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Are PGA Tour players too conservative when they lay up?

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Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Rich Hunt’s 2015 Pro Golf Synopsis, which can be purchased here for $10. Stylistic changes were made to the story for online publication. 

Last year, I wrote an article Study: Why do Tour players make more par putts than birdie putts? examining the phenomenon of “loss aversion” with putting. This was based on a study conducted and published in February 2011 in the American Economic Review by authors Devin Pope and Maurice Schweitzer titled Is Tiger Woods Loss Averse? Persistent Bias in the Face of Experience, Competition, and High Stake.

Loss aversion is an economics term, but in golf it refers to players who have more of a bias toward avoiding bogey than they do toward making a birdie. Pope and Schweitzer came to the conclusion that loss aversion exists on the PGA Tour through the following findings in their study:

1) The vast majority of golfers on Tour make a higher percentage of par or worse putts than birdie putts from the same distance.

For example, a Tour player may make 50 percent of all of their putts from 7-feet. But, when examining the data they may make 45 percent of their birdie putts from that distance and 55 percent of their par putts from that distance.

2) Tour players miss a much higher percentage of their birdie putts short of the hole, and therefore their par putt misses are more likely to miss long of the hole.

This lends credence to their theory of loss aversion, as they believed that the mentality of a loss aversion player was to not hit the ball too hard on their birdie putt so they would not potentially leave themselves with a longer comeback putt.

3) Tour players not only miss fewer birdie putts later in an event, but a lower percentage of their birdie misses end up short of the cup later in the event.

Let’s imagine we have the player who makes 15 percent of his birdie putts from 15 feet and in during Round 1. Furthermore, he leaves them short 40 percent of the time in Round 1. Pope and Schweitzer noticed that in Round 2 the player is more likely to increase his make percentage on birdie putts from 15 feet (we’ll say 20 percent) and leave a smaller percentage of those missed birdie putts short of the hole (we’ll say 30 percent). The same trend is likely to happen in Round 3 (i.e. making 25 percent of the putts and leaving 25 percent of the misses short of the hole) as well as Round 3 (i.e. 30 percent made putts, 20 percent of misses left short).

Pope and Schweitzer believed that this further substantiated their claim. They surmised that as the event progresses, not making a birdie putt in Round 4 had a similar effect to missing a par-save in Round 1. Thus, the player developed a bias to not lose strokes to the field and they started to make more birdie putts and leave less of their misses short of the hole as the event went along.

Can similar conclusions be made about when players lay up?

I perform statistical consulting for players, coaches and caddies on Tour each week. Part of my consultation service includes examining holes on the course and how the players have played those holes in previous seasons. After performing this service for a couple of seasons, I started to notice some similar traits when Tour players had to lay up, either off the tee or on the second shot on a Par-5, as I saw when players were demonstrating loss aversion on the putting green.

I will determine where the best lay-up distance (and at times, location) is for a player based on previous data. One of the very first factors I found on lay-ups is that distance to the hole is generally the most important factor when it comes to playing the numbers for an ideal lay-up range. Obviously, a player does not want to lay-up to an ideal distance but be hitting from a fairway bunker or even the rough. But in general, that is a small issue since if a Tour player is laying up off the tee, he is most likely to find the fairway since the lay-up shot is usually a short shot that is easy to execute. And rarely have I come across a situation where laying-up to one side of the fairway was statistically better than laying-up to another side of the fairway provided the following approach shot is from the same distance.

Another factor is that rarely is being closer to the hole off a lay-up disadvantageous to a Tour player. If a player can have a fairway shot from 50 yards to the hole, it is almost always better than a fairway shot from 75 yards to the hole. There is a bit of a myth that laying up to one’s “money yardage” is better than having a significantly closer shot (20 yards or more) on Tour. Tour players rarely have an issue with half-swing wedges over longer, full-swing wedge shots. The only issue with hitting a lay-up shot closer to the hole is on the lay-up shot itself. The lay-up shot is now longer and it increases that lay-up shot’s level of difficulty.

