Playing the odds

Golf Things Considered column by John Rogers
JSpencerRogers@msn.com  

Here’s a common scenario on the golf course. Mr. Topskuller, a 30-handicapper, stands on the first tee with his Supercharged, 2000cc, Titanium Tomahawk driver, takes a mighty swing – and rolls the ball almost 100 yards straight down the fairway.

Now he’s got about 240 yards left to the green, so he naturally picks out his matching three-wood. He manages a pretty solid lick, which keeps the ball in play, about 35 yards short of the green. He blades the pitch across the green, chips back to the green, and two-putts for a double bogey.

Let’s take a look at the decisions Mr. Topskuller made. He chose that 46-inch nuclear driver because that’s what men do. Typically, he puts it successfully in play about one in every five attempts, or 20 percent of the time. Having topped the drive, he chose a low-lofted fairway wood, which has about a 33 percent success rate. Topskuller got away with the three-wood shot, but he never stopped to realize that his success with the shot would leave him with one of the most awkward shots in golf, a half-swing pitch. He tends to hit these little flip wedges thin, and only hits a good one about 25 percent of the time.

To summarize: Topskuller chose a low-percentage club, which led to another low-percentage club, which led to a low-percentage shot. Double-bogey might be a good score with that kind of club selection and course management.

Granted, no red-blooded male would think of such a thing, but the 30-handicapper could have played the hole better with just a nine-iron and a putter. The hole is 340 yards long, which means Topskuller could hit three shots of 113 yards and two-putt for a bogey. For him, that’s three shots with a nine-iron, which he hits with a success rate around 60 percent. If he played the odds like this all the way around the course, he could shoot a score 18 shots lower than his normal total.

If he can’t face the jokes of his partners, then it would make sense to at least consider hitting five-iron, wedge, and then wedge. And if he can’t resist hitting a wood, the odds are still better than his normal choices if he tries a seven-wood, five-iron combination.

Now consider Mr. Thicketdiver. He hits the ball a mile. In every direction. He hits a particular drive to the right, into the trees. He could chip out sideways to the fairway, but there is a little gap in the branches that just happens to be in the direction of the green. So Thicketdiver, who just missed a 40-yard wide fairway, decides that he can hit the ball through a four-foot hole in the forest. “I know I can pull that shot off,” he would say, and he’s right – one out of twenty times. By always choosing to hit the hero shot, Thicketdiver adds quite a few shots to his score.

Then there’s Miss Pindreamer. The Tour players only occasionally go directly after the flagstick, but Pindreamer, with her 18 handicap, tries to knock the ball into the hole every time. As a result, she finds herself in a lot of bunkers, ponds and awkward lies on the short-side of the green. How much better would her score be, if she consistently played away from the trouble – even if it means hitting away from the hole?

As a teaching professional, I see these low-percentage tendencies and styles of playing all the time. And sometimes I make the wrong choice as well.

I remember a round I played earlier this year. I decided to play the round as conservatively as I could, choosing the least risky club that would do the job, and choosing targets that would make the next shot easier. I turned to the back nine four under par. I just kept the ball in play, and the putter was hot.

I stuck to the game plan until the 12th hole, an uphill par-4. I hit a seven-wood to the fairway, and I’m standing in the fairway looking at the pin. It’s tucked behind a bunker, in the middle of the hardest sloping green on the course. The obvious play is to keep the ball below the hole, and to the left, away from the sand. But a little devil popped up on my shoulder and whispered, “You’ve got a heck of a round going here, Laddie. You’re hitting it great. Stick this one in there tight, make your birdie, and you’re on your way to a career round.”

Needless to say, I fell for the trap, and so did my ball – plugged by the lip. I made double bogey. No career round, and the lesson was obvious. I only allowed myself to play a risky shot once (as well as letting my focus shift to the future, in terms of my potential score), and I got burned. Now imagine the damage done by players who make these kind of choices on every hole.

It’s about course management, club selection and playing the odds. I try to convince people to make their golf games more like their vacations -pick a destination you can afford, and choose a vehicle that has a decent chance of getting you there.

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