Steven LEVITT: If you’re a Freakonomics Radio listener, you might already know that I’m obsessed with golf. Here’s Stephen Dubner.
Stephen DUBNER: I am obsessed with how obsessed you are with golf. That is my obsession. I love — you are — you’re nuts, Levitt. I mean, let’s face it.
LEVITT: I do love golf. I love golf more than any normal person could. I think I love golf because I really wanted to be good at it as a kid, and I completely and totally failed. And much of my adult life has been devoted to trying to undo the mistakes I made as a child.
LEVITT: As a teenager, the one thing I wanted more than anything else was to be a professional golfer. Reality, however, was not kind to that adolescent dream. Forget about turning pro, I wasn’t even good enough to play college golf. I quit soon after. Almost 20 years had passed when on my 40th birthday, I hatched a preposterous plan. I decided I would take up golf again with the objective of finally realizing my childhood dream of turning pro. This time on the Champions Tour for golfers aged 50 and over. That gave me exactly 10 years to go from below average to world-class.
Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt.
LEVITT: I’m 53 now, and it probably won’t surprise you that I never made the Champions Tour, despite investing an absurd amount of time and effort into the pursuit. It was, however, one of the most enjoyable escapades I’ve ever been on, but much less interesting and successful than the golf journeys of the two people I talk with today. My first guest is Greg Norman, “The Shark.” He was the number one ranked golfer in the world for more than six years. Only Tiger Woods has held that top spot longer.
And it’s fitting that this episode airs on the weekend of the Masters golf tournament because for many golf fans, the most enduring memory of Greg Norman’s career is the grace with which he handled the repeated misfortunes that denied him that championship. My second guest, Mark Broadie, has achieved enormous success in golf pursuing a very different path than Greg Norman. Mark is widely acknowledged as a world’s expert in golf analytics. Through the thoughtful use of data, he’s transformed the way just about everyone, including me, thinks about golf.
My biggest challenge in today’s conversations is to find a way to make them interesting to people who don’t care about golf. When I first had the idea for a golf episode, I was confident I could do it. Right now, as I’m about to conduct these interviews, I honestly feel like there’s a pretty good chance I’m going to fail in that regard.
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Steve LEVITT: So I think people forget how good you were at golf. It’s unbelievable. If you had to divide the credit for your success between natural talent, hard work, smart choices, luck — what kind of percentages would you apply to those different traits?
Greg NORMAN: From natural talent — I didn’t know I had it because when first started off I had a 27 handicap and got it down to scratch in 18 months. And about five years later, I won my first professional golf tournament. So, natural talent was there, but I had no idea. I think a lot of my abilities came from my work ethic because I’m very much a determined individual. I’m a compartmentalized type of guy, so I stay extremely focused on things that I do. And I have a great saying, called “D.I.N. and D.I.P.,” “Do It Now and Do It Proper.”
But I was a really good surfer, and I truly believe surfing and golf are very close in a lot of ways. And what I mean by that, Steve, is the proprioception in your body. You’ve got to know where your body is at any given time on the surfboard. There’s a lot of variables coming at you — the size of the wave, waves crashing down on you, wind pushing you around, the speed of the wave. But you’re always planted. You’re always stationary on the board, but the rest of your body’s got to relax. No different to some degree with golf. You plant your feet on the ground and your upper body has got to be relaxed. And you’ve got to have great rotation. And it’s the perception.
As that board’s moving around underneath your feet, you’ve got to feel that. So, you’ve got to make these minute little corrections with what? Your your abs, your glutes, your hamstrings, whatever. And with the golf swing it’s the same. When you get to the top level, you can change your golf swing by a quarter of an inch on the downswing if you feel a little bit out because of your proprioceptions. You’re very aware of where your body is in space at any given time.
LEVITT: It blows my mind that you went from a 27 handicap to scratch in 18 months. At the age of 40, I had a mid-life crisis. I hadn’t picked up a golf club in 15 years. And I decided that I would try to make the Champions Tour. And I spent the next, I don’t know, seven years of my life, for a guy who’s got other jobs and stuff, pretty single mindedly trying to be a good golfer. And I was able to get down to a three handicap by going down about two to three strokes a year. The thought that you could go down 20 strokes in a year — is there any other person on the planet who’s ever accomplished that?
