Thursday, August 02, 2007

Hating Bogey vs Loving Birdie

The VERY BEST GOLFERS IN THE WORLD WHEN THEY PLAY THEIR BEST IN THE TOUGHEST MAJORS AND WIN always apply a simple rule that goes something like: "hate bogey more than you love birdie."

This is a fundamental approach to scoring that is a level above the usual approach of trying to birdie every hole as the route to shooting an under-par round.

The principal reason this is important is because a bogey wastes two holes out of the 18 available in the pursuit of an under-par round, whereas a birdie merely succeeds in 1 of the 18 holes but leaves all the other 17 holes unaffected. A bogey on hole 4 wastes the opportunity at hole 4 to score under par, and also requires that the bogey be erased by a birdie on one of the remaining holes before the golfer can get back on the under-par track. (And this applies to all golfers, high-handicap amateurs included, who play every round with reference to their "personal par".) So a bogey is TWICE as potent in comparison to a birdie in its effect on the journey thru the 18-hole round.

Here is a typical pre-round management plan for shooting five under par:

Par 5s: Birdie 2 of 4 and par the other 2 and HATE BOGEY on 4 holes.
Par 3s: Par all 4 and HATE BOGEY on 4 holes.
Par 4s: Birdie 3 of 10 and HATE BOGEY on 10 holes.
Five birdies AND NO BOGEYS is 67 on a par 72 course.

If the player has a bogey on the front, he now needs one of the five planned birdies just to get back on track with his plan and has two fewer holes in which to accomplish his plan once he gets back on track. What a mistake! That's a MUCH WORSE result on a hole than succeeding in birdieing or even parring the hole as planned.

If the golfer bogeys one of the par 4s mid-way thru the front nine, for example, with 13 holes remaining, and he has only one birdie in hand so far, this means he really has to birdie one of the remaining holes to get back on track, and also that he has one fewer hole as an opportunity to collect one of the four more birdies he needs to score 67, and he still is no closer to his goal with fewer remaining chances to accomplish his plan. Before playing the 5th hole, the player had 14 holes to find four birdies. After playing the 5th hole in bogey, the player now faces 13 remaining holes and still needs his planned four other birdies and also needs to "find" an extra birdie hole somewhere along the way, so he is facing fewer holes with all the same problems PLUS quite a bit of extra trouble to squeeze out another birdie from a hole he really didn't plan on birdieing. In comparison, if the 5th hole were one of his planned birdies and he in fact scored birdie, he is simply still on track.

During play, this translates into how you calculate risk-reward in every tee shot, full-swing, trouble shot, chip, pitch, bunker shot, and putt. Risk of trying to bust a drive as long as possible is balanced against the ability to recover if you go out of the fairway. As long as you stay away from bogey, you have more "comfort zone" to work with in each shot thru the round when calculating the risk-reward.

On the tee box for the par 4s and par 5s, Tiger and Vijay have learned that they can usually recover nicely, so BOGEY is not that likely from a wayward drive that results from emphasizing distance at the expense of accuracy. If Tiger's drive goes 300 yards but out of the fairway into the salad, his response if "oh well, that's probably not going to be a birdie, but my chances of getting the ball out of the rough onto the green and two putting for par are still very high, so bogey is not much in play at this point (at least until I assess my actual lie)." This encourages Tiger to go for distance off the tee even when his drives are wayward.

When it comes to approach shots from the fairway or chips and pitches and bunker shots for reaching a green in regulation, the risk-reward calculation goes something like this: the player will obviously try to stick the shot as close as possible to the pin in order to one putt, but he also has a cautionary limit on how far he is willing to stretch his comfort zone of ability to try to make that happen. If the shot poses a need to stretch the comfort zone on ability to pull off a specific shot, the player asks himself either explicitly or implicitly to what extent the stretch is risking bringing BOGEY in to the picture. Once the risk of bogey rises to a substantial level or somewhere near the chance of playing no worse than par, in the pursuit of a birdie with the stretched shot, the "wise" player backs off, gets back into the comfort zone, accepts that this is not likely to be a birdie hole, and instead merely plays for no worse than par, although he of course still hopes to get lucky and somehow make birdie anyway.