I determined ideal lay-up ranges based on historical data and how close to the hole the subsequent approach shot was hit to the hole. For example, there may be a par-5 where the lay-up shots were hit to 70 to 130 yards. I may break down the information and see that from 70-90 yards, the subsequent shot was hit to a median value of 13.2 feet to the hole. Shots from 90-100 yards were hit to a median value of 17.5 feet to the hole and from 100-110 yards those shots were hit to a median value of 19.8 feet to the hole. Therefore, the ideal lay-up range on this particular hole would be to 70-90 yards to the hole.

Over time, I saw that not only did my own clients continue to miss these ideal lay-up ranges, but the field as a whole missed these ideal lay-up ranges the vast majority of the time. And the misses were almost all short of the ideal range, just like with Birdie Putts missing short of the hole.

PGA Tour tournament study: Lay ups

I wanted to see how big of a problem missing these lay-up shots short of the ideal range was on Tour. I examined a variety of Par-4s and Par-5s where lay-up shots were more likely to happen. I feel that the Par-4 lay-up holes are more telling because players are hitting from a perfect lie and everybody is hitting from the same distance. I discarded players on Par-5s that either hit a terrible drive and had a statistically significant farther distance to the lay-up range than the rest of the field, or if they were hitting a shot out of a fairway bunker or an area that is known for having a bad lie. I also discarded terrible lay-up shots that ended up outside the first cut of rough or in another fairway bunker, the water, trees, etc.

Hole No. 4, Pebble Beach: 331 yards, Par-4

HoleNo4PebbleBeach

RichHuntGraphWRX

One of the things that was noticeable and needed to be taken into account was that the players who made the cut, but finished in the bottom-10, had a higher percentage of finding the ideal lay-up range. It is apparent that those who barely make the cut or fall back on Sunday decide to be more aggressive because they have little to lose. It could be argued that this skews the data. But the other thing that I started to find interesting was the players who finished in the top-10 were finding the ideal lay-up range more often than the rest of the field.

Hole No. 1, PGA National: 365 yards, Par-4

HoleNo1PGANational

RichHuntGraphWRX2

The ideal lay-up range is large on this hole. It’s shown between the yellow lines (40 yards long). Despite the size of this lay-up range, only 28 percent of the field found it. But the top-10 finishers still hit the ideal lay-up range more often than the non-bottom 10 finishers.

Hole No. 3, TPC Southwinds: 554 yards, Par-5

No3TPCSouthwindsWRX

RichHuntGraphWRX3

Here we see the top-10 finishers were hitting the ideal lay-up range more than the bottom-10 players. This is because this is a reachable par-5, so the “what do we have to lose” mentality was directed toward going for the green in two instead of laying up.

Conclusions

These were just a few examples of the holes I analyzed. The rest of the holes I analyzed followed the same pattern of the field missing short of the ideal lay-up range the majority of the time and the top-10 finishers finding the ideal lay-up range more often than the rest of the field. I believe that this analysis shows an indication of players being loss averse on lay-up shots.

I can concede the potential flaws in this study, such as a player may erroneously determine an ideal lay-up range that is different from the actual ideal lay-up range. For instance, the ideal lay-up range on hole No. 9 at Harbour Town is to 80-105 yards and a player may believe that it should be to 105-125 yards. However, if that is the case then we could argue that this is still an indication of loss aversion as they are choosing an ideal lay-up range that is short of the actual ideal lay-up range.

The study does show two important findings.

  • The top-10 finishers hit the actual ideal lay-up range more often when they lay-up than the rest of the field. This indicates that the top-10 finishers were less loss averse that week.
  • When looking at the lay-up data and the putting data, there were two players that stood out as a combination of being the least loss averse: Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth.

At the very least, these studies should make golfers question just how much loss aversion plays a role in their performance. For example, we have always heard the old adage of “take an extra club on approach shots because you are more likely to miss short of the hole than long of the hole.” Perhaps that is another instance of loss aversion affecting a golfer’s performance.

I also have to wonder if McIlroy and Spieth have a different view of golf than most everybody else. Perhaps they are thinking more about accumulating good golf shots in a round instead of focusing on avoiding bad golf shots. And maybe the golf world has to change its outlook on golf, choosing an offensive instead of defensive mindset in order to break the barriers Spieth and McIlroy have in recent years.