NORMAN: Look, I just know that I was very focused on getting my golf swing into a place where it was controllable, number one, manageable, number two. And there was a power swing, too. My coach said to me in the beginning, “Greg, hit it as hard as you possibly can hit it, and then we’ll figure out how to hit it straight.” So, most people try and hit the ball straight and then they want more power and they try and get the power out of their equipment instead of having the power already predetermined or preloaded in your system. And then you scale yourself back.
So, when I played the game, even though I was one of the longest drivers of the golf ball, very rarely did I go at it 100 percent. When I look at the old footage of myself now, you can see that I was always at about 85 percent, never above 90, unless I really had to turn it on. And when I needed that extra distance, I could do it at a drop of a hat just by the rotation of my body.
LEVITT: A lot of academic work’s gone into studying practice and optimal approaches to improving at something. When you started, how did you maximize the feedback to improve so quickly?
NORMAN: I think I probably just approached it, like I said, in compartmentalizing. If I felt something was not right with the technique, I would focus on that until I got it right. And if it took 10,000 hits, then it took 10,000 hits. If it took me four or five swings to feel, “O.K., I got it,” then four or five swings and my confidence level was there. I never had any drills per se. I had my coach, obviously, when I was a professional. But I didn’t have an entourage of people just trying to mentally get me prepared to be a professional or anything like that.
I read a lot. I kept a lot of notes. I referenced my notes and my improvements on my negativities with my golf swing and physicality and mentally. So, I was always trying to climb a ladder to get to the top, but I never really wanted to get to the top because once you’re there, there’s only one way to go and that’s down.
LEVITT: Now, practice must have been really important, obviously, as you were getting better. You’re known for having practiced so hard even when you were number one in the world. Was practice that important once you had gotten that good?
NORMAN: Oh no, practice was the key. I estimate I’ve hit about 5 million golf balls in my career. I practiced more than I actually played. Occasionally, I would go out and play 18 holes after I hit balls. But most of the time I was just so tired from hitting 1,000 balls a day plus that I didn’t want to go play. Next, was basically maintenance of your body afterwards. My practice routine was very regimented, very controlled.
There’s almost like a third, a third, a third in a lot of ways. A third of it was the middle irons to the scoring irons. A third of it was your longer irons to your 3-wood to your driver. And the last there was your short game. And I always balanced every single one of those segments out to make sure there wasn’t any one that was going to be a little askew because I didn’t spend the time and effort on it.
So, when I played a round of golf in a tournament and I hit a poor five iron from a hanging lie, I’d go find a hanging lie on the driving range and hit 50 to 150 golf balls to figure out why I did it.
LEVITT: You raise an interesting point there, because most people’s practice, certainly amateurs, all comes at a driving range off of perfect lies. But we’re always in the rough. Did you spend a lot of time putting your balls under trees and hitting out from under trees and stuff? Or did you mostly, like others, hit off driving ranges with good lies?
NORMAN: No, you hone your skills off a flat lie but yes, I would practice out of divots. I’d practice out of downhill lies. I practice short swings from underneath the tree. I’d practice on my knees. I’d practice left-handed shots, one handed shots. I’d practice in the rain. I’d practice in really high wind. You had to prepare yourself for whatever you may experience on the golf course.
And I remember one of my early stages of my career — actually, I was an amateur, to tell you the truth. There was a gentleman called Sami Mackay. And I was on the driving range hitting balls, and he came up to me and he just picked up like 10 or 15 balls and he just kept throwing them in the rough, or throwing them in a divot, or throwing them in some funky lie. He said, “You’re never going to have a perfect lie on every shot except if you’re on the tee of a par 3.” So, that’s how I started.
LEVITT: I assume you must have loved golf at the beginning. Was that a love affair that lasted or faded? By the time you were at the top, was it fun?