When it comes to approach shots from the fairway or chips and pitches and bunker shots for reaching a green in regulation+1, the player is obviously in a par-save mode, and birdie is off the table.

When you stop to consider that pros average about 60-65% GIRs (12-14 holes), the pro is definitely in par-save mode on all the non-GIR holes (4-6 holes) and is also in a par-save mode when the approach shot on a GIR hole leaves him with a first putt outside his makeable range (usually, outside about 10-15 feet). Of the 12-14 holes where the pro reaches a green in regulation, more than half of these greens he faces a putt outside 15 feet, so that is another 6-7 holes where the player is in par-save mode. Scratch amateurs with a lower GIR percentage are in par-save mode more frequently. And pros who are approaching greens from farther out in the fairway or who are not as proficient in approacgh play as other players face even more first putts outside their realistic makeable range. So this totals at least 10-13 holes (and probably more) out of 18 where the pro player is in par-save mode and birdie is not on the table.

On all of these 4-6 non-GIR holes plus the 6-7 not-so-hot-approach-shot-long-first-putt-GIR holes as well, the player HATES BOGEY and birdie is not even realistically desired, so the rule "hate bogey MORE than you love birdie" is definitely the rule for these 10-13 holes. In turn, this means the player is realistically allowed the luxury of playing for birdie on only 5-8 of the holes in terms of his risk-reward calculations (roughly, not much above one-third of the holes in a round are viewed as "birdieable").

Now, returning back to the game plan, the heart and soul of a low score comes from playing all the non-birdieable holes to no worse than par (HATE BOGEY), and therefore not "wasting" one of the precious few birdieable holes. At the highest level of golf today, two-thirds or so of the round is avoiding bogey, and only one-third (at most) is chasing a birdie. A round of golf is not really 18 chances to score birdie; it is much more about avoiding bogey hole after hole. So the realistic game plan of a top pro player would be something like:

Birdie all the par 5s if possible but accept that you will probably really birdie only 2 of them. Once a par 5 hole devolves into a "stretch shot" situation, the "hate bogey more than you love birdie" rule resurfaces as the main priority.

Play all the par 3s for par right from the tee box, which means don't stretch your comfort zone in pursuit of a birdie unless you have no other choice (given the nearness of the end of the end of the event and the criticality of birdie to making the cut or attaining a desired finishing position or getting into a playoff or winning the event). Get on the green safely, and even try to stick it close, but at all events don't make a bad mistake on the tee box.

Play the par 4s as including only a few (maybe 3-5 holes) where birdie is a realistic possibility from the tee box, from the approach shot, and from the first putt. At all three of these situations, the rule "hate bogey more than you love birdie" is the main influence on the risk-reward calculation. Play with patience and wait for the birdie opportunities to present themselves as you simply put the ball in the fairway off the tee and then play safely to the middle of the green with the approach and hope you get close enough for the first-putt to be inside your makeable range.

Golf is a game of fewest mistakes and good misses and really good recoveries built on top of consistent competence for the usual shots.

All the above translates into putting by putting the emphasis on lag putting and distance control over long first putts, a basic competence in a makeable range where the chance of sinking the putt inside that range is significantly higher than 75% or so, and in finishing the usual business after a competent lag (hopefully, inside 3 feet for most pros but closer still for a top putter).

What is your makeable range? Over what distance do you have a realistic chance of 75% or greater of making a putt? For most pros this is about 6-8 feet. But that is no where near a big enough range for AVERAGING a low score day in and day out, because these same players don't face enough first putts inside 8 feet. Loren Roberts is the best on Tour from 10 feet with about 43%. For him to score 5 birdies in a round, he has to stick at least 8 approaches inside 10 feet, make half of these, and get lucky at least once outside 10 feet. Tiger can get this done because a) he is much longer off the tee, and b) he is a better, more accurate player with his closer-in approaches.

