Playing the Odds

Good Math on the Course Means Less Adding Later

October 20, 2004

Here is a common scenario on the golf course: Mr. Thinblader, a 30-handicapper, stands on the first tee with his Supercharged, 2000cc, Titanium Tomahawk driver, and takes an epic swing—which results in a ball mark two feet in front of the tee before the ball sheepishly grazes its way100 yards down the fairway. Now he has got about 240 yards left to the green, so he naturally picks out his matching 3-wood. He manages a pretty solid lick, which keeps the ball in play, about 35 yards short of the green. Then he blades the pitch across the green, chips back to the green, and two-putts for a double bogey.

Now, take a look at the decisions Mr. Thinblader made. He chose that 46-inch driver (complete with splattered blood painted on the top and sides, no doubt) because that is what men do. He puts it successfully in play about 1 in every 5 attempts, or 20% of the time. Having topped the drive, he chose a low-lofted fairway wood, which has about a 33% success rate. Thinblader got away with the 3-wood shot, but he never thought about the possibility that it might be worse if he hit it well—it 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% of the time.

To summarize: Thinblader 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.

quote-odds-aGranted, 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 Thinblader could hit three shots of 113 yards and two-putt for a bogey. For him that would be three shots with a nine iron, which he hits with a success-rate of 70%. If he learned to chop the course into shorter segments that he can cover with more forgiving clubs, and increased his odds with every shot around the course, he could potentially shoot a score 18 shots lower than his average.

If his male ego cannot take the jokes of his playing partners when he thinks about teeing off with a short iron, then it would make sense to consider hitting 5-iron, wedge, and then wedge (making sure the last wedge shot is a full swing, not another half-shot). And if he cannot resist hitting a wood, then a 7-wood, 5-iron combination still gives him a better chance to score than his normal routine.

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 4-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 consistently choosing to hit the “hero” shot out of trouble (not to mention his refusal to take the driver out of his hand in the first place), Thicketdiver adds quite a few shots to his score.

Then there is Miss Pindreamer. The best players in the world only occasionally go directly after the flagstick, choosing to play to the “fat” side of the green, or setting up the best angle for their putt–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 poor choice too.

quote-odds-bI 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, a short uphill par-4. I hit a 7-wood to the fairway, and I was standing in the fairway looking at the pin. It was tucked behind a bunker, in the middle of the most severely sloped 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 under the lip. I made double bogey. No career round, and the lesson was obvious. I allowed myself to play a risky shot just once (and also made the mistake of 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 this kind of choice on every hole.

Scoring better in golf is 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.


  1. sparnar says:

    great post.

    have been looking for reading material on course management, and there isn’t much on the web.

    will be applying this to my round of 9 holes this afternoon here in South Africa.

    keep up the good work!

  2. DON says:

    I’ve been known to hit one of my 4 fairway woods off the tee on holes that don’t require a really long tee shot to reach the green in regulation. Short par 4’s are a great time to hit a fairway wood into the fairway and leave yourself a mid to short iron into the green. On long par 5’s that you can’t reach in two on your best day, why not hit a fairway wood off the tee, and lay up with a mid iron to a distance you can handle with your approach shot with a wedge? That makes more sense than mis-hitting your driver off the tee leaving you with another hard shot just to get close to a good distance for your third into the green.

  3. DON says:

    I just added a practice drill to my normal range sessions. I’m taking 14 balls and hitting each of them with my 5 wood, keeping track of how many would be in the fairway if I were playing a par 4 or par 5 hole. Next step is to do the same thing with my 3 wood followed by my driver. Plan is to see which club gives me the best chance of finding the fairway, and the best chance of hitting the green on my next shot, for the best chance of making par or better. Since most full size courses have 10 par 4’s and 4 par 5’s, this seems like a great way to see how many fairways I can expect to hit in a normla round of golf using each of these three clubs off the tee.

  4. Mike Austin says:

    Great article. I printed it out for my 14 year old. I’m constantly trying to think 2 shots ahead instead of the one in front of him.


    • John Rogers says:

      Mike, thanks for reading! Everybody works on the physical parts of this game, but how many of us neglect the equally important mental parts?! Best wishes to you and your son!

  5. Alan Fanton says:

    What a great post if only I could keep this in mind when on the course. The quote that got me was the vacation one and this I shall keep in mind, thanks a lot.

    • John Rogers says:

      Alan, thanks for reading the article! Most people get so wrapped up in swing mechanics, they forget our mind takes just as much or more training. It takes a lot of discipline to play “smart” golf! Best wishes to you!

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