Consistency: Shot Selection and Other Mistakes We Make

Sometimes our only choice is a risky one.

People ask me who’s better, Tiger or Jack. It’s close, but if they played one 18-hole round, both men in their primes, I’d have to take Jack. He was longer than Tiger, a better putter, and he’d game-plan Tiger to death. Nicklaus at his best always found a way to win.

— Lee Trevino

About this site: Golf As God Gave It To Us

Some of that “new math”:

One triple bogey = three birdies.

Mistakes and Misses

When I was a young man, each mistake was a drama.  Then I learned this from a friend and grew up a bit:

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happen to us all.

Ecclesiastes 9:11 (King James Version).  

Throwing clubs and getting mad at myself seemed to have less meaning.  It also occurred to me  that getting upset about a shot I’d already hit didn’t change my score a bit.   Oh, sure, anger is often motivation to do better the next time.  Save it for after the round.  The next shot is too important to let emotion affect your judgment.

Getting mad on the course is an element of shot selection.  As Trevino indicates, one of Nicklaus’ great strengths was his ability to work his way around a course without making many mistakes.  Of course, I can think of mistakes Nicklaus made.

Prince Phillip in uniform; Queen Elizabeth laughing at him. We all make mistakes; the question is how do we respond to them.

Does anyone remember that he 3-putted on the 12th hole at Augusta while going on to win in 1986?  Does anyone remember that he hit his drive, on the 72nd hole in the 1977 British Open against Tom Watson, right into the tall rough and almost out-of-bounds?

What is notable is that he hit his next shot to 40 feet, and, then, holed that putt for birdie.

He put it behind him.

He did the same at Augusta.

Tom Watson recently told the story about his first two years on tour.  He made this commitment to himself:  he said he’d never get worse than a double bogey.  He didn’t.  And he continued with his tour card.

A Game of Imperfect

What do these stories teach us?  Golf is a game of misses.  It’s often not how many great shots we hit – those are in fact rare – but how many bad shots we avoid.  In “mathematical” terms, it is called reducing variance or truncating the distribution.  In every day terms, it is called avoiding any real bad results.  In almost all endeavors, one can come back from a bad result; you get knocked down in boxing and you get back up; you have a bad year in investing; you come back with a better year than the prior year was bad.  You get knocked out, and it’s all over.  How

The commonality of all these situations is that it is not whether something bad happened, but what you do next that will determine the outcome.

If you are playing a long par 4, with a green guarded on the left by out-of-bounds, and on the right by a stream, and your club into the green will be at best a 4 wood on a good day, think about how to play the hole as a par 5.  A birdie on the par 5 (4) or a par (5) will beat a triple bogey on the par 4 (7), any day of the week, on anyone’s scorecard.

Van de Velde considers playing out of the Barry Burn at Carnoustie in Angus, Scotland, 1999.

The picture of Jean Van de Velde during the 1999 British Open is infamous.  It means more than he carded a triple bogey and went into a playoff.  Somewhere on that hole, he lost his judgment.  I suspect over half of the weekend golfers in the crowd on that Sunday could’ve carded better than a 7.

Take into account in playing a hole and planning your round, first and foremost, that you will miss shots.  It will happen.  Shooting a low score means avoiding big scores at any level of golf.  It takes 7 birdies to shoot 65; but a triple bogey and three bogeys turns those amazing 7 birdies into a round no one will ever notice.  It requires consistency.

Gene Sarazen used to say, about match play, that he knew he’d make about 7 mistakes a round, and he also knew that his opponent would too.   If your opponent doesn’t, hats off to him.  But don’t take risky shots to try to “win;” first you have to “avoid losing.”  To repeat, it takes 3 birdies – three – to make up for one triple bogey.

How to “Score”

The underlying concept is that one scores better when one can minimize variability — or as insurance companies and options traders at the Board of Trade call it, variance.

It turns out, by the way, that doing so is not just limited to golf. Most gambling games are more about variance than expected value. It’s just that the House knows it, and gamblers don’t.

