The most unlikely of pars

I play golf because I love the game, even though I play it poorly.

I play golf because it allows me to spend time with friends. 

I also play golf because sometimes, the moments are unforgettable, ridiculous, and hilarious.

On Sunday morning, I played golf with two friends at Rockledge country club, a public golf course in West Hartford, CT. After playing poorly for seven holes, I came upon the 17th hole, a downhill par four that curved slightly to the left. 

My tee shot went low and left, hitting a tree and landing amidst the trees on the left side. 

My second shot - an attempt to punch the ball out of the tree line - hit the tree in front of me dead on. The ball ricocheted backward, flying across the fairway about 15 yards behind me.

I was now farther away from the hole than when I started. 

My third shot sailed down the fairway but hooked left, hitting another tree - my third in three shots. This time the ball dropped like a stone at the base of the tree, inches from the trunk. 

Trapped against the tree, now about 50 yards from the green, my only choice on this fourth shot was to punch the ball toward the green as best I could. I took a 7-iron and treated it like a putter, smacking the ball toward the pin.

The ball flew over the grass, landed softly on the green, and rolled into the cup.

I had just managed a par, despite the fact that I had hit three separate trees on my first three shots, including one shot that yielded negative yardage.

The most unlikely par ever. 

My friends thought it ridiculous and hilarious and unforgettable, as did I. On the previous hole, I had hit another tree while teeing off, this one just 20 feet from the tee box. The ball ricocheted directly back at me, about six feet from where I was standing. 

That had sent us into hysterics, too. Little did we know that there were greater things to come.

I have so many clear and brilliant memories from my dozen years on the golf course. Moments spent with friends, hitting spectacular and spectacularly bad shots, laughing at our own inanity, and sharing moments of genuine warmth and friendship. 

There was also the time a squirrel stole the bag of nuts from Plato's golf bag. The time Phil hit a woman with a ball and tried to blame it on us. The time I hit a duck on a hill. The time the head of Plato's six iron detached from his club mid-swing, sending it helicoptering between mine and Jeff's heads. The time Andrew and I unintentionally played in the snow. The time Jeff accidentally divulged the sex of his future child to me without realizing it, and then the time we did it again with the next child.  

Both of those moments also happened on the 17th hole at Rockledge. 

Those moments, and hundreds more. Maybe thousands. 

I was lucky when my friend, Tom, introduced me to golf by purchasing a set of irons for me for $10 at a yard sale and throwing them into the back of my truck with a ribbon wrapped around the shafts. Little did I know what I was getting that December afternoon more than a decade ago.

A lifetime of unforgettable, ridiculous, and sometimes hilarious moments, including the chance to one day score par on a hole despite squarely hitting three trees along the way.

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Men are far more likely to make stupid decisions in sports. But are the reasons for this stupidity all bad? I don’t think so.

This will come as no surprise to anyone who plays a coed sport:

On the playing field, men are more likely than women to make dumb decisions.

The major finding:

As the competition (in US Open Tennis) gets tighter, men are more likely to screw up. During set tiebreakers, female players were more likely to make the correct challenge call, and men more likely to make an incorrect call.

The study, conducted by conducted by economics professors from Deakin University in Melbourne and Sogang University in Seoul, only looks at US Open tennis, but the same principles are easily applied to other sports, including golf.

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More than half of the errors that I make while playing golf are mental errors, and a good percentage of them amount to little more than dumb decisions.

These dumb decisions fall into three categories:

  1. I failed to take an aspect of the course (a tiered green, an enormous pond, a stiff breeze) into account before swinging.
  2. I failed to think strategically before swinging
  3. I attempted a shot that was impossible or nearly impossible in hopes that it might work.

It’s this latter error (and my most frequent error) that this study seems to address.

Errors like these often occur when I am standing in a tree line on the edge of a fairway. “The mature shot” (a phrase my friends and I often use to describe the boring but sensible shot) would be to chip the ball out of the tree line onto the fairway and proceed to the green.

Instead, I look ahead to the green and see an opening through the tree line down to the green. Hitting my ball through this series of spaces between the trees will require me to hit a ball low and long and accurate to within three feet, absent of any slice or draw. It will require the perfect shot. But if I manage t pull it off, I could be on the green and save myself at least one stroke.

It’s a decision I make often. It’s a decision that my friends make often.

The results are rarely good.

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These findings can be applied to other sports as well. I play coed basketball, and I’ve found that a man is much more likely to throw up an improbable shot during a game (and particularly near the end of the game) than a woman.

The authors attribute the propensity for men to make these kinds of dumb decisions to three factors: 

Overconfidence: Men are more prone to cockiness, and think that their perspective is always correct.

Pride: Men also possess a disproportionate amount of pride. Governed by their egos, men can’t bear to lose, and are more susceptible to making an irrational decision.

Shame: Men are also less prone to shame than women. They don’t see the same downside to screwing up. “Guys just don’t care as much about losing challenges,” Martina Navratilova, winner of 18 Grand Slam singles titles, told TIME. “Women are more concerned about being embarrassed.”

The authors of the study agree:

“At crucial moments of the match, such as tiebreaks … male players try to win at all costs, while female players accept losing more gracefully.”

Overconfidence and pride seem to be hindrances to performance in almost all cases, but a reduced propensity for shame is less clear.

In the 16 years that I have spent working primarily with women, in addition to the three years spent studying at a women’s college, I have taken note in this difference in the way that men and women experience shame. I think Navratilova and the authors of the study are correct:

Men are far less concerned about being embarrassed than women.

While this lack of concern over embarrassment may lead to my willingness to attempt impossible golf shots and ultimately cause me to lose more often, I’ve also noted that men are more willing to take risks, both athletically and professionally, and that these risks often pay off enormously.

It also allows men to focus more closely on critical aspects of their job that they deem most important while allowing less important but potentially embarrassing aspects of the job to receive little or no attention.

It also prevents concern over perceived embarrassments over factors that others would never even notice.

This one seems especially prevalent in female culture.

So yes, men are more likely to make dumb decisions on the tennis court, and probably in most athletic endeavors. And yes, overconfidence, pride, and shame (or a lack thereof) are contributing factors to our stupidity.

But men’s reduced level of concern over embarrassment may not be all bad. At the very least, it reduces anxiety and worry and frees up vast amounts of time and resources. But it may also greatly contribute to a man’s willingness to try new things, take risks, fight relentlessly, fail often, and ultimately find higher ground.

And take some terrible golf shots along the way.

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