NORMAN: Oh, yeah. It was fun. Hitting the perfect golf shot is better than having an orgasm. Right? I mean, it really is a great feeling. Because if you’ve got 187 yards — and if you want to be really precise, you’ve got 187 and a half yards — and you hit it flush in the middle, you hit the perfect trajectory, you land at 187 and a half yards. And you go, “Wow, how cool did that feel?” And look, even in my heyday, if I hit three to five perfect shots a round, I was really happy. And that’s including putts and everything.
You have a 90-foot putt, for example, it’s very difficult to hit a perfect solid 90-foot putt. And when you do and you get it in the sweet spot and the timing with your hands and the rotation of your shoulders and the stillness of your head and the quietness of your brain and the softness of your body, it is really a great, great sensation. It was always that, to me, you were just chasing more orgasms, I guess, is probably the best way of going. Because it was such a wonderful feeling.
LEVITT: Did it feel better to do that in front of a crowd of 20,000 people, or were you just as happy to do that alone on the range?
NORMAN: Alone on the range is just the same. Because when you’re playing in front of 20,000 people, you don’t see 20,000 people. You just see the shot. And you just want to execute that shot the best you can possibly execute it. You stay in the moment and you really don’t see anybody. That being said, I’d much rather play in front of 20,000 people than play a tournament with nobody because you feed off the enthusiasm and the excitement and the energy of the people who are following you.
LEVITT: It’s interesting you say that because in my, obviously, quixotic attempt to be a professional senior golfer, I got better and better and I actually had a critical moment that changed everything for me. So, I was playing in the B.M.W. Pro-Am at Conway Farms and I got paired up with Steve Stricker. And on the front nine, everything just came together for me. And the pinnacle of it was we were on a short par 4. And it couldn’t have been more than maybe 275, 280 yards. It was a green up on a little hill with some sand traps guarding the front.
So, I hit the ball and about, I would say, 10 seconds after I hit the ball, up at the green, there’s all this noise going on. And Tiger Woods was playing in the group in front of us. So we thought Tiger must be doing something on the next tee. And as I walked up to the green, it turned out that my ball had hopped over the trap onto the green and then took this huge arc rolling down and rolled to within maybe two and a half feet of the hole almost for a hole-in-one on the par 4. And the crowd was cheering for me.
The strangest thing was it was one of the worst moments of my entire life. I hated every second of it. And I realized that I hated attention on the golf course. I hated the fact that I had to putt a two-foot downhill putt for eagle in front of a thousand people. Now, thank God I made it. But I had worked for something for seven years. And I ended up shooting 32 or 33 on the front.
I fulfilled every dream I’d ever had and I realized I hated it more than anything, that I wanted to be alone on the range. Somehow for golf, for me, it’s very personal and I felt very exposed. People were calling my name. For most people it might have felt good, but for me it felt awful.
NORMAN: Now look, Steve, I’ve known a lot of players over my career. Players who’ve actually reached the number one spot in the world for a short period of time and actually didn’t want the limelight and didn’t want the additional attention. I’ve seen that happen numerous times. So, people like yourself, you have a comfort zone, a way you want to be, and you’re just happy to be there. It takes the select few, I guess, is the best way of saying, who really want to push the envelope to extract the most value you can out of your life.
And there’s times when I’ve been out there, too. When I first won in 1976, the fifth tournament I ever played in, I was an introvert and I couldn’t get up in front of the microphone and speak. When I went into the clubhouse to be with the members of the golf club at the end for presentation, I was a shy kid standing in the corner.
And I, actually, said to myself, “If I want to be a great golfer, I have to change the way I feel right now.” It was a snap decision I made because I had to get up there in front of, I don’t know, 50, 100, 120 people inside a clubhouse, all celebrating. And right there and then, I pulled myself out from being an introvert into being a public figure.
Greg Norman never won the Masters, but he came, oh, so close, finishing second three times and third three times. And the way in which victory was repeatedly snatched away from him adds to the heartache.
In 1986, an aging Jack Nicklaus went an incredible seven under par over the last 10 holes to beat Norman by a single stroke. A year later, in a sudden-death playoff, his opponent holed-out from 47 yards to beat him. And most painfully, in 1996, exactly 25 years ago, he squandered a six-shot lead heading into the final 18 holes, but famously handled it with grace, concluding that last round with a big hug of his opponent.
