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Raised Floors – Love Your Work, Episode 241

October 01 2020 – 07:30am

raised floorsIn the game of golf, there’s an expression: “Drive for show, putt for dough.” What it means is: If you want to win tournaments, practice putting.

It makes sense. In a standard even-par round of golf, putts make up half of all strokes. You’ll use your driver less than half the number of times you’ll use your putter. There’s more strokes to get rid of in the putting part of the game.

“Drive for show, putt for dough” makes sense – but it’s wrong. Why? It can tell us a lot about other places in life and work with “raised floors.”

Golf is a reality-distortion field

First, a little background on the game of golf, for those unfamiliar. You’ve got a roughly one-and-a-half-inch ball, you’re trying to hit into a roughly four-inch hole. That hole is anywhere from one-hundred yards away to five-hundred yards away.

A one-hundred yard hole is a short par 3. A five-hundred yard hole is a long par 5. Meaning you have three strokes to get the ball in the hole for the par 3, and you have five strokes to get the ball in the hole on the par 5 – that is, to shoot even par. In between these distances are the more-common par 4s.

So you’re hitting a tiny ball with a chunk of metal on the end of a long stick, and you’re trying to get it into a tiny hole a few football fields away.

It’s insanely difficult, and trying to accomplish this will challenge your perception of reality. So no wonder the common wisdom in golf is wrong: It’s hard enough to make solid contact with the ball. It’s even harder to look back on a round, or even a hole, and have a clear picture of what the hell happened and how you could do it better.

Golf is essentially a reality-distortion field. It’s endlessly multivariate. It’s full of hidden risks and difficult decisions. It’s also frustrating and emotionally challenging, which makes it even harder to see reality and improve.

So, yes, golf is a good analog to life.

Seeing reality in Golf

Mark Broadie of Columbia University wanted to make it easier to see reality in the game of golf. So, he collected a ton of data. He got detailed data of more than 100,000 shots from 200 men and women of all ages and skill levels. He knew where each shot started, where each shot ended, whether the shot was from the sand or the fairway or tall grass – he even knew whether each putt was uphill or downhill, left-breaking or right-breaking.

This is a lot of data. At the time, if you were a stats-minded golfer, you were counting how many fairways you hit in your drives, how many greens you hit in regulation (A “green in regulation” is par minus-two, because the goal is to average only two putts on each hole.) Since you believed you were “putting for dough,” you were also counting how many putts you had.

But this information stats-minded golfers were collecting didn’t really help. Maybe you had only 28 putts instead of the standard 36 putts, but the reason you had so few putts was because you didn’t hit any greens, so you were hitting the green from a shorter distance and thus your putts were shorter and easier to make.

It didn’t help you see reality. If anything, it made reality harder to see.

The “strokes-gained” method of seeing reality

But Mark Broadie revolutionized golf stats. He developed a system called “strokes gained.” Basically, for your skill level, where on the course are you gaining strokes and losing strokes?

Your average PGA Tour golfer hitting from the tee on a 400-yard hole – a par 4 – averages 3.99 strokes. From 8 feet, he averages 1.5 strokes.

So imagine a golfer who is better than other pros from 8 feet. Instead of 1.5 strokes on average, he takes 1.3 strokes. Yet this golfer still averages 3.99 strokes from 400 yards off the tee. He’s better than other pros from 8 feet, but somehow just as good as other pros from 400 yards. That means somewhere between the tee and that 8-foot putt, he’s losing a fraction of a stroke – 0.2 strokes to be exact.

It’s almost like for every single shot on the course, the golfer is starting with a new “par” based upon the distance from the hole and the conditions of the shot. If you crunch all of that data, you can find exactly where your game needs work.

Why “putt for dough” is wrong

After crunching all this data, Mark Broadie discovered why “putt for dough” is wrong: Putts make up 50% of the strokes in a standard even-par round of golf. But Broadie found that putting performance only accounts for 15% of the strokes that separate the wheat from the chaff.

From Broadie’s fascinating book, Every Shot Counts:

Between the best pros and average pros, between pros and amateurs, and between good amateurs and poor amateurs, the numbers show that putting contributes about 15% to the difference in scores. Tee-to-green shots explain the remaining 85% of score differences.

In fact, if you took a golfer who usually shoots 90, and you gave that golfer the putting skill of a pro – who usually shoots 20 or 25 strokes less – that amateur golfer’s score would drop not by 20 or 25 strokes, but by four strokes.

Instead of shooting 90, this amateur golfer with the putting skills of a pro would shoot 86.

Golfers have been saying putting is the most important part of the game since the early 1800s. Mark Broadie’s work didn’t come around until the early 2000s. How could popular wisdom get it so wrong for so long?

“Raised floors” can’t be lowered

This is what I call a “raised floor.” It’s an area where you have a standard of performance. Since that standard of performance seems to have lots of room for improvement, you think you can improve that performance.

But there’s a floor. It’s a raised floor, and you can’t lower it.

We know no unassisted human will run a 10-second mile. We know there’s a raised floor, and that if you want to run a mile in record time, it’s a matter of shaving off fractions of a second.

Why golfers focus on “raised floors”

Yet golfers, for the longest time, thought it was putting that mattered most. Why?

If you know anything about perception, you can see a few ways putting would seem like the most important part of the game.

Putting is the action you’re usually making when you reach your goal – when the ball finally goes in the hole. Putting is also where you miss the hole, sometimes by a hair.

When you reach the green in three strokes from 500 yards away, you have a ten-foot put for birdie, and you end up taking three more strokes to get in the hole – that’s frustrating! Three strokes for 500 yards, three strokes for ten feet – it seems clear where you need improvement.

Because it’s frustrating, because it causes golfers to feel an emotion, putting seems more relevant.

These examples are components of the “availability bias.” That we remember things that are easy to remember – such as “lipping out” a put or three-putting from ten feet.

The availability bias is why people are often more worried about dying in plane crashes than in car crashes, despite the fact they’re far more likely to die in a car crash.

Look out for “raised floors”

Raised floors are in other areas of your life and work, and they can waste your energy.

How many calories can you cut from your diet, really? How much can you cut your spending, really? How much time can you save, really?

Don’t lower the floor. Raise the ceiling.

If putting isn’t the biggest part of golf, what is? Among the top 40 PGA Tour golfers, putting accounted for 15% of the game, driving 28%, and shots from around the green 17%. The most important part of the game: approach shots – that is, shots to the green from long distances – these accounted for 40% of the game.

The greatest golfer ever, Tiger Woods, gets his advantage not from great putting, but from great approach shots. In the data Mark Broadie has analyzed, when hitting from the 150–200-yard range, Tiger Woods hit his shots three or four feet closer to the hole than other pros. Those approach shots alone gave Tiger a 1.3 stroke per round advantage. There’s four rounds in a tournament. It only takes one stroke to win. 1.3 strokes per round is a lot.

So instead of getting good at the short game of golf, get good at the long game of golf.

Instead of cutting more calories from your diet – as we learned from the Body by Science book summary on episode 160 – build muscle that burns calories. Instead of struggling to cut your spending, make more money. Instead of stressing yourself out to save more time, manage your energy.

Don’t lower the floor – raise the ceiling.

Image: In the Style of Kairouan, Paul Klee

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