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Richie Hunt is a statistician whose clients include PGA Tour players, their caddies and instructors in order to more accurately assess their games. He is also the author of the recently published e-book, 2018 Pro Golf Synopsis; the Moneyball Approach to the Game of Golf. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @Richie3Jack. GolfWRX Writer of the Month: March 2014 Purchase 2017 Pro Golf Synopsis E-book for $10

23 Comments

23 Comments

  1. binu

    Feb 11, 2016 at 11:36 pm

    The pros play the percentage shot most of the time unless there is something on the line (etc – final round on the back nine). These guys are all number crunching machines for the most part.

  2. David Ober

    Feb 5, 2016 at 10:40 am

    I’ve often heard you remark that “closer is better” for the pros, but I’m more interested in the times when it is not. When greens get extremely firm and downwind, I’ve always wondered how many pros would chose a 30 – 40 yard shot over an 80 yard shot to a front pin cut over a bunker on a downwind firm green.

    My guess is very few. I’d be interested to know the average strokes to get down from both positions over a large sample, but the types of pin positions I’m talking about are very particular, but they do occur with regularity in tournaments where the greens are very, very firm.

    • Richie Hunt

      Feb 10, 2016 at 4:50 pm

      David – The most common instance I have found when it is better to lay-back more is on back pin locations. There’s a variety of reasons that can account for this. On Par-5’s, one of the common issues is the bunker shots. For Tour players, they are fairly competent and better off with a bunker shot from 25 yards and in than they would be to lay-up to their ‘money yardage.’ But once they get outside of 25-yards with a bunker shot…they would be better off laying-up. The performance drops dramatically once outside 25-yards. So, if you have a large green and the pin location is in back, you may find a greenside bunker where you have a bunker shot longer than 25-yards. However, if the pin was in front or the middle and you were in that bunker, the bunker shot could likely be less than 25-yards.

      #10 at Riviera is another example. That’s more about getting the ball to hold onto the green. That’s a quirky hole and a Tour player can hit driver to that back pin location at get blocked off by the left greenside bunker or find the right greenside bunker which is usually jail. But, if they lay-up, they can have a wedge into the hole and generate more spin to get the ball to hold.

      #17 at Scottsdale is better to lay-up on that back pin location as well. That’s more of an angle issue. I wouldn’t lay-up too far back. It’s more about trying to get as close to the green as you can without reaching the green because it’s too small of a landing area once you get to the green in order to put yourself in good position to get to that back pin location.

  3. John

    Feb 4, 2016 at 12:23 pm

    Really interesting article Richie! I know I am guilty of this. I don’t like laying up because I feel defensive. Whenever I hit a lay up shot, I feel like I am trying to steer the ball and not hit a bad one. When I get the chance to attack my attitude and focus are better. I think there is absolutely something to the “loss aversion” idea. As you pointed out, it can be seen with par putts and birdie putts, and I think you could also find it with chips and pitches. I would be interested to see if the pros get up and down from say 30-40 yards more often for birdie on a par 5 or up and down for par on a par 4 from the same distance.

  4. Alex

    Feb 4, 2016 at 8:19 am

    If a PGA Tour pro thinks he’s got to lay up, then he’s got to lay up.

    Tour pros make more par putts than birdie putts. And so do single digit amateurs. It’s the nature of the game. I’ve played the game for over 30 years and it’s always been so. I don’t think a statistics guru must say so.

  5. emb

    Feb 3, 2016 at 10:55 pm

    While I love reading your articles on statistics and find golf stats to be particularly interesting, I just can’t agree with the findings of this article when the top 10 players % of laying up to “ideal” yardage ranges from 37-54%. Yes, it may be higher than the non top/bottom 10 finishing players but, when only roughly 4 of the top 10 players are hitting the ideal yardages does that really translate into a quantifiable performance difference? Half or more of the top 10 aren’t hitting the ideal range either and they’re doing just fine.

  6. Other Paul

    Feb 3, 2016 at 8:28 pm

    Im pretty sure i almost never lay up, unless its an accident. I live by the driver and die by it to.

