All Putts Are Not Created Equal

A few weeks ago, I teed off on a rather difficult par 4 hole. Goes uphill a bit, angles to the right. The green is guarded by two well placed bunkers on the left and there’s bad ground on the right. My drive splits the fairway, and my approach from ~170 starts off to the right and curls to the left, toward the flag tucked behind the bunkers.

When I get to the green, I see the flag is all the way back left in a little corner that has to be nearly impossible to get to, but there’s my ball only twelve feet away. Wow. Getting a birdie with the pin here would be the accomplishment of the year.

I get the putt lined up, put a good stroke on it, the ball is rolling dead toward the hole, and it stops a foot short. Par.

You know why it stopped short? The putt was slightly downhill and I didn’t want to blow it by and have a four-footer coming back and turn a possible birdie into a bogey. Maddening. And you know what? I found out this morning I’m not alone.

A study by Devin Pope and Maurice Schweitz of the Wharton School, titled Is Tiger Woods Risk Averse? Persistent Bias on the Face of Competition, and High Stakes , shows that PGA pros do the same thing. They will make identical putts 3.3% less often if it is a birdie putt than a par putt.

Why? Because they are risk averse, just like you and me. They consider the risk of getting a bogey and dropping a shot to be greater than the reward of gaining one by sinking the birdie putt.

I’ll bet this applies to you, too, though maybe on a different level. I would bet you make more eight-foot putts for bogey than you do for par. You’re used to getting bogeys, but those doubles just cannot happen. So you bear down more to get that par putt in the hole.

It would be nice if a putt is just a putt. Whatever score it is for, we would treat them all the same. But maybe a bit of reverse psychology would be in order. The next time you have a birdie putt, pretend it is for par. That might help you give the ball the extra oomph it needs to go in.

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