Sunday, July 21, 2013

What factors impact performance?

This was a very entertaining golf tournament, perhaps the most enjoyable one I've seen in a long time.  It wasn't just the ending and the spectacular way that Phil Mickelson finished.  It was also the ebbs and flows on the leaderboard and the decision making that the leaders made on the shots they were to take.

Links golf played at a high level makes the players practice "statistical decision theory."  Among the random factors are the wind, which mattered a great deal, the cloud cover, which would determine how much moisture the greens held, and also moisture on the fairway in front of the greens, which impacted whether approach shots would stop short or run over the green.  Then there is the issue of the kind of lie the player has, particularly if the ball ended up in the fescue.  From the fairway, the players try to put a lot of spin on the approach shot, as a means of control.  From the fescue, the ball can "come out hot."  There are also the pot bunkers, which has a stone wall at the front and might be six feet deep or more.  If the ball ends up in a fairway bunker, that can impact the direction of shot that is feasible as well as the club selection.  Early in the week there were players hitting from the trap into the fescue, on purpose.  It was the only play they had. 

The players do make mistakes of the physical kind, meaning they don't hit the ball as they intend to.  But mostly they do.  And in most tournaments when they do that they have a pretty good idea where the ball will end up.  In this tournament, there was a lot of residual uncertainty about that.

Another big issue, of course, is the player's choice of what shot to make, a decision made in concert with the player's caddy.  As it turns out, earlier in the week the Charlie Rose Show aired this interview with Jack Nicklaus from last April.  It was interesting to hear on precisely this point.  Nicklaus talked repeatedly about the player staying "within himself," meaning taking a shot he'd execute well 19 out of 20 times.  Mostly, the player should not take a 50-50 gamble, with the exception near the very end of the tournament where circumstances might dictate otherwise.  Earlier on, the rule is patience and players should be careful not to play themselves out of the tournament by being too aggressive.

The last factor to consider are the psychological ones.  Is the player relaxed or does the player "feel the pressure."  The leaders are aware of their position and tend to want to protect it.  They play more defensively as a consequence.  A player back in the pack can but who is still within striking distance can be more relaxed, or so it seems. 

They various factors seem to interact with one another.  A couple of excellent shots make another one more likely.  A couple of pour ones and the player can "collapse" and then performs poorly thereafter.  At least it seems this way to me and the announcers certainly encouraged this inference.  This might be explained by how energetic the player feels.  Success is invigorating, while failure is enervating.  Let me focus on just two particular shots to illustrate.

The first was by Lee Westwood, who was leading the tournament at the time.  He had "made a mistake" and was in a fairway bunker, with the ball fairly close to the face.  (Note that the announcers never said the player was unlucky with the bad outcome.  If in a fairway bunker, then that was attributed to poor judgment on the player's part.)   Paul Azinger was the main "color commentator" and in the 1980s he had lost the tournament by making a bad decision playing out of a bunker.  He urged a very safe shot.  Just flop the ball out and not worry about how far it advances. A bogey would be okay.  A double bogie would be horrible.  Westwood played a more aggressive shot.  He didn't get it out of the bunker.  He then got lucky that the ball didn't end up in his own footprint.  He again played an aggressive shot.  This time it worked and got onto the green.  He did get bogie on the hole.  So outcome-wise it was the same as what Azinger would have wanted.  But his frame of mind was no good after that and he made several more mistakes. 

The other shot was my Phil Mickelson on the 17th hole, a par 5.  At the time his score was -1, either in the lead by a stroke or tied for it and he was several groups ahead of the other leaders.  The hole was playing into the wind.  He nailed a three wood off the tee and was in the fairway.   But he had more than 300 yards left to the hole.  The "smart shot" was to lay up so as to avoid trouble.  But he was feeling it and maybe he also thought that if he could pull it off he'd be setting the bar too high for the other players to catch him. He hit another three wood, got an incredibly fortunate bounce, and the ball ended up on the green.  He was able to make birdie.  That second shot decided the tournament. 

Mickelson has lost other major tournaments in the past by playing aggressive like that and getting the short end of the stick.  This time, he pulled it off.  It was his lowest score ever in the fourth round of a Major Championship.  It's all the more remarkable because his game wasn't supposed to be suited for links golf.  At the end of the day, he certainly looked like the best player out there.

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