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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Debate Over Laying Up Continues

There's an article over at the Golf Digest site about whether players should lay up or go for it when they're in contention. This time the debate was set off by J.B. Holmes not going for the green on the 18th.

The article, called There's Science to Prove Laying Up Doesn't Pay Off, refers to a study published in December 2013 that found pro golfers who play more aggressively when trying to make the cut tend to make more cuts than the golfers that don't. The article concedes that these aggressive players have more volatile scores but says that the increased number of cuts made makes it worthwhile.

This does, of course, beg the question: Is it better to be an aggressive player than a conservative one? The abstract for that study (which costs $40 if you want to read the whole article) says, in part:
The convex payoff structure in professional golf rewards scoring volatility, giving rise to player types who succeed in spite of higher average scoring. The same risk incentives should influence all players to adjust risk strategies at key moments in tournaments when payoffs either crystallize or become particularly convex.
Even though I haven't read the study, this bit of the abstract makes me question whether the strategy is really that clear, especially for golfers who aren't playing on a big tour.

As I see it, here's the stumbling block. Let me quote Golf Digest, which makes the questionable part more obvious:
...[In the study] Edmund M. Balsdon, a professor of Economics at San Diego State University, argues that pros should start playing more aggressive under pressure, because tournament purses are heavily skewed in favor of the winner. In other words: Start pin-seeking once you're in contention, because even if you bomb-out a few times, all it takes is one win to make the deal more than worth your while.
Do you see? It's all about the money. Cuts made -- and theoretically, tournaments won -- are equated to money made, which may be a reasonable assumption on the PGA Tour (the study focuses on the 2003–2012 PGA Tour seasons) where many players are concerned with making a living. (Nothing wrong with making a living!)

I can also see where this might be a plausible strategy on a smaller tour like the Symetra Tour where there is much less money available, so winning outright is almost a necessity if you hope to move to the next level.

Poker players are well-acquainted with this mindset. A poker player may call or even raise a bet with a hand that is almost certain to lose in a showdown because the "pot odds" make the risk acceptable. Part of the logic here is that many of the hands these players play aren't obvious winners; in Texas Hold'Em, for example, a new card may be dealt that turns an otherwise losing hand into a very powerful one. (A pair of twos is the weakest pair in the game, yet a third two gives you three-of-a-kind, a very powerful hand in most cases.)

But the abstract mentioned above also notes that:
Analysis of individual players indicates that some elite players are more risk responsive.
And here's where using profitability as an indicator seems questionable to me. That statement seems to indicate that increased aggressiveness is one reason that many players become "elite." And I think that may be misleading.

First, it also means that some elite players are not more aggressive. Aggressiveness and elite status are not automatically connected.

But are we arguing that, like the poker player with the weak hand but great pot odds, taking a 'bad' shot -- that is, one you'll miss more often than you make -- is an advisable way to become a more successful player? Playing pot odds doesn't require any skill beyond basic math. Presumably an elite player has considerably more golfing skill than the less-successful player, and therefore a lesser player's "aggressive" shot is more of a "routine" shot for the elite player.

In other words, perhaps elite players appear more aggressive but their skill actually makes such a shot less risky for them. That makes more sense to me.

The debate will continue, of course. Should J.B. have gone for the green with his third shot on 18 and tried to win the tournament outright, even though he didn't like the lie? Many will say so, and perhaps they're right...

But me? I'm pretty sure that the safe play on 18 wasn't nearly as costly to J.B. as airmailing the 16th green during the playoff. If he couldn't hit a green with a mid-iron from a perfect lie on a tee, I'm guessing that going for the 18th from a questionably lie with a long iron, hybrid or fairway wood wouldn't have even gotten him into the playoff.

Maybe numbers don't lie, folks, but numbers are meaningless until they're interpreted... and interpretations lie all the time. Consider that next time you wonder whether to go for it or not!


  1. Here you go link to the report

    Heavy going