My grandfather used to say that “old age and treachery beats youth and skill,” a saying with great applicability to golf generally and one that professional golfers seem to be taking increasingly to heart. Another week on the PGA Tour has brought another lay-up on one of the last holes by one of the contenders. The man playing the “old age and treachery” part, however, is 20 year-old Rickie Fowler, the only man to compete with Ian Poulter for the title of low clotheshorse (Fowler wore an orange-and-white outfit in the final round. No word if he’s sponsored by the Dreamsicle people yet or not.). One stroke back at the time, Fowler laid up on the par-five 15th hole from 230 out, with a 210 carry distance over the water in front of the green. Helen Ross at PGATour.com defends Fowler’s decision by observing that of 246 players who went for the green this week, only 76 players made it, which is about a thirty percent success-rate. So maybe Fowler made the right call.
The 15th at TPC Scottsdale is a scary hole: the green sits on an island surrounded by water. And Ross’ numbers sound pretty authoritative—until you remember that some number of those players also missed the cut this week, and some further number were nowhere near the lead on Sunday. Some percentage of those players, in other words, weren’t playing anywhere near as good as Fowler clearly was. Fowler himself didn’t make any reference to Ross’ stat-based argument.
When Fowler described what he was thinking afterwards, he talked about his own sense of his position. “I was a little farther out than I would have liked to have been to go for it,” Fowler said. “Obviously if I was a couple [strokes] back … I would have gone for it. But … I was at the time … just one back, [and] putting a wedge in my hand from 80 yards, a lot of times I do make birdie there.” Perhaps even more crucially, Fowler had started the day in third place, so he was playing behind Hunter Mahan (the eventual winner), who two groups ahead on the course. Odds were, in other words, that Mahan could only get one more birdie out of the holes he had left, whereas Fowler had three more chances to make should he miss at 15.
What sticks in the craw, however, is that both of Fowler’s playing partners, Villegas and Calcavecchia, did go for it, even though they clearly weren’t playing as well as Fowler—which of course is one reason why they went for it, since they knew they weren’t playing for the win at that point. Fowler was, and he didn’t see any reason to try to decide the tournament on one shot. I’d like to think that is what his caddie told him: with the second-place finish, Fowler has nearly locked up his card for next year, and he’s bound to break through sooner or later, though the window to try and be the youngest winner on Tour since Tiger is closing.
Nevertheless, Fowler’s decision is disturbing because 210 is just not a long distance for a tour player—some of the longer guys will hit 6-iron from that distance. Fowler is probably not that long, but he is 21st in driving distance so he isn’t short either. A five-iron, a club not usually thought of as trouble, likely would have done the job if Fowler didn’t want to hit a hybrid, a club usually thought of as even easier to hit. And as I said, Fowler was playing good—which brings us back to Helen Ross’ big pile of stats.
The problem with Ross’ figures is something that statisticians call survivorship bias. Let’s say, for instance, that you are presented with somebody who’s tossed a coin head side up some improbable number of times in a row. Now, maybe that person is really skilled at tossing coins, or maybe has some quality we can call “luck”—or maybe that person is just the winner of a coin-tossing tournament with thousands of participants. With enough participants, somebody throwing ten heads in a row stops being improbable and starts becoming likely. Knowing that, we aren’t likely to think quite the same of the “lucky” coin-flipper, because there isn’t any difference between this person and anyone else in the tournament. This person just happens to be the one that won.
Ross’ stat about the 15th plays a similar sort of game, because it appears to presume that there is no difference in skill between any of the golfers: as if each of them, upon reaching the 15th, had precisely the same (thirty percent) chance, just as in the coin-tossing example everyone has precisely the same (fifty percent) chance of throwing a head each time. But golf is not coin-tossing. Fowler was demonstrably not “lucky” at that point in the tournament. He had been playing well—survived—for four days. He wasn’t an “average” player: he was one with a shot at winning.
Fowler’s chances of hitting that shot, therefore, were not thirty percent like Ross’ numbers make it appear. I don’t know what they actually were, but they could not have been thirty percent because Fowler had already demonstrated himself to be better than nearly everyone else in the field. For all we know, in fact, those chances might have been zero, as maybe Rickie can’t hit the ball 205 yards but is absurdly accurate from 199 and in. That is supremely unlikely, but it is a possibility Ross’ figure obscures.
Ross’ stat is in other words strictly window-dressing, because in no way would it ever factor into any professional’s decision-making. If Fowler’s caddie had said something like that, he might have been fired on the spot, and rightly so. Fowler decided to lay-up for a different reason. “I told myself I didn’t really want to go for it unless I had about a 5-iron in” is what Fowler said afterwards, which as I’ve said is close to what he did have. And though the green at the 15th is on an island, it isn’t an island green—there’s a lot of rough and bunkers around it—which is to say that the likelihood of Fowler missing so badly as to wet the ball wasn’t as great as it might seem.
What concerns me about all of this is simply the mercenary quality to it in such a young man: as I mentioned, Fowler is only 20. Plenty of people have talked about Fowler’s potential; Stephanie Wie of Wei Under Par.com has called him a “Wonder Boy,” and he now has three top-10s this year. He’s going to make money in golf, and he’s going to win sometime. Why then play like some wizened veteran? Maybe we can ask Helen Ross to fudge up … uh, give us stats on how boring golf makes Johnny turn the channel.