The Economics of Putting

When Lucas Glover missed a relatively short birdie putt on the 18th at Quail Hollow today, Nick Faldo mentioned that his stroke on the birdie putt was tentative while his earlier putts to save par had been much more confident. Faldo speculated that Glover didn’t want to lose a stroke on the par saves, so he was more aggressive on those putts. In response, Peter Kostis said something like “But haven’t you added a stroke when you miss either putt?”

Kostis is obviously correct – you are a stroke worse off whether you don’t make the birdie or don’t make the par. However, you feel the miss for the par more and the bogey shows up on your score relative to par. Missing the birdie just means your score doesn’t change.

There’s a psychological and economic principle that says you feel the loss of money more strongly than you feel the gain of an equal amount. Your negative emotions related to loss are stronger than your positive emotions related to gain. If your stock goes up $1 per share you think that’s nice, but if it goes down $1 you think it’s awful.

I suppose this principle applies to golf scores, too. I’m sure Glover would have felt worse about making a bogey than not making a birdie, even if both events meant 1 more stroke on his card overall.

I leave more putts short than long. I tell myself it’s because I feel like I can make more of the second putts that way – when I miss long, I’m usually farther away from the hole than I am when I leave it short. Of course, I’m guaranteed to not make the first putt when it’s short, but I don’t feel that loss nearly as much as I feel the pain of a three putt. A three putt is a loss to me, a two putt is breaking even.

And for Glover, golf scores really are economics.

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