How would an amateur golfer hope to attain a skill level with the putter that gives him a 75%+ makeable range that is longer than Loren Roberts' range? The answer is basically putt at least as well as Roberts and don't make his mistakes to boot. If you give yourself better approach opportunities, handle them better, leave yourself uphill putts, and don't make mistakes by staying patient and within your comfort level, you will face easier putts more often than does Loren Roberts, so that is part of the effort. The putting part of the effort is to read putts better, handle the stability of your stroke better, and also have better touch for makeable putts. Combined, these complementary efforts result in you facing easier makeable putts over a longer range more often and having better putting skills with which to convert the opportunities. This is worth 1-2 fewer strokes per round, day in and day out.

What is your post-lag range where you MUST be able to "clean up the business" 95%+ of the time? Most pros face a second putt somewhere around 2.5-3 feet after a first putt from outside 15-20 feet. This is not very good, really. Yes, amateurs are worse, but the pro performance is still not nearly as good as it can be with a little better skill for touch. The problem seems to be that pros don't really have an understanding of how touch works, so they are subject to streakiness for distance control. This streakiness kills the "average" score. But the players have a psychological need to ignore the streakiness and delude themselves instead with the "confidence" that they are great lag putters. A bucket of icy water in the face would be better: if these pros actually COUNTED how many lags leave a second putt that is inside 2 feet for a tap-in for par, they would not be so "confident" that they can lag and tap-in over 90% of the time. It is not sufficient to lag to within 2.5-3 feet "half" of the time; you have to do it over 90% of the time, and actually do it closer than 2.5-3 feet -- the top-putting pro can and should lag to inside 2 feet over 90% of the time from outside 15-20 feet, including the really long 30-50 footers uphill pr downhill across tier steps and over ridgebacks and down and up thru swales. Without this "consistent, non-streaky" distance control in lags, the pro faces too many overly long second putts so that he is not 90%+ but is only 75%+ in this "clean-up" range. There goes one stroke every round.

All of this boils down to putt straight with great touch, consistently, because you know what works and do what works and when you fall out of the saddle are able to coach yourself and get right back in the saddle without messing up the round.

You can always work on your distance off the tee and your approach or recovery play with irons to stick more shots closer for easier first putts and par-save putts. But parallel with this, you need to hone lagging skills and expand the range of lags so that you end up within 2 feet over 90% of the time consistently and also hone straight putting skills in close to convert those makeable birdie opportunities and also to clean up after lags. The largest number of putts that challenge putting skills are lag putts, so this is the top priority. The need to at least two-putt long lags consistently is the same as the need to at least two-putt makeable first-putt birdie opportunities, and this is again the rule "hate bogey more than you love birdie". And this, oddly, means that working on making the birdie putts inside the makeable range is less critical than making sure you can lag consistently. Even so, you need a fairly clear idea of what is your range for making a first putt over 75% of the time. This reduces the pressure in putting, as you don't have to deal with unrealistic pressure to sink a 12-footer; you can instead deal with hope and desire without the frustration after a miss. And of course it helps to expand this makeable range. These putts almost always require emphasizing the accuracy of read, aim, and stroke over distance or touch, but sometimes touch is about all that matters for subtle breaking putts.

Par-save putts really come under the province of the short-game chipping and bunker-play and trouble shot coach, as the whole deal on par-save is whether they are CLOSER than first-putt birdie opportunities. If your par-save putt is the same distance out as your "usual" makeable birdie putts, the pressure goes sky high, so don't go there.

So, to summarize, a bogey wastes the bogey hole plus one other, reduces the remaining opportunities to accomplish the game plan, invokes the dreaded necessity of "finding" an unplanned birdie somewhere in the holes other than the planned or expected birdie holes (i.e., the holes that are naturally tougher to birdie to begin with, which is why they weren't part of the planned or expected birdie holes at the planning stage), and squeezes the player out of his comfort zone substantially on every remaining shot as he has notched up the need to birdie without reducing the trouble of making a second bogey so that his risk-reward calculations going forward are forced more in the direction of risk, making another bogey even more likely.


Geoff Mangum
Putting Coach and Theorist
Golf's most advanced and comprehensive putting instruction.