  7. Double Mocha Man

    Feb 3, 2016 at 4:12 pm

    I’m going to play two rounds of golf in the next two days. On the first day I’m going to be daring and go for par 5 greens in two, cut doglegs, go at all the pins… take calculated chances everywhere, including hitting out from the woods between those two trees. On day two I’m going to lay up on par 5’s and try to hit greens, just to get the GIR. I will see how it goes. See how it feels. See which style my genetic makeup prefers.

    • Fahgdat

      Feb 4, 2016 at 3:35 am

      What about pin placement, doofus?

      • Double Mocha Man

        Feb 4, 2016 at 11:51 am

        What about it? I don’t get your point. On day 2 it’s just about getting on greens and two- putting or getting lucky and one-putting. I know you play to a plus handicap; I only play to a 3.5 so this little experiment is practical for me. I’m doing Part 1 today.

  8. Lawrence

    Feb 3, 2016 at 2:29 pm

    Zach Johnson laid-up on all the par 5s when he won the Masters.

    • Richie Hunt

      Feb 3, 2016 at 2:40 pm

      The issue is not about laying up, although it is important. It’s about where the players are laying up to. On Par-5’s, most of the time the best lay-up spots were to about 70-90 yards while the majority of pros were laying up to 90-110 yards. Also, when Zach won the Masters he did it in record low temperatures and very breezy conditions. The amount of ‘go for its’ that year’s Master’s was extraordinarily low compared to previous Masters and Masters afterwards.

  9. West

    Feb 3, 2016 at 1:30 pm

    huh?

  10. Nick

    Feb 3, 2016 at 12:37 pm

    I will admit that I fall into this trap when I play tournaments. I always try to take on the least amount of risk that I can when laying-up. I will say though when I have played well and won tournaments, I have the feeling that I can hit any shot; thus, I am more aggressive on all my shots. It also doesn’t help that in college my coach taught us to only be aggressive if we had 8-iron or less into greens.

  11. Jacob

    Feb 3, 2016 at 12:34 pm

    As far as making par putts vs making birdie putts, I think you ignored what happens before making a par putt. They are more likely to have just missed a previous putt, or chipped on to the green compared to when they are going for a birdie putt. This would mean they get a better view of the line, assuming they’re paying attention.

    • Richie Hunt

      Feb 3, 2016 at 1:32 pm

      The study on par vs. birdie putts indicated loss aversion was coming into play because not only were they missing birdie putts more often from the same distance, but a higher percentage of birdie putt misses were missed short of the hole. And this was happening more frequently earlier in the event (more in round 1 than in round 2 than in round 3 than in round 4). The researchers took that into account, but their conclusions were that because of the short misses on birdie putts and it occurring more often earlier in the event, that in all likelihood reading the previous putt had little to do with par putting performance.

      • Tom

        Feb 3, 2016 at 8:55 pm

        But surely a counter argument to that is that missing short is a ‘misread’ of speed. Having had a look at not only the break but also the speed of a putt, therefore more likely to get the speed ‘correct’. Comparing par and birdie putts are like oranges and grapefruit – close enough to be confused, but different enough that it’s hard to directly compare.

    • devilsadvocate

      Feb 3, 2016 at 1:32 pm

      I was planning on posting this as I read… Thankfully someone else has some common sense

  12. Fahgdat

    Feb 3, 2016 at 12:18 pm

    Worthless article without the yardages that those top-10 players mostly hit on average with each club, comfortably. Situationally, of course they decide the best course of action, but percentages of likelihood with their yardages for accuracy comes into play.
    So how about a WITB with yardages for each club of these players, and their GIR percentages and proximity to the greens with each club?

  13. munichop

    Feb 3, 2016 at 12:03 pm

    This kind of study results in a chicken or egg analysis for golfers. For example are JS and RM making these decisions because they evaluate risk differently or are they just more confident in their ability to hit the shot that is required that they play with less fear. It is the old Ken Venturi insight – to paraphrase- a player must decide what his ego would like him to do, what his brain tells him to do and what his nerves allow him to do. I think an interesting thing to investigate is how players vary this approach when they play match play vs stroke play. Guys like Monty and Poulter I would expect to be much different in the two formats.

