In a couple of different ways, “pretty good” is what matters. Let’s examine the multiple meanings of that phrase, and see what it means to play that way.
Originally published 2010
Here’s what happens when you’re thinking about making great shots (as I know from personal experience):
- You’re on the tee thinking, “If I make a great swing, I’ll crush the ball down there past the bunkers.”
Every once in a while, you get that result. But more often, your body gets over active, your hands race ahead of the clubhead, leaving it open at impact, while your shoulders race ahead of contact, producing an out-to-in swing. Result: A massive slice off into the woods.Now you’re in the rough thinking, “If I max out this club, I’ll fly it (over, around, through) those trees to the green. Every once in a while, that’s what happens. But more often, you top it, bounce off a tree, or smash it into the jungle on the other side of the fairway.
Now, the real problem there, is those “every once in a while” great results.
As B.F. Skinner showed with his “psychology” experiments on rats, intermittent reinforcement is addictive. So now you’re hooked! You have to keep trying for the miracle shot, because every once in a while, it happens.
Intermittent reinforcement is addictive!
“Pretty Good” Golf
My epiphany came while watching a player melt down on the PGA Tour. The player hooked a drive on the 18th hole, in position to win. All he needed was to punch it back into the fairway, and finish with a bogey to win. Instead, he played a “heroic” shot that had to skim over the tops of the trees to land on the green and stick. If he made the shot, he would saved par. But missing it cost him yet another stroke.
Announcer Johnny Miller explained that you want to follow a bad shot with an “ok” shot, not a “great” one. In other words, just get it back into play. Don’t try for a heroic recovery.
That’s when it hit me. My golfing buddy Jim Holmlund had been observing that I need to find a way to stop a bad hole from going all the way south. Of course, part of that observation stems from the fact that when I start swinging badly, my body is tired, or dehydrated, or both. Sometimes I even got to the point where I’m on the green, and I can’t recall what shots I played to get there. (That was the result of severe dehydration, on a hot day. I think. You lose a lot more water than you think, apparently. These days, I make sure to stay hydrated. So I haven’t had one of those “blank memory” holes in a while.)
But even when my body isn’t giving out on me, I’m perfectly capable of turning a bad swing into a series of misses that gives me an 8 or 9 for a hole. (In fact, trying for a “great” swing is an especially bad idea when my body is giving out.)
The epiphany was this: When you play a super-safe shot to get back to the fairway, it is in effect a “one stroke penalty”. And really, that’s not too bad. Say you lose the ball in a red-stake hazard. The penalty is one stroke, and you drop a couple of club lengths from where the ball went into the hazard. That’s not too bad. So maybe you shoot double bogey for the hole, instead of bogey. It’s acceptable.
But say you find the ball in the hazard, and it’s in some bushes, with some trees ahead. If you manage to catch it just right, you can put it through the 10-foot gap between trees… You know the drill. You pop it out of bushes maybe a foot. But you could still get it through the trees from there. So naturally you bounce off the tree to some other strange location. Before you know it, you’ve added two or three strokes to your score, without getting much closer to the hole. You’d have been better off losing the ball.
So a “safe” recovery shot is like a one-stroke penaly, only better. Because, after your recovery shot, you should be in the middle of the fairway, hopefully a little closer to the hole, with good chances to save bogey (or double bogey).
The need to play recovery shots back to the fairway is a good reason to practice bump and run shots, pitches, and chips. These days, I always finish off a bucket with 20-some varieties of those shots, because they’re helpful to escape trouble, in addition to approaching the green.
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