Dr. Putt offers three diverse items in this summer's newsletter. First, some personal instruction on where to focus one's sight when striking the ball. Second, Dr. Putt calls your attention to an excellent piece of research from the Wharton School of Economics concerning risk aversion and putting. And third, some fleeting observations on Tiger's return to the tour in 2009.
1) Where to Focus When Striking the Ball
This spring Dr. Putt went through about twenty years of golf magazines, bundled them up, and donated them to a charity book and magazine sale. He not only gave away what felt like hundreds of pounds of magazines, but also a goal he once had to catalogue the range of advice on various aspects of the game and to determine how many times the same piece of advice was recycled. That goal fell to higher priorities. Nevertheless, giving up a goal is always somewhat sad, even if the goal was only to quantify the obvious.
In any case, as Dr. Putt was flipping through the hundreds of magazines, he came across a golden oldie, a little piece of advice that he had quite forgotten, a piece of advice that he was reminded of in a recent letter about what to look at while executing the putting stroke.
In particular, the advice in the article was about where to look to take a proper divot in playing irons. The answer is to look at the front of the ball, not the back of the ball. Trying to take a divot while looking at the back of the ball creates a tendency to hit behind the ball. Looking at the front of the ball encourages one to hit ball then ground so that the divot is in front of the ball. You get more power, higher trajectory, and backspin with less effort. In short, to take a divot in front, look at the front of the ball!
Where one should look on other shots depends on the shot. On wood shots where one wishes to sweep the ball, looking at the back of the ball is fine. On sand shots look at the point in the sand you wish to hit, throwing the sand in front of the spot, and the ball, onto the green. On putts one should not look at the ball at all, but rather at a blade of grass just behind the ball and then stroke through that spot with the ball being struck incidentally along the way to completing the follow through.
2) Risk Aversion and Putting
Dr. Putt has a son who is finishing up his first year working on a PhD in economics at UC Berkeley. Recently, he called Dr. Putt's attention to a Wharton School of Economics study on putting and the tendency of humans to minimize short term risk. Economists call this "risk aversion."
Applied to putting, the study showed that virtually all professionals, including Tiger, are significantly more likely to make a par putt of a given length than a birdie putt of the same length. The explanation is that one feels one has to make a par putt to avoid the risk of a bogie. But if the putt is for a birdie, one tends to play more conservatively so as to avoid the risk of a possible three putt. The birdie opportunity lost is percieved as less of a risk than the fear of a bogie. Put anther way, a par is almost always ok, but a bogie is far worse than a birdie is good.
Yes, this reasoning is irrational if the goal is to minimize the number of strokes. Logically we should all be putting like we need to make the putt every time on putts within 15 feet or so. After all, a stroke is a stroke, whether it is for a par or a birdie.
That is easy to say but very hard to do. Playing with emotion, including avoiding the risk of feeling badly about three putting, is part of what makes us human. We play with emotion rather than cold calculation. Nothing Dr. Putt can say will change that.
Dr. Putt does wonder if the whole concept of par is bad for maximizing performance. We might play better if we did not assign an expected number of strokes to any hole and just tried to take as few as possible. Of course that is also impossible because another aspect of our humanity is to set goals by which we measure ourselves. If par were not posted, we would create some other similar expectation and avoid the risk of going over it, even if that reduced the chances of going under it.
For a more detailed report on this study, you can read a N.Y. TIMES article at: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/16/sports/golf/16study.html.
3) Tiger Back on Tour -- Welcome to My World, Tiger, at Least for a Few Weeks
Tiger's return to the tour has been interesting and dramatic, to say the least. Initially, Tiger teased us into thinking that he was on track almost immediately by winning on his third outing of 2009 and then positioning himself to win in his next several tournaments, but then retreating like a mere mortal when the real Tiger would have charged. He was in postion to make a run at both the Masters and the U.S. Open, but faded. At the TPC it was said that he felt he was making progress when his misses were all in one direction. Now that sounds like the rest of us, not like the Tiger of years past! Welcome to my world, Tiger. He was having to deal with what plagues the rest of us -- doubt.
Indications are that Tiger has figured it out, winning both the Memorial and his own National Tournament. By the time many of you read this, he will be acting like, well, like Tiger again, and may have chaulked up a major or perhaps even two. But it is in a way reassuring that he shows he is human, not some superhero of the links who was at a young age stung by some tiny creature that lived for generations in a golf hole.
Most of us who doggedly pursue the tragedy of golf have wished to have whatever it was that Tiger has had. Now we finally have something he has had, even if he only had it for a few weeks. Sadly, it is something we have already had on all too many occasions: the feeling that progress was making misses in the same direction in a round. Perhaps Dr. Putt should have picked his wish more carefully.