LEVITT: As I prepared for this interview, I asked a bunch of people who were golf fans what they thought about you. And what came up over and over is that you were amazingly gracious in the face of defeat. And it’s interesting that you managed to turn the occasional failure among the many victories into a lasting legacy of respect. Do you have advice for people? How did you pull that off?
NORMAN: It’s sport. Really it’s as simple as that. Golf is just a game. You can’t live by it and you can’t die by it. So, I always felt that if somebody beat me on a given week, no matter whether it was a chip in or beat me by a stroke, they’re trying to do that. They want to win just as much as I want to win.
And if I get beaten, I’m going to say, “Hey, did somebody beat me on that day or that week because they were better than me that week? Or was it luck? Or was it: I failed, or I played poorly, or I didn’t concentrate?” At the end of the day, I can blame myself for many losses. But I also can say congratulations to other players who actually fair and squarely beat me with great golf.
LEVITT: You make that sound easy but you’re such a tough competitor and you spend five hours on the course pushing as hard as you can to win. And then suddenly it’s over and there’s this void and you’re supposed to go and talk to the press taking inane questions. I think you’re underselling how hard that task is. It just came naturally? Or did you have to work hard to be gracious in a setting like that?
NORMAN: No, Steve, I didn’t have to work hard at it at all. I think it was just naturally my mindset. And my father always instilled in me — he said, “Greg, if somebody asks you a question, just tell them the truth. It’ll never get you into trouble.”
So, if I go into the media room and, “Hey, why did you hit that really funky looking seven iron that you made a double bogey on? Why?” Well, you know what, I didn’t concentrate. I picked the wrong club. Whatever the reason is, you tell them and then you can drop the ball and move on and just say, “Hey. I’m done. I can’t add any more to it.”
LEVITT: Now, I get the feeling you were wound up pretty tight when you were younger, but I think you seem to be a lot more relaxed now than you used to be. Has that been a conscious investment in your part in philosophy or in a belief system? Or is it not right? Is it something that just happened with age?
NORMAN: Look, I think it’s just from experience, yes. Yeah, sure, I was wound up at times. There was times when I was fighting a lot of things internally — like, people probably didn’t believe in me, and I wanted to prove people wrong.
Over a period of time as your success starts to generate momentum and your delivery mechanism, whether it’s on the golf course with your ability to hit a golf ball from point A to point B, or being a brand ambassador to Reebok or whoever you’re endorsing, to being the brand owner, to where you are today, being the living brand, you have to evolve. You have to make adjustments. You have to be learning to be better for whatever reason.
You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt and his conversation with renowned golfer Greg Norman. After this short break, Steve will return to talk with golf analyst Mark Broadie.
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LEVITT: I have to say, one thing I will never forget from my conversation with Greg Norman is his response to my story about my lone moment of golf glory, where I realized I had been pursuing the wrong golf dream. Did you catch what he said? That I shouldn’t feel bad because there are many people like me who can’t get the most out of life because we’re afraid to move out of our comfort zone.
Well, no doubt he’s right but how often does somebody body slam you with the painful truth directly to your face in front of hundreds of thousands of listeners? Luckily, I don’t take myself too seriously. I suspect the conversation I will have with Mark Broadie will be very different.
What I find intriguing about Mark is how remarkably successful he’s been in getting his data-driven approach adopted. To the point where he’s transformed the way just about everyone thinks and talks about golf. How in the world did he pull that off? Maybe there’s some lessons there for people like me who are also trying to change the world through data, but mostly with a lot less success.
LEVITT: Mark, what’s more fun: teaching at a business school or being the undisputed king of golf data analytics? You can be honest. You have tenure. They can’t do anything about that.
Mark BROADIE: No, I think it’s more fun to see ideas being used in practice. So, I like everything I do. I like teaching. I like research. And I think doing golf analytics has exceeded my wildest expectations as far as the impact that it’s had.
LEVITT: So, I’m guessing your initial forays into golf data were motivated probably by a desire to improve your own scores, is that right?
