Which situation would you rather be in?

by Al Pastor

I happened to pick up a copy of “Top Dog,” subtitled The Science of Winning and Losing, apparently making the rounds with an avalanche of favorable pop science press and publicity. Golf doesn’t figure heavily in the storyline, although there are a few references, but I find myself coming back to it as the authors veer from various circumstances to make their points. For instance, they pose the question regarding the following flip side of the coin regarding a soccer penalty kick.

 Which situation would you rather be in?

  • Your team is down by one, and you have to make it to tie; if you miss, your team will lose.
  • Your team is tied, and you don’t have to make it, but if you do make it, you’ll win.

A similar situation occurs routinely in golf and will be recognizable to anyone with a penchant for the game’s most traditional and agonizing format: match play, such as we get it in pitying small doses in events like the Ryder, Solheim, Curtis and Walker Cups.

A putt to win the hole is obviously easier than one to halve it. Only the stakes have changed. Research shows that in the above scenario, the ball finds the net 30 percent fewer times, such is the psychological baggage. It’s the difference between what’s characterized as a threat (the team down) and the challenge (for the win). One only need recall the pressure on the shoulders of Herr Langer along the South Carolina coast to wonder if in golf the 30 percent figure might be conservative.

In any event the example serves to underscore one endearing and inherent aspect of golf’s complexity.

An earlier part of the book highlights the differences between competing against a clock and alongside an opponent. Humans, it seems, far prefer and do better pitted against someone. We perform better when the competitor is in our sights, as in a race. The heat of the moment, the sense of the occasion, the crowd can spur us on to remarkable feats. A distinction is made between what’s known as extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. On our own, if I have this right, the motivation is intrinsic. The presence of a direct competitor ups the ante, spurs the competitive juices. It is extrinsic and it improves performance. Better times, for instance, even for a competitor who doesn’t necessarily win.

Here again golf offers another layer. During rounds of medal play the golfer must perform well intrinsically. His nearest competitor(s) may be hours from teeing off. Then, perhaps should be begin the final days round in sight of the lead, or even in the final pairing, he may have at least a general idea of his direct competitor. It may, however, be foolhardy to give the matter a second thought. Numerous others he’s never laid eyes on can pass him. Carole Semple Thompson, an exceptional match play champion, told me she hardly paid her opponents more than a glance – but match and medal play are not the same.

Golf, it would seem, offers a much more complex psychological landscape than other sports – a mix of intrinsic and extrinsic. Much harder, not to belittle the feat, than, say, overtaking a swimmer with an advantage in the anchor leg of a race.

There’s also this, a finding related to the study of SAT scores. The study identified something called the “N-Effect,” which holds that the more competitors involved, “the worse outcome for the individuals who are participating.”

 When there are only a few people in the race, we put our foot on the gas, working harder and harder to outpace our competitors. And the competition becomes very personal, a referendum on our own ability.

“In contrast, when we are against many, many competitors,” says [Professor Steven] Garcia, “we don’t care as much about how we stack up against one other competitor. Once the crowd is large enough that we don’t feel the element of personal competition, the result doesn’t feel like a personal statement of our worth, so we don’t try as hard.”

If this is indeed, true, it suggests an additional invisible element tugging at the professional golfer struggling against a large, competent, determined – and as noted – real if largely ephemeral field.

I'm guessing I know which option Herr Langer would choose.

I’m guessing I know which option Herr Langer would choose.