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The idea for this post originally came from an analysis done in the book Every Shot Counts on the stats behind par and birdie putts.
And it got me thinking... Even though most amateurs are not putting for birdies on most greens, the same concept applies and it's an interesting one.
Here's the scenario—faced with a bogey putt and a par putt of the same length, which one are you going to make more often?
For most amateurs, I'd guess "bogey putt" would be the answer.
While I don't have stats to back this up, I always felt like I made more of my par putts than I did birdie putts while playing competitive golf. To me, it was a mindset thing—I "had to make" those par putts to keep my round going, while the birdie putts were less important—they were "nice to make".
I had more focus and commitment to my stroke on par putts because I wasn't afraid to make pars!
In the case of a "bogey golfer", making the standard bogey isn't scary at all either. It's "good". It's "expected".
But standing over a par putt, you might start to think, "Wow, this could really accelerate my round if I made this".
And you fall victim to many of the well-known round-killers:
- You "guide the putt" (trying too hard to make it)
- You get timid with the putt
- You overthink the putt
- You get distracted by what it's going to do for your round and forget to keep your head down and make a great stroke
You know the drill—we've all had this happen.
I think we can all agree that the psychology of a birdie vs. par vs. bogey putt of the same length is different. These scores all mean something slightly different to each of us.
But does the data back this up?
In a 2011 study on professional golfer putts, authors Devin Pope and Maurice Schweitzer attempted to figure out whether golfers were "risk averse" and putted better when they "had to make it" vs. when they "wanted to make it".
In summary, pro golfers make more par putts than they do birdie putts of similar length and nature.
Here's a more detailed breakdown:
- Evidence of Loss Aversion: The study finds that even top golfers like Tiger Woods exhibit signs of loss aversion. They tend to be less accurate in birdie putts compared to par putts, consistent with the tendency to avoid losses.
- Study Scope: The analysis is based on over 2.5 million putts in PGA Tour events, offering a comprehensive view of performance under high stakes.
- Impact of Reference Points: Golfers' performance is influenced by the salient reference point of 'par.' They perform differently when putting for birdie (under par) versus putting for par or bogey (over par).
- Differences Across Rounds: The accuracy gap between par and birdie putts varies across tournament rounds, being largest in the first round and diminishing in later rounds.
- Risk Aversion in the Gain Domain: Golfers exhibit more caution in putting for birdie (gain domain) than for par, indicating a shift in risk preferences consistent with Prospect Theory.
- Robustness of Findings: The results hold even after controlling for various factors like putt distance, player ability, and position on the green, suggesting the robustness of the loss aversion phenomenon.
There are plenty of possible explanations for this effect, but two that seem most likely to me:
- Second putt advantage—most pros hit their putts with appropriate speed, which means those putts will travel slightly past the hole on a miss. You'll also notice that pros intently watch as the ball rolls past to see how the comeback putt breaks. With that useful information, the next putt becomes slightly easier.
- Psychology—as the study points out, golfers are more "loss averse". They don't want to miss the putt they know they should make.
If there is anything actionable to take from this study, here it is—watch your putts even when they miss.
This gives you a small advantage on the comeback putt since you'll have a better idea of how it breaks.
Furthermore, try to counteract this effect! When you have a par putt, or for better golfers, a birdie putt, pay extra attention to your pre-shot routine. Focus on the factors you can control:
- Get a good read on the putt
- Visualize it going in
- Keep your head down
And with that, I'll see you next week!
Hit 'em straight!