Here is why. Take Blackjack. An average expected return on a hand is almost 50/50. This occurs, however, with the House winning 56% of hands and paying 3 to 2 on blackjacks. The House could even give 50/50 odds and still expect to win. The reason is that, as long as the House’s opponent does not have infinite money (Phil Mickelson does not have it), the bleeding away of the bank roll in the 56% of hands leaves the player with a dwindling bankroll. This leads to bet size reduction, if one is betting optimally, so a 3-2 payoff does not make up for the bleeding.  In common parlance.

Don’t gamble on your round of golf. Leave that for the casino.

It’s a sucker’s game … in a way that most people don’t even realize.  That’s right.  It’s insidious.

That’s why we point out that one triple bogey equals three birdies. If you get a triple, it’s very hard to get those three birdies to make up for it. If you get even a double bogey, two birdies can be tough. A setback is a worse result than a great result is good, simply because it is harder to make up the strokes than it is to lose them.  They show the amazing shots on television; they don’t show the 17 holes where a tour player avoided a bogey.  No math argues for consistency more. Don’t play the sucker’s shot.

If you go for the hero’s shot, your chances of making it have to be several times better (not just, say, three times better) than the strokes to par you will lose if you don’t make it (say it is a chance at a birdie, versus a triple).  This merits repetition.  If you go for the hero’s shot, your chances of making it have to be several times better than the strokes to par you will lose if you don’t make it.

One doesn’t have to be a green-eye-shade to understand the costs of risk in golf.

This intuition is hard to come by — really hard to come by.  It is, like the way a player loses his money at the Blackjack table, subtle.  (That is why Casino’s make money — most people don’t realize how truly behind they are before they start playing — if it were as obvious, people would play a lot less.) Understand this reasoning, and you will understand why consistent scoring is so important, and risk is something to be handled very, very, very carefully on a golf course and more so in a tournament.

Play, then Practice

This has implications for practice and play.  During play, unless you are in a situation where you are on the 18th hole of the club championship, or the 18th hole of the US Open, and you have to make birdie to tie, you want to play to your strengths, to what you can do consistently.  This will lower your score. It doesn’t have to be a grind.  You only have to play a little bit better than average on most holes for it to add up to a very good score at the end.  Good scores aren’t made by shooting an ace (1) on a par 4; they are made by avoiding a triple (7) on a par 4 and playing well on every other hole.

If you want to try to hit a career shot, practice it on the practice range.  That’s why they call it “practice.”

If you’re standing over the ball and thinking of yourself as Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods or Ben Hogan – good; save that thought (unless you are under 16, when you should dream as though there is no tomorrow).  Step back.

Ever notice that almost all the professionals “bail” out to the right on No. 11 in the Masters?

Hit the shot you can hit; and then go to the practice range and think about how Nicklaus or Woods or Hogan would have hit it and see if you can.

In almost all endeavors in life, it’s not about our very best efforts, but about avoiding disaster when we make one of our worst efforts.  It’s not about the bad shot that we just hit, but how well we hit the next shot.  It’s not about the double bogey on the hole we just played, but how we play the next ten holes.  You cannot think that the bad shot is who you are; let it get in the way of your better judgment.  Let’s repeat:  one triple bogey is worth three birdies.

I can promise you that it is easier to shoot one triple bogey than three birdies in a round, even for Sarazen, Jones, Hogan, Palmer, Player, Watson, Nicklaus, Woods and McIlroy.  Let’s repeat that:  it is easier, any day of the week, to shoot a 7 on a par 4 than three threes on par 4s, any day of the week.  Remember it.  It’s new math.

One triple bogey = three birdies.

The point of the quote from Ecclesiastes is in no sense religious.  One has to understand that “time and chance” happen to us all.

If we remember that “time and chance” happen to us all, we can start thinking about the path toward consistency and likely achieve better scoring.  It all seems like common sense when it is laid out, but understanding it will save you a lot of money that could be spent on a good therapist.  Most people play golf instead of going to a therapist.  They don’t play to have yet another reason to see one.

Isaac Newton

I. Newton

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