BROADIE: Not really. I knew there were questions in golf that could be answered with the analytical tools that I had, but there wasn’t any data. So, I was trying to answer: if a player could hit the ball 20 yards further, how would their score change? How many strokes would come off their score? Or what’s the difference between an average P.G.A. Tour player and a great P.G.A. Tour player, like Tiger Woods?
LEVITT: So, just to anchor people before we get into what you have developed, the sorts of statistics that the P.G.A. Tour collected before you were around were really simple things like number of putts per round or driving distance, things of that nature. So, can you explain what features of those statistics are unattractive for someone who wants to do real analytics?
BROADIE: So, those are easily collected statistics because they’re primarily counting statistics. How many putts did a player take? How many fairways did a player hit? You can just count them. And that’s been done for decades.
But it’s horrible to understand performance because a putt that sunk from three feet counts the same as a putt that sunk from 60 feet. They’re both one-putt, but they’re very different performances because most players can one-putt from three feet and not many players can one-putt from 60 feet. So, counting them the same doesn’t make any sense.
Same thing for something like fairways hit. You could miss a fairway and just be in the first cut of rough, or you could be a couple of yards off the fairway, or you could be in the woods or in the water or out of bounds, and they all count as a missed fairway but they’re very different performances.
LEVITT: You devised a metric called strokes gained or lost. Could you explain just in the simplest possible terms what that metric is?
BROADIE: Well, strokes gained is measuring performance relative to a benchmark. And I tell people that they already have a good intuitive notion of what strokes gained is because they know what is a good shot and what’s a bad shot. The way it would work is: if you sink a one-foot putt, you’re equal to the benchmark because the average performance from one foot is to get the ball in the hole in one stroke.
From 30 feet, the average performance is to get the ball in the hole in two strokes. So, if you one-putt from 30 feet, you’ve done one better than the benchmark, or your strokes gained is plus one. And that’s why it’s so intuitive because if you get the ball in the hole in fewer strokes, you know that there are good shots involved. And if you get the ball in the hole in more strokes, there are worse shots involved. You’ve lost strokes.
Strokes gained is just taking drives and approach shots and putts and putting them all in the same unit of strokes. So, you can measure the difference between a 300-yard drive and a 320-yard drive, not in terms of 20 yards, but in terms of how many strokes do you gain?
LEVITT: So, your example for putting was pretty straightforward. But let me take the concept back to the tee. So, the idea is, let’s say there’s a hole and on average it takes the pros 3.9 strokes to get the ball in the hole on that hole. So, you’re standing on the tee. And you expect it to take 3.9 strokes. Now, you hit your drive. And it’s a fantastic drive. It’s long, and it’s straight.
And then, what you would do with your metric is using econometrics, you would compute if the average pro had hit their drive to where you hit your drive, how many strokes would you expect it to take them to get it in the hole from there? So, let’s say it was a really great drive. So, from that spot, you’d expect it to be 2.5 more strokes to get it into the hole. Then you already took one stroke to get there. Then that would mean that your expected score on the hole would be 3.5.
But when you stood on the tee, it was 3.9. So, the fact that after your drive it’s gone down to 3.5 means that you gained 0.4 strokes via your drive. Is that a good description of what you’re talking about?
BROADIE: That’s exactly right. And just continuing with your example, in one stroke an average shot would get you one stroke closer to the hole. So, you’d go from 3.9 on the tee to 2.9, say, in the fairway or the rough after your shot. So, one swing gets you one stroke closer to the hole. Well, if you’re not at 2.9, but if you’re at 2.5 strokes away because you hit this incredibly good drive, well, that’s four tenths better than an average stroke. that’s why your strokes gained is +0.4 because you’re four tenths of a stroke closer than an average shot.
LEVITT: So, some nice features of strokes gained is, number one, I think it’s theoretically capturing the right notion of whether a shot is good or bad because golf is all about the score and getting it in the hole. If your shot gets you in the hole faster or gets you closer to the hole, then that’s the right measure of what we’re trying to capture.
And secondly, something that’s really beautiful about it is, like you said earlier, it translates the outcome of every shot into the same unit. Because intuitively, it might not be that obvious how you’d compare a drive to a six-foot putt, but you’ve managed to do that by putting everything into this same unit of strokes gained. And I think the last thing is that it’s pretty easy to understand.
