing and bettering a game that we love. How do we do that? We make people better.”

You have also said that golf is at risk of becoming too data-centric.

Hugh Marr: What we're trying to do is grow and better the game of golf. We all have this passion for growing and bettering a game that we love. How do we do that? We make people better. There are, of course, other elements involved in that – the community element, the fun element, the challenge element. But ultimately, if we make every single player better, the game will grow.

Golf is nothing if not a conversation with oneself. But Clippd can change the conversation through what it reveals in the data, which in turn can provide positive affirmation about parts of your game that you might have previously thought are weaker than they actually are.

Hugh Marr and Paul Casey

Hugh Marr: Clippd objectifies something that has spent 400 years being ludicrously subjective. What it does is it tells you where a player needs to get better or where a player needs to improve to hit it fewer times. In other words, growing and bettering the game. Basically, we're starting to explore my cultural values here. We use data and we therefore know that if we get you better from five feet on left to right putts, you're going to probably be a stroke a round better. And then six months down the line, when your stroke averages go from 74 to 73 and you're better at those putts, we can use the data to highlight the game. It doesn't tell you how to do it. It doesn't give you any sense of the process required. The data isn't the gold here, it's knowing what to do with the data. Knowing what to do is varying shades of subjective whereas the pre-analysis and the post-analysis needs to be objective.

Clippd is designed to surface truths about your game, and within those truths are opportunities for you to explore the outer limits of your talent or to see where those outer limits are and to move towards them.

Hugh Marr: Remember, the objectivising of the game creates two really significant challenges for both players and coaches: it requires players to face up to the truth and it requires coaches to face up to the truth. Humans aren't good at that.

You have said that you reckon there are maybe 10 people in golf who are really dialled in to data in a way that that can unlock its potential or has the potential to unlock its potential. Who are they?

Hugh Marr: I don't think they are necessarily coaches. Graeme Leslie [Golf Data Lab] is asking questions. [Mark] Broadie is exceptional at working through his belief mechanism and let's face it, that started the conversation. Sean Foley is a very intelligent man, particularly his ability to look at something and ask questions. Kevin Kirk is the same. Graham Walker does an exceptional job of that, as do Liam James, Mike Walker and Phil Kenyon. It's down to their ability to view the same landscape as everyone else but ask fundamentally different questions about it.

Do you think there's a reluctance among golf coaches to listen to coaches from other sports who are successfully using data to drive performance?

Hugh Marr: Absolutely. But I'm not sure that's unique to golf. I think if I were to be given a role as a performance director for Surrey County Cricket, I'd get exactly the same resistance. Ultimately, you've got experts, people that want to learn from experts, and people that want to shoot experts down. That triumvirate exists in every industry. It also creates a commercial opportunity for experts. Ultimately, what’s the real gold in being a coach? It’s your critical thinking and ability to ask the question that no one else is asking, the ability to look at the same landscape and see something fundamentally different – that's what separates the good from the great.