The following is a chapter in my first self-published book, titled Professional Golf for the Rest of Us. Sometimes, it helps to see what some of the content of a book in order to determine its value to a potential reader, and over the next few months, I will be sharing some of the chapters I feel will be most beneficial to golfers, from average golfers to tournament professionals. Let me know in the comments what you think, and I hope they help you understand the game of golf a little better.
Tournament Golf Philosophy
For anyone that’s ever played tournament golf, you’ve all heard the basic cliché advice about it. The most ubiquitous of which is: Take it one shot at a time. While this holds true, it doesn’t say much about how to approach tournaments, especially professional tournaments where people’s livelihoods are at stake. It’s easy to focus on one shot at a time in an amateur or local city championship; it’s a completely different scenario when you’re staring at a ten-foot putt to make your first cut of the year after blowing through $10,000 of your backers’ money, playing against equally hungry opponents who are trying to step on your throat so that your loss is their gain. As a notable pro once put it, “you’re playing with killers out there.”
So, what makes a strong professional tournament player? The answer is fairly simple, but the explanation is fairly complex and intricate. I should point out, however, that this is only a theory; but, having a background in playing games for money, there is strong empirical evidence for this theory. To understand what makes a good tournament player, we have to look at it from a philosophically macro point-of-view, starting with identifying what a golf tournament is.
A professional golf tournament is, like other sports, confined within a fixed period that continues along an indefinite number of tournaments throughout one’s career or even lifetime.
For the sake of argument, let’s imagine that there are two professional golfers of similar ability, Reckless Ryan and Careful Carl. Say, over the course of 1600 rounds (or 400 4-day tournaments), their scores even out to even par. Their path to that score, however, is completely different. Reckless Ryan has long streaks of despair along with streaks of brilliance. His performance in tournaments is highly polarized; he’s either in contention, or he misses the cut by a mile. Careful Carl, on the other hand, plays conservatively, not taking too many chances, and his scores reflect that. He doesn’t miss many cuts, but doesn’t find himself with chances to win, either.
If their scores at the end of 100 tournaments even out, their earnings must be about the same, right? Probably not.
The number one thing to understand is that tournament purses are almost always weighed heavily at the top of the leaderboard. On the PGA and Web.com Tours, more than 50% of the prize pool is paid to the top 10 finishers. While making cuts is crucial to having a chance to win money, it’s far more important to be finish as high on the leaderboard as possible. Using a season of the Web.com Tour as an example, if you play 25 events, you can miss every cut but five, and if you finish in the top 5 or better, and hopefully win one of those five, you’re on your way to the Big Time. The same holds true for the PGA Tour; playing the same number of events, you could keep your fully exempt status with three or four top-3 finishes and nothing more. Going back to our example, while Carl may play more rounds on the weekend, Ryan is giving himself more chances to win or finish high on the money list.
What does this mean for those looking to make their way onto any of the major tours? Simple: Play aggressively.
The Pareto Principle plays a significant role in the results of tournament golfers. What is the Pareto Principle? Simply, that 80% of the output is derived from 20% of the input. If you ever have the inclination to do so, check out the stats from the players that do well on Tour. Chances are, the vast majority of the money they make is only from a small amount of tournaments.
As the above example illustrates, it’s much better to make all your putts from 8 feet and in during one (relatively) short, seventy-two hole period than it is to hover around the average all season long. I can almost guarantee that the players who excel the most on professional tours are the ones who give themselves the most chances and capitalize on those chances.
Moving to a more realistic perspective, it’s unlikely that anyone who’s being incredibly aggressive with every shot is not playing golf optimally; this holds especially true as courses get tougher. There are many players I know of personally that can break par consistently on a muni track (where you can miss it two holes wide off the tee in any direction and still have a reasonable approach) but have a hard time breaking 80 on a tournament level course. As courses get tougher, mistakes get magnified, and one bad hole can snowball if you’re not careful. Good golf isn’t about your highest-quality shots; it’s more about your weakest shots still being good enough to score.
Therefore, to play tournament golf optimally, it’s best to split the difference between Reckless and Careful, about 60/40. If you find the fairway, and have a green light to the hole, you should attack, but also be aware of where you can miss in order to make no worse than a par. If you find yourself in trouble, plan accordingly, giving yourself the best chance to be aggressive with your next shot and try to save par.
Attitude is everything when it comes to shooting low scores. It's the idea of believing "I can execute this shot the way I want" and repeating that belief over and over, regardless of circumstances, good or bad breaks, or whatever has happened in the past.
Aside from the actual strategy and attitude, there’s also one more thing a tournament player should have in their arsenal: a go-to shot. One of the worst things someone could ever do during a tournament round is try to fix their swing while they’re trying to compete. Remember, the brain is only designed to focus on one thing at a time; trying to sort out a swing flaw, then switching your train of thought to the shot you’re trying to execute is asking for trouble. I know this from experience.
After a miserable front 9 in a two-day event (the second-to-last one I played before calling it quits) I decided to stop trying to fight what I was working with, and basically do nothing but try to bunt the golf ball into play, and go from there. The result? I made three birdies, shot even on the back, and boosted my confidence dramatically. It never has to be pretty; more often than not, your B-game can give you more opportunities to score than your A-game, especially if you’re struggling.