BROADIE: Yeah, and it all adds up. So, at the end, if you end up scoring a 69 and the field average is, say, 71, you’re two strokes better than the field. Well, you can then go back and see which drives, approach, putts add up to that two-stroke difference that you’ve gained on the field. It has this nice summation property that other metrics don’t have.
LEVITT: So, academics are constantly coming up with ideas that they think are brilliant and maybe other academics think are brilliant. But in practice, it’s usually impossible to get these new ideas adopted in the real world. So, for instance, it took decades to get people to wear seatbelts and to quit smoking after the evidence was that they’re health hazards.
But seemingly, you snapped your fingers and not only did the P.G.A. Tour make strokes gained an official statistic, but it was immediately embraced by the entire golf community. Are you the most persuasive person on the planet?
BROADIE: Not at all. I was fortunate of being in the right place at the right time, meaning I called up the P.G.A. Tour to get access to their data in 2003, in 2004, in 2005 and the answer was always the same. “Do you know how expensive it is for us to collect that data? We’re not just going to give it away to you.” Click. They hung up.
And then, in 2008, they said, “You know what? We have all this great data and we’re not exactly sure what to do with it. Can you help us out with putting because we know our putting stats aren’t really very good?” And I said, “Great. I have this thing: strokes gained putting, but we can also measure strokes gained driving and approach.” They went, “No, no, no, no, no. We just want strokes gained putting.”
But I was really impressed with a brilliant idea that they had in terms of adoption. One of the things that they were doing was trying to get buy-in from the golf influencers in the community. They had two rankings of putters on the P.G.A. Tour, ranking A and ranking B. And they would go to a player, a golf writer, a golf coach, and they would show them these two rankings, A and B.
And they’d say, “Which one do you think better reflected putting on the P.G.A. Tour last year?” And they said, “Oh, ranking B for sure. Ranking A just doesn’t make any sense.” And then, they would show them the results. And they said, “Well, ranking A is our putts per round measure and ranking B as this new thing strokes gained putting.” And they said, “Great, let’s use that.” They’ve never had to explain what it meant. They just got buy-in from people because it made sense.
LEVITT: That is brilliant. It’s this extension of the idea of a blind test. People have tried it, say, with fake meat. So, they go to Texas ranchers, and they give them hamburger and then an Impossible Burger. And it turns out that they oftentimes can’t tell the difference.
And that kind of blind test is incredibly powerful for convincing people who otherwise I think are inconvincible because they think they already know the answer. So, we understand strokes gained now. And the P.G.A. Tour collects all this data. So, were there surprises? Did the results overturn strongly-held conventional wisdom?
BROADIE: One of the most famous expressions in golf is, “You drive for show and putt for dough.” And the interpretation there is driving is great for looks. But when it comes down to winning tournaments and making money, it’s really the putting that matters. One of the main conclusions that came out of the strokes gained analysis was: ball-striking is what separates the best players in the world from the average P.G.A. Tour pro. Ball-striking, meaning driving and approach shots is worth about two-thirds of the stroke difference, and short game and putting is worth about one-third of the stroke difference.
If you look at the top 10 players in the world, they’re about two strokes per round better than an average P.G.A. Tour player. So, you can decompose their two-stroke advantage and say two-thirds of it is from better shots outside 100 yards, or ball-striking, and one-third is from better shots inside 100 yards, or short game and putting.
LEVITT: And that’s interesting because roughly the number of shots that are in the long game versus the short game is about the same. So, per shot, the difference in skill is higher for the longer shots than for the shorter shots. And how about per yard? If I hit the ball 20 yards further, how many strokes a round should that reduce my score?
BROADIE: On the P.G.A. Tour level, here’s a way that I think about the distance-accuracy trade-off in driving. So, take a long driver like Bryson DeChambeau, or Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, They’re about 20 yards longer than P.G.A. Tour average. Each one of those drives gains them about a tenth of a stroke over the field, which sounds minuscule. But there’s 14 of these drives a round. So, that gains 1.4 strokes in a round.
