The behavioural economics of golf

It seems behavioural economics can teach amateur golfers (like me) a thing or two. In fact, the caddies have a name for it.

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning behavioural economist, discusses two golfers on the first day of a tournament. One shoots a good low score and the other shoots a bad high score. The first golfer has been no better or worse than the other in the past – but at this tournament, he’s on fire.

The media are full of the first golfer’s form (they might pick on possible reasons like his new clubs). However, on the second day our high performer posts a poorer score. The other golfer, meanwhile, improves.

This is a common scenario and illustrates a law called Regression to the Mean. Both players had a run of either good or bad luck that was unlikely to carry on. Both scores moved back towards the average (par for the course). A mathematical law doesn’t make for a great newspaper story, however. The media announce that the player choked. Whenever this player does well, they say, he can’t handle the pressure.

In fact, the more holes golfers play, the more likely they are to arrive at a mean score that reflects their ability. The mean score for 36 holes is better than the mean for 18. We can hack around a course complaining of our inconsistency hole to hole but it’s surprising how our final score tends to be in the same small range of numbers by the end. The bigger the data set, the more stable the measure.

If you’re playing out of your skin, enjoy it but don’t be irked when things start to get a little pedestrian again. If you’ve got off to a bad start, trust things will get better. Being realistic about your ability is vital.

But not easy.

Imagine things are going well and you’re on the 5th tee swinging your driver. You top the ball and it bobbles a few feet into the rough. When you see the buried lie you know the right thing to do is hack it out with a wedge. If you remind yourself of the rule of Regression to the Mean you’ll know this is a due dose of bad luck to even out the good. If you don’t, you’ll imagine you’ve thrown a good score away. You’ll reach for an inappropriate club and smash the ball a few feet through the rough. We’ve all been there.

Behavioural economics tells us that when it comes to risks we either over egg them or ignore them completely. What we don’t automatically do is assess the shot we’re about to make and work out the realistic chances of success, only taking on the shots with more than a 50% chance.

The fear of loss makes us particularly irrational. Studies of decisions made on the TV game show Deal or No Deal tell us that once the contestants miss out on a big amount of cash they get reckless, trying to regain the ‘lost’ amount that wasn’t theirs in the first place. Like our man in the rough, they ignore the high risk.

When a golfer is realistic about his ability, this Loss Aversion can be put to good use. Studies show that when a pro golfer is faced with a putt for a par he’s more likely to make it than if he was facing that same putt for a birdie. A birdie would feel like a gain but missing a par would feel like a loss. Avoiding loss is more motivating.

Your average weekend golfer rarely putts for a birdie and a par can feel like a gain – so be realistic with yourself about what a gain or a loss putt would be for you. You might find that, instead of putting for a bogie despondently, those bogie putts are given extra focus by Loss Aversion.

If a putt is missed or the rough isn’t cleared it can cause regret. Regret fosters the idea that everything is going wrong and won’t go right. Ironically regret lies in wait to trap the thinking golfer who has a chance of improving.

If a less self aware golfer takes foolish risks all the time he’ll be unlikely to regret his hack and will arrive at the next tee without regrets. We all know that golfer! He might also be “hedonic editing”, which means he has a way of viewing his game that is standing in the way of improvement. He may, for example, see himself as a ballsy player, a thrill seeker.

One reason we might “hedonic edit” our performance is because of something called confirmation bias. In the case of our so called ballsy player it might be because he admires a pro golfer who is both successful and takes risks. The two aren’t necessarily cause and effect. In fact that golfer might be a great player despite getting himself into risky situations.

All this doesn’t sound like fun, you might think. Golf is fun when you take on the odds. I disagree. Golf is fun when it goes right. I used to think golf was at its best when I stood on the first tee with the feeling that maybe, just maybe, this round would be a miracle round. My mood would go down from there.

There’s an alternative. Make Regression to the Mean your caddy; picking out the right clubs and weighing the risks. And don’t think that just because behavioural economics has a fancy name your average caddy doesn’t know about it. On the bags they call it course management.

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