BOSTON –– According to Lee Trevino, you don’t know what pressure is until you’ve bet $5 on a golf game and only had $2 in your pocket.
With all due respect to the Merry Mex, there are millions of dollars on the line at every PGA Tour event, so today’s pros know a little about pressure, too.
Friday at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, assistant professors Daniel Hickman from the University of Idaho and Neil Metz from the University of Central Oklahoma presented findings from their study that won the 2014 ShotLink Intelligence Award, “The Impact of Pressure on Performance: Evidence from the PGA Tour.
The study’s goal was to represent the effects of pressure on a player’s performance using numbers. In front of a room full of stats junkies and number crunchers, they explained that as the monetary difference between making a putt and missing a putt grows, so does the likelihood of missing that putt.
This might seem like common sense to any player who has felt the hands starts to jitter or the hair stand up on the back of the neck when lining up a 5-foot downhill breaker for a $3 Nassau. The interesting part is that Hickman and Metz have quantified that sensation.
Hickman and Metz used ShotLink data gathered between 2004 and 2012 to study PGA Tour players putting on the 18th hole of the final round of golf tournaments, where pressure is typically high. The data included information on 568 players from 210 tournaments, totaling 23,596 putts.
They established how much money each of those putts on the 18th hole was worth by calculating the difference in prize money a player would receive based on if he made the putt versus missing it. For example, if holing a putt on the 18th hole would give the player a third-place finish and earn him $350,000, while missing would mean a tie of fifth and $190,000, then the putt was measured to be worth $160,000.
ShotLink showed Hickman and Metz that pros three-putted the 18th hole 6 percent of the time, so for the sake of their work their equations assume that golfers always make the second putt on a green. They also did not consider missed putts that would not change a player’s finish position (and therefore his earnings).
Hickman and Metz’s study concluded that as a putt’s value increases by $50,000, the likelihood that the player will make that putt decreases by 1 percent. However, on putts between 6 and 10 feet the magnitude of the effect is substantially greater.
“In the 8-, 9- or 10-foot range, we got an almost 2 percent drop when adding $25,000 worth of pressure to the player’s shot,” said Hickman.
The professors noted that the pros made over 98 percent of the putts from 4 feet and closer. Players lowered their expectations and therefore the pressure on putts from over 14 feet. There was plenty of room for error on 6- to 10-foot putts that pros felt they should make.
“So, what the relationship shows is that depending on how likely it is or how confident you are that you are going to make that shot, when it’s most uncertain we see the biggest impact from pressure,” Hickman said. “It’s the intermediate distances, when it could go either way.”
The study found that golfers who have higher career earnings totals (which the authors defined as experience) are affected less by pressure than golfers who have less career earnings. This could indicate that experienced golfers who have been under pressure before benefit from the experience. The study also showed that golfers who have putted well that day (as measured by Strokes Gained Putting) are less affected by pressure on the 18th hole.
While the numbers may seem insignificant, Metz, who is a scratch golfer, hopes that recreational golfers will understand that pros underperform when the heat is on just as often as weekend players.
“You see good players choke all the time,” he said. “Bubba Watson has won major championships, but at last year’s Phoenix Open he missed a 5-foot putt that would have got him into a playoff with Kevin Stadler. So if you choke in competition, you shouldn’t feel so bad.”
But, just to be safe, heed Trevino’s warnings and carry enough money to cover your losses.