    • Richie Hunt

      Feb 3, 2016 at 2:49 pm

      I agree that there is chicken or the egg, that is why I did not try to take a strong stance in the end (or at least I hope I didn’t come off like I was taking a strong stance). I found the results interesting and it started to give me a different perspective on the game when I saw the ‘aggressiveness’ of McIlroy and Spieth. I do know from a Tour client of mine that Rory is just extremely confident and aggressive on the course and isn’t afraid to tell people this and how he believes in being aggressive. I also know that Spieth works with Scott Fawcett on strategy and Fawcett’s data concurs with my findings on ‘aggressiveness’ in golf.

      I was also watching the documentary on mafia hitman Richard Kuklinski (aka The Iceman) with world renowned psychologist, Dr. Park Dietz. Dr. Dietz said that Kuklinski’s daring nature was like genetic in his case. So, part of that ‘aggressiveness’ with players like McIlroy and Spieth may be part of a genetic makeup that most people do not have. So trying to create a mindset of not being loss averse may not actually work if you don’t have the genetic makeup for it.

      • Philip

        Feb 3, 2016 at 9:58 pm

        I can see that. I do not classify myself as a risk taker, however, I do embrace the rush that comes from being on the edge and pushing myself just beyond my best – I say I am an adrenaline junkie.

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Opinion & Analysis

The Wedge Guy: The Red Zone

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For those of you who are big football fans, we are lost in the off-season, waiting a few more months before we get to watch our favorite pro or college teams duke it out on the gridiron. Living in Texas, of course, football is a very big deal, from the NFL Cowboys and Texans, through our broad college network representing multiple conferences and into the bedrock of Friday nights – high school football, which drives fans and entire towns into a frenzy.

In almost every football conversation on TV, you hear talk about “the red zone”. How a team performs inside the 20-yard line is a real measure of their offensive prowess, and usually a pretty good indicator of their win/loss record, too. It breaks down to what percentage of the time a team scores a touchdown or field goal, and how often they come away empty.

I like to think we golfers have our own “red zone”. It’s that distance from the green where we should be able to go on the offensive and think about pars and birdies, ensure no worse than bogey . . . and rarely put a double or worse on the card. Your own particular set of red zone goals should be based on your handicap. If you are a low single digit, this is your “go zone”, where you feel like you can take it right at the flag and give yourself a decent birdie putt, with bogeys being an unpleasant surprise. For mid-handicap players, it’s where you should feel confident you’ll guarantee a par and rarely make bogey, and for higher handicap players, it’s where you will ensure a bogey at least, give yourself a good chance at par, and maybe even a birdie.

But regardless of your handicap, your own “red zone” should begin when you can put a high loft club in your hands – one with over 40 degrees of loft. Of course, that has changed a lot with the continual strengthening of irons. In my early days that was an eight iron, then it migrated to a nine. But regardless of your handicap or the make and model of irons you play, my contention is that golf is relatively “defensive” with all the other clubs in your bag. With those lower lofted irons, your goal should be to just keep it out of trouble and moving closer to the goal line . . . er, the flag. Even the PGA Tour pros make a very small percentage of their birdies with their middle irons.

When you can put a high loft club in your bag – whether that’s from 150 yards or 105 – that’s when you should feel like you can put your offense into high gear and raise your expectations. It’s no longer about power, because this isn’t about raw distance, but rather distance control and precision. From the red zone, it’s about trusting your technique and your equipment and taking it to the golf course a little bit.

As most of us are in the early stages of the 2021 golf season, one of the best things you can do for your golf improvement is to begin tracking your “red zone” performance. Put the numbers down as to how you are scoring the golf course from your 9-iron range on into the flag. My guess is that you’ll see this is where you can make the most improvement if you’ll give that part of your game some additional time and focus. Any golfer can learn to hit crisp and accurate short range approach shots. And so you should.

Pay attention to your own red zone stats, and work to improve them. I guarantee you that you’ll see your scores come down quickly.

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Club Junkie

Club Junkie: Reviewing Titleist TSi3 drivers and fairways! (Finally!)

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The moment you all have been waiting for: I finally have a TSi3 driver and 3-wood in my hands! Talking about how they performed and maybe some shaft changes for each in the future.

 

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Golf's Perfect Imperfections

GPI: From indoor winter training to “time to play”

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Winter fitness development workouts to summer tournaments play exercises for maintenance. The mental and physical.

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