Jun 03

Golf and the Underlying Math

What are the Results of A Lifetime of Golf Choices? Could Math Tell Us?

Somewhere down the road of life, provided that we are sentient beings, we reevaluate our lives. We pore over the choices we’ve made, and form some evaluative conclusion about whether they were the right ones. Like everyone else, I’ve done that, but one is vulnerable to depressing realizations if too much time is spent at it.  So, this week I’ve narrowed it down to just my golf game. That way, unfavorable results won’t carry such world-threatening consequences – discouraging, perhaps, but not world-threatening. To know how I did with a lifetime of golf choices, I’d need a record of every shot to be perfectly precise, but that’s not possible. Still, I have enough general memory of my thought processes over the years to make a stab at it. The one thing I do need, however, is a math person, preferably someone who is into long-term averages. This is no meaningless experiment, as I intend to play a lot more golf in the coming years. A real answer to the wisdom or stupidity of my approach to the game might have a big effect on how I play future rounds.

Scenario 1 – So, the daring, unstrategic me pulls out the driver and tries to rip one at a faraway green. It goes a long way, but left off the fairway behind a row of trees into a patch of rough. I don’t have a shot at the green anymore, so I try a fancy shot under a low-lying limb. It fails – that’s two. I have no choice but to poke it back out into the fairway – that’s three. Now I’m far from the green, so I pull out a three or four wood to regain my relationship with regulation. That ends up in the left bunker – four. Fluffing the first bunker blast (five) I finally get it out, over the green into the other bunker. I escape that in one shot (six), but it’s miles from the cup, just off the fringe. Should I putt or chip it? I go for a chip and run, just like the one I saw Player execute in the 60s. This one though, does a lot more running than planned (now seven), and I’m faced with a forty-foot putt. Neglecting to account for the rise, a more extreme break than is visible, and trembling hands at the thought of the distance, I eventually four-putt for an 11 – and all because I wanted a 250 yard drive down the middle. The math looked really optimistic from the tee. From behind the tree, reality deteriorated rapidly.

Scenario 2 – I hit a 3 or 4 wood (mine are less wild than my driver) or anything between a 2 and 4 iron. I go left, but still in the fairway. Further from the green than I would have been with a driver, I hit another 4 or 5 iron instead of the 3 wood, to lay up – that’s two. Now, I’m fifty or sixty yards tfrom the green. The side bunkers are immense, but now, so is the green. I hit a wedge (that’s three). I’m on, but the wedge wasn’t great. Still, I’m only 12 feet away, instead of four times that. I have put the hidden rise in the green out of the equation, and even though I putt like a coward, I’m still close enough to snake the two-footer in – that’s 5…not 11. That’s six strokes. Not too great, but it’s a lot better math. Next question, was it as much fun?
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So, how often did I try one approach over the other, and how many times did it work out? In the absence of a math wizart, I still have enough sense to know that the swashbuckler me doesn’t play golf as well as the strategic me. On the other hand, the golf course is, in part, meant for the swashbuckler to let himself loose. The goal is great scores and self-heroism, but we hardly ever get both. It’s a choice between “I paid all that money to shoot a 96?” and “I paid all that money to act like a Certified Public Accountant?” When I go home, and people ask how I did, should I answer “I was very careful – and shot an 82,” or should I exclaim,  “You should have seen that drive of a lifetiime – um, err, a 96.”

The person who first said that golf is a walk spoiled by “disappointment and bad arithmetic” was speaking of scorecaard integrity, but the underlying math supports the disciplined, strategic, thoughtful, sometimes conservative player. That’s alluring to some, but if the swashbuckler is what you’re all about, you should probably pay no attention to it, and just keep ripping them out there.

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