You now have to subtract the cost for the loss to accuracy. And it turns out that these long drivers typically are at the bottom of the accuracy ranks. But what does that mean? It means they hit about one less fairway per round on average. And that’s costly because missing a fairway compared to hitting it is about three-tenths of a stroke in cost. But if you only do that one more time, your 1.4 gain, you subtract 0.3 stroke loss from accuracy, and now you’re gaining 1.1 strokes per round.
That encapsulates the distance-accuracy trade-off. And it shows that superior driving, even when you’re not so accurate, gains you over a stroke a round, over four strokes in a four-round tournament. And it’s a consistent weapon because distance doesn’t come and go every day. If you’re 20 yards longer, you’re 20 yards longer all the time. Whereas putting sometimes you’re hot, sometimes you’re not. Driving is a weapon for these players because it’s such a repeatable and consistent skill.
LEVITT: At heart, I’m basically selfish. What I care about far more than anything else is whether strokes gained will help me become a better golfer. And one obvious use of the strokes gained concept is to guide someone’s on course strategy, like whether to lay up or where to aim. What have you discovered in that domain?
BROADIE: So, the biggest area that amateurs lose strokes is not paying enough respect to hazards and out of bounds. So, on a tee shot, let’s say, on a par 4 or 5 where there is out of bounds to one side of the hole, there’s typically a pretty safe route to the other side. And I found in my data that amateurs might hit somewhere between 10 and 30 percent of their shots out of bounds. And that’s one of the biggest score killers for amateurs, because out of bounds is a stroke and distance penalty. It’s two shots. One swing cost you two strokes.
LEVITT: So, you probably don’t know this, but I actually once carried out a massive golf experiment with the golfer Luke Donald, who was number one in the world at the time, and his coach, and my friend and your friend Pat Goss from Northwestern. And the idea was to set up artificial situations on a golf course and then use the power of randomized experiments to learn about the best golf strategies. Multiple times we rented out entire golf courses. And we invited hundreds of golfers to come out and be our research subjects. And we put each of them through dozens of randomized on-course experiments.
So, for instance, we put a golfer in the woods with a near impossible 150-yard approach shot through the trees to a green that had a creek in front of it. And no sane person would attempt this shot because it was basically impossible. And then, we would offer a clear path to chip back out to the fairway and play it safe. And then, we would randomize our golfers into three groups.
One group, we would just let them play the hole however they wanted. We dropped their ball in the forest and then they could either play it safe or go for the heroic shot. Or a second group, we would actually force them to play it safe. And then, a third group, we would force them to try to hit this crazy shot through the trees and over the water. We had two hypotheses. The first one was that amateurs would try the crazy shot even when it didn’t make sense. And that turned out to be completely true, that when we let people do whatever they want, they always tried to do the crazy shot. And our second hypothesis was that doing the crazy shot would be very detrimental to your score.
And it turned out that hypothesis was completely wrong. Because we really had the wrong mental model of golfers. So, we had golfers of all levels and what we were describing for strategy was the right strategy for Luke Donald to do because Luke Donald could execute the shot he wanted. But it turns out that golf is just really hard for the average golfer. When we would try to have someone play the safe shot, I don’t know, about a third of the time when they tried to chip the ball out of the woods, they would fail to do it.
They would hit a tree. They’d hit behind it. And then, even when they made it to the fairway, they would inevitably hit the ball into the creek in front of the green. And then, they’d usually duff it into the creek again. It was incredible. I think it took something like six strokes for our players to get their ball in the hole from 150 yards out when they played it safe. And when they tried to take the heroic shot, they actually were about a half a shot better because their heroic efforts weren’t very good, they never actually got it on the green, but they managed to advance the ball much further on the first shot than in their layup attempt.
And it was really shocking to me that no matter what setup we did, we basically couldn’t find a lot of examples where strategy mattered. It was really discouraging. We were trying to write a book, the first half of which was going to be about on-course strategy for regular golfers, and we basically couldn’t write the book because we didn’t have any insights.
