Pitching out to save par


There is a commercial on TV that relates the experience and the learnings of golf to those of life in general. This company is not the first to make that relationship, I suspect many who play the game do as well.

In golf, there are occasions when one misses the fairway and is faced with a choice of shots: pitch out of the trouble area on to a safe place (the fairway) and go from there or take the heroic approach and “go for it.”

The problem with the latter approach is that one generally does not succeed and the result is that rather than costing one stroke (for the pitching out approach) several strokes are lost as one bad shot leads to a series of others. All golfers know this. A mathematician would cite probability theory as the basis of such an outcome.

More broadly the problem may reflect optimism (the heroic shot will succeed even though on the basis of probabilities it has little chance of doing so), lack of foresight (not seeing beyond the next shot) or in all likelihood a combination of both (the heroic shot will work so why should I chip out?)

In real life, determining how to arrive at the desired outcome is hard. There are several steps that need to be successfully traversed. First, one has to realize there is a sequence that leads to an outcome; something beyond the first step. I remember reading somewhere that only 23% of people are able to abstract things. I found this surprisingly low. Not being able to abstract a situation makes it difficult to understand and then appreciate the implications of choices; the steps beyond the first one. If one is able to abstract, then he or she must be able to determine and compare different sequences of steps that lead to an outcome. If able to do both these, emotions, often in the form of optimism, may lead the analysis along the wrong sequence.

I don’t propose that arriving at decisions on how to proceed should be logically–unemotionally–derived, assessed and then formed. Few, if any, decisions are made without an emotional element. However, all too often it is the emotional taken on its own; driving decisions from this singular point of view is not right either. A decision that lacks an emotional element is not human; the emotional element is the one that provides the courage for risk taking. Phil Mickelson may have received a lot of criticism about letting emotion cloud his decision-making process on the 72nd hole at the US Open this year, but as Arnold Palmer pointed out if he had listened to his caddie all the time on what the smart shot was he would not have won as often as he did.


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