Managing Risk, Reward, and Your Round of Golf

Although work sucks, these past days have really been the inspiration behind today’s article. In life, you only have 24 hours a day which is about 170 hours in a week (it’s maybe 168? I only got good at adding up golf scores in my head). You can do whatever you want with this time each week but in order to fulfill all of your commitments you have to balance the benefits and consequences of each action. Are you going to go to work today, or skip out and play golf (tempting…)?

Either one of these options can lead to a complex sequence of events in your life. Golf relates to this idea of weighing your options if you understand two simple words. Risk and reward. Just like you have to make decisions outside of golf, you also have to consider your decisions during your round. Are you going to lay up in front of the water, or try to play over? And even without your conscious thought, you are evaluating all of your possible options. Today I want to talk to you about risk management during your round and put you inside my mind when it comes to making simple and complex golfing decisions. So now that you’re primed and ready, let’s dive into this!
At some point in your golfing careers, we’ve all come to a decision about how we should approach the next shot. A classic example is a water hazard where you are torn between laying up and then hitting an approach shot, or trying to clear the water in one shot in order to give yourself a better opportunity to score. This situation is almost impossible to give you any sort of general advice for because your choice is going to be based on so many different variables (how close the score is, your confidence, weather, etc.) that trying to sum all of them up in one generic sentence would just be inaccurate. YOU have to make a decision and weigh all off the different things that could effect the shot as well as whether the risk of taking a possible penalty stroke is worth the stroke you could save by clearing it.
But you’re not here to listen to something you already know. You want a process so here is my opinion. I consider each course of action and the potential number of strokes it could cost. Imagine it like this. Clearing a hazard would potentially save you one stroke because you wouldn’t be forced to hit an approach shot afterwards. So this method costs one stroke to clear the hazard, remember this. “Going for it” however, could result in a loss of one stroke from the penalty plus the stroke you have to take after you drop. This means it could cost three strokes. One stroke on the shot that lands in the water, one stroke for the penalty, and then one last one to get back over. Pretty costly… Laying up is the middle ground. You hit one shot in front of the hazard and then another to clear it for a total of two strokes to make it over this hazard. Because this is in between the other two potential stroke costs I consider it to be the middle ground and so, when I play, if I’m not usually more than 70% sure that I will clear the hazard I opt out and lay up (unless I’m playing with my dad, then I always go for it). I choose this because for me, one extra stroke from laying up is an acceptable cost to clear a hazard. To me it’s not worth the risk of taking three strokes (and ruining your moral, but that’s an entirely different article) to possibly save one stroke. This method of thinking is relateable to a lot of different situations in golf but they are really trivial compared to the true value of managing risk and reward.
But what could I possibly mean? After all, what we talked about a second ago could potentially save you a shot or two during your round, right? But this is why golfers give away so many strokes needlessly. Every shot is a balance between risk and reward. Now sometimes the options are easy to see. But sometimes they’re not. And this is where you can start to really save strokes on your round.
Many people might not think of a 130 yard wedge shot as a particularly difficult shot to think through. The green is pretty big, so just aim for the flag and if you have your distance right you’ll end up on the green. Mission accomplished, right? It’s not quite so simple though. With the help of this picture on the right I’ll walk you through one simple scenario.Risk management golf
It’s true that you might hit your shot well and the ball might have landed on the green say 20 feet from the pin, that’s a good shot. But what kind of risk did you take in order to get the ball there? Well you could have caught the ball thin and landed it in the sand trap in front of the pin. You could have done a wide variety of little things wrong and ended up with a shot that didn’t land on the green. From there you’d have to hit a sand shot (we all know what can happen with those shots) or even just a chip out of the rough. Say you hit an average shot and then two putt to close out the hole.
Now think of this. You’re playing with a buddy of yours and he decides to aim for a larger area to the right of the pin. Over there he can aim for a wide landing area with no sand trap or water around but he’ll be further away than you. While it’s true that he could still hit a bad shot and put it in one of these hazards, he has more of a buffer space to work with. So instead of hitting the ball right at the pin he opts for the wider, right side of the green. It’s a mediocre shot and he leaves it a little short but it’s still on the green. From there he lags the ball from 35 ft and then drops the three footer he had left.
This is where the real risk and reward come into play though. We’ve talked about the risk and I think we can all agree that it is a little safer to play to the wide part of the green, but what about the reward?
Looking back at our original scenario, you decide to go at the pin and you get close, maybe 15-20 ft from the hole. From here though, you’re not going to consistently make 20 ft putts and so, after you leave it two inches to the left and tap in, you realize that you took a risk for no reason. You still got the same score as your buddy who had an approach shot and two putts but he didn’t have to hit a nearly perfect approach shot in order to do it. If you would have left the ball short and then had to hack out of the sand who knows how that could have gone? Where as your buddy can semi-flub approach shots and hit some run-of-the-mill putts and end up doing better than you. This is the real scoring power of managing risk and reward.
fairway with forests on each sideIt turns out that almost every shot can be applied to this. You might think a drive is pretty simple to line up. You want to hit the ball as far as you can while keeping it in the fairway. But what if there’s a dogleg left? Do you change anything? You should! You want to recognize that if you hit the ball down the left side of the fairway you’re not going to have a shot at the green because your ball path will be blocked by trees. Worse yet if you hit it into the rough on the left you’re going to either have to punch out backwards a more further away from the hole, or try to weave your way through 50 yards of forest (on a side note, very rarely will playing through trees work out. Usually you have to keep the ball extremely low and in a tiny window to fit it through the trees. So in most cases, just punch out and save yourself the trouble). Now if you were to hit your drive into the woods on the right side you might only have two layers of trees to clear until you get back to the fairway. This gives you a chance to make a shot and minimize your loses while not risking a really bad hole or a “blow up hole” as my dad would put it.
Of course not everyone is at the level where they need to micromanage their decisions this closely. I certainly don’t spend five minutes thinking through every shot I take but if you get in the habit of thinking forward, you can save yourself a lot of frustration by seeing possible consequences of each shot you take. And at the end of the day, there is also just a certain level of satisfaction that I get as a player by feeling like I am really in control of my game and the course.
As I get further and further into this blog I’ve looked back at all of the time I’ve spent golfing and especially the time I’ve spent with my dad. It is amazing that even though he has never been that great of a golfer (sorry dad) he really has some really good pieces of advice. When it came to risk and reward there was one phrase he used to always tell me when I was about to take an unnecessarily risky shot. He would always tell me “Don’t be a hero, you don’t have superpowers” and that was almost always enough to make me realize that what I was about to do was silly. Even though his scores might not have always reflected it, he really did have a good idea about how to manage the course and as I look back this was, besides golf etiquette, one of the most important lessons he’s taught me about golf.
So it boils down to this. The next time you’re out on the course, spend a little more time thinking about the course instead of just your swing. It doesn’t have to be a lot, but 30 seconds as you walk up to your shot shouldn’t be too much extra effort and it really can save you strokes by simply keeping you away from more potential hazards. And if you do find yourself in a jam, consider both options. While sometimes it might be an intelligent risk to try and go for the flag or punch through the woods, it can also be a good idea to play a safer shot and live to fight another day. So until next time fellow golfers, keep honing your mind and remember that sometimes it’s smarter to be safe than it is to be a hero.


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