Can Loss Aversion Explain a Professional Golfer Missing a Birdie Putt?

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Joined  14-01-2012
17 January 2012 10:07

Kahneman claims loss aversion can explain why golfers putt more accurately for par than for birdie. ( DANIEL KAHNEMAN, THINKING: FAST AND SLOW 300 (Farrer Strauss & Girroux 2010). Economists Devin Pope and Maurice Schweitzer concluded that golfers, “[tried] a little harder” when putting for par (to avoid a bogey) than when putting for birdie. (Id. at 303). However, I believe there is an alternative hypothesis that provides a more rational explanation; ironically, it is one of Kahneman’s own theories and in this self-same book. (See generally id. (Regression to the mean is a theory that individuals are likely to return to the average performance in relation to their aptitude after otherwise exceptional performances).

Par by definition is average. If a particular hole has a par of four, then the average professional golfer is likely to finish the hole in four strokes. Let us assume a golfer makes an above average drive which lands in the middle of the fairway; now, he is faced with the dilemma of going for the green with a four iron (an exceptional shot) or laying up in front of the water hazard with a six iron (below average shot).

The golfer hits an exceptional shot and is on the green in two –remember par for this hole is four- and faces an average put for birdie. Under the theory of regression to the mean, the golfer is likely to hit a less than average putt after hitting an average drive and an exceptional iron shot. Thus, he is likely to two-putt and complete the hole in four strokes –par for the course.

However, if the golfer decides to lay up in front of the water hazard with an unexceptional shot and follows it with another unexceptional pitch shot onto the green, he is faced with a more difficult than average putt for par. After an average professional golfer hits two below average shots, it is reasonable to infer that the third shot will be above average, a progression to the mean. Thus, the golfer hits an above average putt after two below average shots and scores par for the hole.

It seems a heroic leap in logic to infer that professional golfers slack off on birdie putts as opposed to par due to loss aversion; a more reasonable inference may be in direct opposition. For example, a birdie putt means a shot on ESPN’s Sportscenter (a popular sports review program that shows predominantly sporting highlights), this increases a golfer’s exposure, which translates into increased advertising revenues. Tiger Woods’ emotive displays of fist pumping in his, now, iconic red polo is an example of this phenomenon. Thus, it may be more reasonable to infer that golfers miss birdies because they are hyper-focused –in other words, they try to hard- on birdie shots.

Further, Kahneman neglects the obvious assumption that golfers, who drive the ball above average, and are more likely to get on the green in two shots on a par-4 hole; often have below average short games and are likely to two-putt, thereby achieving par. Conversely, golfers who get little distance of the tee and require three shots to get on the green, are more likely to have an above average putting game, and one-putt on the green to achieve par for the course.