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What golfers and blackjack players have in common

Last updated Jan 05, 2024

What golfers and blackjack players have in common

Unlike many sports, golf is a game of risk management. The best pros all share one thing in common—they play a better, risk-managed strategy.

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Written By: Zach Gollwitzer

Posted in: Course Strategy

Today, we're talking about managing risk in golf.

And to do that, I'll be using the game of Blackjack as an example, where the goal is to achieve a "hand" that totals 21, or a "blackjack". For example, an Ace and a King equals a blackjack.

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What does this have to do with golf?

To find out, let's talk about strategy.

Playing the "optimal strategy"

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In the game of Blackjack, experienced players use something called Basic Strategy, which is a set of rules that tells the player what move to make based on their current hand and the dealer's current hand.

In other words, it's a "cheat sheet".

For example, if a player is initially dealt a hand that totals 11 points, they will always want to "double their bet" because the odds of winning are high.

Using this set of predefined rules, a player can significantly increase their chances of winning the game. It doesn't guarantee a victory, but compared to a player betting on a whim, the odds are much higher.

If you've been around the game of golf long enough, you might recognize some similarities here.

For example, I've talked about the 7/10 rule in golf before, which states that in a trouble situation, you should always play the shot you can pull off at least 7/10 times.

Believe it or not, that rule isn't made up out of the blue. Looking at data from thousands of golf shots, Mark Broadie calculated in Every Shot Counts that to "breakeven" (i.e. 0 strokes gained) from a recovery shot situation, the golfer must be able to hit that shot successfully 72% of the time, or 7/10 times.

Taking this one step further, if a golfer wants to gain strokes on the field from a recovery situation, they need to be able to hit the shot they are attempting successfully 86% of the time, or 9/10 times! Given this probability, they will on average gain 0.2 strokes on the field with that shot.

Don't compound your mistakes in golf

In Blackjack, there are a finite number of scenarios for a player to deal with, and hence, each play has a "by the book" move that the player can use to maximize their odds of winning.

In golf, we have no such "book". There are infinite scenarios.

But that doesn't mean we can't "beat the house" with better golf strategy.

One of the biggest differences between pros and amateurs is this—the pros rarely make two mistakes in a row. I think there are two reasons for this:

  1. They are... really good at this game (duh)
  2. They "take their medicine"

While I can't magically improve your golf game overnight, I can offer some ideas on playing smarter.

For most golfers, golf is not about hitting better shots; it's about damage control.

Damage Control: How do we play smart golf?

Nobody knows what "smart golf" really means. It's a vague concept we use to describe the idea I've outlined above.

So let's make this tangible. Here are 3 ways to play "smarter" and put the odds in your favor.

Tip #1: Stop trying to make up lost ground

After a bad golf shot, the tendency for most golfers is to walk to the next shot and try to make up for the previous one.

In hindsight, we know this strategy doesn't work.

Not only are we more likely to be angry, unfocused, and impatient over that second shot; but we also tend to attempt riskier shots the second time around.

I talk about this more at the 4:21 mark of the video below. After coming off a double-bogey, I was faced with the decision of whether to "go for it" on a par 5 in two shots. Instead, I "took my medicine" and layed up, walked away with a par, and prevented my round from getting worse:

Tip #2: Study the data to make better decisions

Many strokes have been lost in golf because we have false assumptions about what shots are "easiest".

For example, in a prior issue, I talked about how on average, for all skill levels, a 50-yard pitch shot leads to a lower score than a full, 100-yard swing. For many golfers (myself included for years), we think that a full swing is easier than a partial wedge, so we lay up to that distance.

Furthermore, we downplay the potential consequence of "threading the needle" between those trees and forget about the 7/10 rule.

Lucky for you, I cover these types of topics in this newsletter! But if you want another leg up on the competition, I suggest reading Every Shot Counts and learning more about strokes gained.

Tip #3: Play the hole backwards

When I competed regularly in golf, I'd always play practice rounds before big tournaments. One of the primary reasons we play practice rounds is to learn the course front to back AND back to front.

You should take note of trouble areas around the greens, which will help you build your hole strategy more effectively.

For example, if you play a short par 4 where the green is sloped front-to-back severely and the pin is in the front, you might decide that driver off the tee is a bad strategy. Why? Because with driver, you may leave yourself a partial wedge shot which is very difficult to get close to a front pin like that. You simply can't hit it high enough with adequate spin.

Instead, you could hit 3-wood, have a full swing with a pitching wedge or 9-iron and produce enough loft and spin to stop it on that tricky green.

Final Thoughts

I know this issue was denser than most, but I hope it gave you some ideas on how to improve your own strategy to manage risk better.

Remember:

  • Damage control is more important than hero shots
  • Use the 7/10 rule
  • Play the hole backwards, take note of the risks, and build your strategy from there

See you in the next issue!

About the author: Zach Gollwitzer

Zach Gollwitzer profile picture

Hey, I‘m Zach, the founder of The DIY Golfer! I created this site while playing D1 collegiate golf with a simple mission—I wanted to learn the golf swing and get better at golf myself.

Fast forward a few years, and my “journal“, The DIY Golfer, has been viewed by millions of golfers worldwide looking to do the same with their games. my mission is to make golfers more consistent in just a few hours a week through advanced practice strategies and timeless, first-principle golf instruction.