Pro Golfers Just As Irrational As the Rest of Us

How golfers leave strokes, and money, on the course

By Eamonn Brennan
|  Tuesday, Jun 16, 2009  |  Updated 10:36 AM PDT
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On the Green at The Masters

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Tiger Woods could be even wealthier, if you can believe it.

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Being a pro golfer is a uniquely tense profession. Unlike most sports, where the team concept and lack of individuality keep pressure situations diffuse, golf is a lonely game with no place to hide. Miss a shot? On you. Cost yourself a tournament? You have nobody to blame but ... well, you get the idea. Throw in the quiet tension of the golf course -- people aren't screaming and cheering during your play, instead silently waiting for you to finish with your failure -- and you've got a unenviable situation all around. We're kind of glad we're not a pro golfer.

That tension leads to some strange decisions. Chief among them, according to a new study: Golfers are so afraid of bogeys, they leave strokes on the golf course. This is counterproductive.

How does it work? Well, golfers are so afraid of making a bogey they'll oftentimes sacrifice opportunities to make birdie -- to improve their scores -- in order to prevent the chance of giving themselves a bad second putt. The study found that players make considerably fewer putts for birdie than identical putts for par, meaning that putts that should be no problem are often played too conservatively. On a downhill putt, say, a golfer will play against the risk of hitting the ball too hard, instead laying up and making a similar putt to the one he could have made just one short before.

The study, the abstract for which you can read here, claims thanks to this sort of loss aversion (the preference for avoiding a negative instead of maximizing an equal positive) players end up costing themselves about one stroke per tournament. For the top players, it's worse than that: The study says top PGA tour pros cost themselves about $1.2 million in prize money every year.

In just a few days, the 2009 U.S. Open will begin. See if you can count the loss averse shots. That is, if you think it's worth your time.

Eamonn Brennan is a Chicago-based writer, editor and blogger. You can also read him at Yahoo! Sports, Mouthpiece Sports Blog, and Inside The Hall, or at his personal site, eamonnbrennan.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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