BROADIE: I’d say one of the morals to that story is that amateurs need to practice recovery shots. They need to practice chipping the ball back into the fairway. And I have in my data shots labeled recovery shots. And I can see what happens. And many of the recovery shots, like you said, hit a tree, but some they’ll chip through the fairway because you’re trying to chip it 50 yards through a wide opening because you’re going the safe route, but you end up chipping it 80 yards through the fairway into the rough or 100 yards into the trees on the other side of the fairway.
LEVITT: So, that’s one possible conclusion. I actually took a very different conclusion. As I watched these golfers play and I saw how difficult golf was for them, I started to rethink what the point of golf is, because golf is very focused on score. And in the end, I just started thinking, who cares whether you shoot 93 or 95? It just doesn’t matter.
What matters in the end as a golfer, my own experience is you sit around having a beer after the round and you’re like, “Oh my God. Do you remember that shot I hit out of the woods? And I threaded it through the trees. And it skipped two times over the creek onto the green to three feet. I’m going to remember that shot for the rest of my life.” Or you even remember, “Oh, God, when I tried to hit it through the trees and it hit the first tree and it hit the second tree, and then it ended up in that person’s swimming pool.”
So, it’s different for pros. But for amateurs, we’re trying to maximize or minimize the wrong thing, which is score, when really we should be just thinking about the best two shots we hit. I actually think if golfers just completely forgot about score and focused instead on always trying to hit the craziest, most amazing, heroic shot, that it would actually be a better game. What do you think of that?
BROADIE: I agree 100 percent. We have a term “barkies” for when you hit a tree and still make par on the course and “double barky” if you hit two trees in two shots and still make par, which gets to that point. Many of the players may not have been intending to minimize their average score but trying to make a par or birdie and say, “O.K., if I hit it out of bounds, it’s like all the other bad holes I’m going to have this round. But if I make a par or birdie, then I’ll remember it. I’ll be able to talk about it over a beer on the 19th hole.” If you’re serious about lowering your score, then you need a different objective function. You need average score as your objective. But I agree that many amateurs play for the hero shot because it’s more fun if they pull it off.
LEVITT: I think golf would be a whole lot more fun for the average golfer with one simple change to how we keep score. Rather than adding up strokes, I would count scores differently. Golfers would get 15 points for an eagle, that’s two under par on a hole, eight points for a birdie, three points for a par, one point for a bogey, and zero points for a double bogey or worse.
Let me say that again just to be sure you caught the scoring system. Zero points for a double bogey or worse, one point for a bogey, three points for a par, eight points for a birdie, and 15 points for an eagle. A higher score, obviously, is better. Now, why do I like this way of scoring? First, because it rewards taking chances. With traditional scoring two pars count the same as a bogey and a birdie, or the same as a double bogey and an eagle. But in my scoring system, two pars are only worth six points, whereas a bogey and a birdie are worth nine points, and an eagle and a double bogey, well, they’re worth 15 points.
So with my scoring, it makes sense to take crazy chances with the hope of pulling off a miracle. And I suspect you’ll find that’s a fun way to play. Just as importantly though, this way of scoring focuses your attention on your best holes and lets you forget your bad ones. Let’s say you play nine holes and you make eight triple bogeys and one miraculous, awe-inspiring birdie. With traditional scoring, you’re 23 over par and probably quite unhappy. With my scoring, you have eight points. That’s pretty good. All from that wonderful birdie.
The birdie sticks in your mind. All the disaster holes fade from memory just as they should. Another good feature of the scoring system? When you’re having a bad hole, you can just pick up and move to the next hole, speeding things up. One nice feature of my idea is that it doesn’t require changing golf courses or equipment or anything else. You and your friends can make the change tomorrow and nobody can stop you. Try it. And if you do, let me know how you like it.
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People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions, and coming soon Sudhir Breaks the Internet. This show is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher. Morgan Levey is our producer and Dan Dzula is the engineer; our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Mark McClusky, Greg Rippin, and Emma Tyrrell. All of the music you heard on this show was composed by Luis Guerra. To listen ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. We can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s P-I-M-A at Freakonomics.com. Thanks for listening.
LEVITT: I think you need a business coach.
BROADIE: I need an agent.
LEVITT: Maybe you can hire me and I’ll take 50 percent of the revenues that you get?
BROADIE: I’m sold. Let’s go into business.