Business Rants

Golf Brings a Lesson in Strategic Thinking

  • June 7, 2015


I played in my first actual golf tournament this weekend. I’ve been a beer league guy for years but this was my first experience in a really competitive environment with real USGA rules in place and all the trimmings. I’m happy to say that my partner and I finished in the money with a tie for sixth place against guys who are scratch golfers. I bought a nice golf shirt (emblazoned with my golf club’s logo) with my winnings and I will treasure it.

While I’m at it, here’s a huge shout out to my home course, Crestwood Golf Club. Steve and Barb are amazing and IMNSDHO run the best damned golf club in Central New York.

The scoring format was straightforward: a bogey was worth one point, a par two, a birdie four, and an eagle or ace six. You were given a point quota based on your handicap and, once you reached that quota, every point you earned counted as a plus.

My handicap is somewhere north of silly. I make no apologies for that. I consider a double bogey a respectable score and a bogey is an event to celebrate. This weekend, however, the pressure was on to make bogeys or better because a double or worse counted for nothing.

How did that translate into strategic thinking? Let’s explore that, and how it helped me brainstorm working within my abilities to score.

Looking at a typical par four hole, you are facing somewhere between 420 and 370 yards for most courses. Now, if you’re not a long hitter (that’s me) you are probably going to get only around 160 to 180 yards off the tee even with your driver. Well, guess what? You are over a third of the way there! You can relax and let yourself take a smooth swing with no need to kill the ball. Even with a mis-hit that goes maybe 140-150 yards you are well on your way. Far better to have a mediocre hit that’s in play than to try to swing for the hills and end up with a ball out of play.

Now you have a very relaxed second shot: just get it to around 100 yards or less off the green, no need to tense up and try to reach on your second shot. That’s for the guys who hit better than we do, and we’re here to be strategic. You relax, and take a mid or short iron that you can hit reliably to get you inside that magic zone, and you’re golden.

Now is when you try to hit the green, one over regulation. In this paradigm you’re not trying to match pro level play, you’re trying to score points. You should easily be within wedge range, which gives you a low-pressure shot to the green. Close to the hole is nice, but you are going to let yourself be happy with anywhere on the green in three (or four for a par 5).

Voila. Now you work to lag your first putt close enough to give yourself a decent chance at bogey. Sometimes you’ll drain it for a par and those are amazingly fun, but you are okay if it doesn’t drop. Take your point and be happy.

And that’s golf for us mere mortals who can’t hit a five wood 200+ yards. In the end it’s not about flashy heroics, it’s about making the low pressure but high percentage shots that give you a good chance to score a point. Sometimes you will do really well and open yourself up for a chance at par or better, but that’s gravy and not your normal goal. If you strive for that level and it’s not your normal, you are going to over-exert, over-swing, and end up doing worse in the long run.

Is there a metaphor here for how you perform in other arenas? I think so. In life, business, golf, and otherwise, I think it boils down to playing to your strengths and not over-reaching into high-risk zones where you are usually going to spin your wheels with little or no payoff. Yes, there is some magic to be made by venturing outside your comfort zone, but you need to understand the potential payoff, the realistic odds of a successful shot, and the odds of your overall plan working out before you choose a club and swing it.

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