The return to golfing mediocrity

The regression to the mean on the golf course is a tough, sobering journey to take.

This article originally appeared in Inside Golf where Michael Green writes a monthly column.

I always bogey the first hole. Well it feels like it anyway. It just doesn’t seem like I walk to the second tee with a par on my card very often. No birdies, no pars, just bogeys. It irks me no end, but the reasons are obvious.

My pre-round routine consists throwing on my golf shoes, paying for the round, grabbing a drink (coffee if it’s morning) and I’m at the first tee with a good three or four minutes to get my putting stroke in order.

My lengthy putting practice session finishes with a couple of short putts just to hear the rattle of the ball in the hole to give me a little psychological confidence, I give it a few practice swings as I shoot the breeze with my partners on the tee and away we go.

It’s hardly surprising I make so few early pars given my extensive warm-up routine. So it came as a complete shock when I made an opening hole birdie recently.

A pitch in from 25 metres was followed by a few pars and a greenside bunker shot rattled home several holes later. It was one of those rounds where I was scoring better than I was playing. No one says that, ever.

Upon walking off the 18th green I’d carded my best ever round of golf which was a surprise to say the least. Not to mention the fact I mentioned in this column several months ago that I’d begun to wonder if my previous best ever golf score was as good as it gets. Clearly, it wasn’t.

For days afterwards, I was giddy at this “new achievement unlocked” until I read a chapter from Daniel Khaneman’s book “Thinking Fast and Slow”.

The book is an overview on human cognitive bias and our inability to overcome it, and it includes a chapter on a concept known as “regression to the mean”. It’s an enlightening, obvious and depressing concept. Especially depressing after you’ve just excelled at your chosen weekend hobby of choice.

Applied to golf, it says that if a golfer plays an extremely good (or extremely bad) round of golf, it will tend to be closer to his/her average score in the second. And it applies to professional golfers too.

We’ve all seen it before. The young, rookie golfer comes out in the opening round of a big tournament and shoots the lights out only to fall back to earth the next day. Or conversely, the tournaments big name shoots a disappointingly high score in the first round only to emerge as a contender thanks to a good second round.

Historically, this statistical concept of “regression to the mean” was once known as “reversion to mediocrity”, which is definitely more “glass half full” and makes my current aversion to golf a little more obvious.

I haven’t picked up a golf club since I walked off the golf course that day with a huge grin on my face.

“That’s what it’s all about”, someone uttered, followed by someone else yelling, “It doesn’t get any better than that!”. Oh no, was that it? Was that my best ever? Is there nothing not to look forward to?

If my extremely good score was quite literally extreme, then it’s clear where this is all heading; back to mediocrity.

In truth, I’ve struggled to find the time to play over the past few weeks but I’ve hardly been jumping out of my skin to get back on course. It’s almost certainly going to be average and knowing this before I play is just mean.

But I’ve learned a couple of things from this extreme high and depressing low.

Stop reading books, it’ll mess with your golf game. And secondly, the next time I play an extremely bad game of golf, I’ll be walking off the golf course with a big grin on my face, cause I’ll know what’s coming next.

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