Psychology of golf: Why you miss those birdie putts

Wondering why you miss so many birdie putts? This may be the reason.

Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman released a book late last year called “Thinking, Fast and Slow” that outlines the problems with human reasoning. In the book he hints at why golfers miss many more birdie putts than par putts of the same length.
In the book (that has spent a considerable amount of time on the New York Times best sellers list) he cites a study published in 2009 by Pope and Schweitzer that looked at 2,525,161 putts attempted by 421 PGA tour players between 2004 and 2009. The results showed a significant increase in putts made for par than for birdie.

“When golfers are “under par” (e.g., shoot a “birdie” putt that would earn them a score one stroke under par or shoot an “eagle” putt that would earn them a score two strokes under par) they are significantly less accurate than when they attempt otherwise similar putts for par or are “over par”.”

The reason expanded upon in Kahneman’s book is that we are hard wired to worry more about loss than gain, and the performance (or in this case, the putting) gets better when you are trying to avoid failure. This, despite the fact that a birdie putt or a par putt are of equal value and are only differentiated because of the par assigned for the hole.

“Pope and Schweitzer theorized that players would try a little harder when putting for par to avoid a bogey than when putting for a birdie. They analyzed over 2.5 million puts in exquisite detail to test that prediction. They were right. Whether the putt was easy or hard, every distance from the hole, players were more successful putting for par than for a birdie. 
The difference in the rate of success when going for par to avoid a bogey or for a birdie was 3.6 percent. This difference is not trivial. Tiger Woods was one of the participants in their study. If in his best years, Tiger Woods would have managed to putt as well for birdies as he did for par, his average tournament score would have improved by one stroke and his earnings by almost $1 million per season.”
The study looked at professional golfers but I’d be inclined to think a similar result may also be seen for amateur golfers with club handicaps who are putting for par equivalent or less on a hole.
Both the study, and the book have been around a while now but it piqued my interest again this week, and it may pique yours too. Particularly over a birdie putt next weekend.

3 thoughts on “Psychology of golf: Why you miss those birdie putts

  • June 27, 2012 at 19:40
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    Very interesting statistic. I guess it shows golfers are really worried about failing out on the golf course and not so much about shooting a better score.

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  • June 28, 2012 at 00:13
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    Exactly right. I’m always complaining that I get few birdies and, if I’m honest, my thoughts for saving par are way more positive (I’ve got to sink this) whereas for birdie it’s often, “Well, even if I miss this, at least it will still be a par.” And then, of course, I 3-putt!
    I tell myself that it should be easy to change my thoughts (much easier than changing my swing) but old habits are hard to budge.

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  • July 3, 2012 at 07:53
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    Yeah nice article. I know when I have gone nuts with the putter, I’m fully engrossed in the line, target and reacting to what I see with my hands. The more we can get into the “now” and forget about the score – ironically – the better the score will be.
    There is nothing better than getting deep into the zone with the putter. 🙂

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