An academic look at choking on the 18th green

I don’t much like the term “choking” to define failure in sports although almost everybody does. It has come to be accusatory and an attempt to diminish the poor dolt who missed, whether it’s a putt, a free throw or a third-strike fastball with the bases loaded.

Having spent nine years in serial failure on the Champions Tour Monday qualifying and Q-School circuit, I have come to think of choking more as a measure of our humanity than the character flaw it infers. I have come to have more compassion for the players willing to put themselves in that position for all the world to see, to at least try, than any disdain for their perceived psychological shortcomings.

I have come to see in myself that fear of failure leads to failure…unless you can teach yourself to let go of the fear. It is all so ego-based, but gradually overcome once you come to understand that. “What will people think?” goes away when you realize that it doesn’t matter what they think and you can’t control it anyway. 

What does matter is who do you have to be in order to pay unfettered attention to the matter at hand for seconds at a time. Someone unconcerned with what other people think; what they think is more about them than you. Someone who is willing to take the stage and accept whatever happens, good or bad, as another step along the path to success. Someone who understands human nature and is at peace with it.

Having said all of that, I came across an academic study on choking on the 18th green. “The Impact of Pressure on Performance: Evidence From the PGA Tour,” by Daniel C. Hickman and Neil E. Mertz. Hickman is an Assistant Professor of Economics at the College of Business and Economics at the University of Idaho. Mertz is an Assistant Professor of Economics at the College of Business at the University of Central Oklahoma.

The whole study is a mere 31 pages, the last of them filled with tables of their results, but they have to be a pair of golf nuts. One can imagine them slinking away from the afternoon sessions at economic conferences, golf bags slung over their shoulders and alternately talking about the latest Fed policies, six-foot putts, the future of the Ex-Im Bank, the bounce on their sand wedges and, bringing it all together, constraints on the free market and their effect on beer and sandwich prices at the clubhouse.

I don’t want to steal their thunder — you really should read the study — but what they’ve done is gathered up years of the PGA Tour’s Shot Link data that has measured everything about every shot on the PGA Tour since 2002. The Tour makes this data available to researchers for just this kind of thing. The professors didn’t use all of it because they were only interested in how the financial reward of given putts on the 18th green affect performance.

They go into the reasoning behind how they culled through the data and it’s worth the read just to appreciate the meticulous way two smart guys who love the game constructed their study. It will help if you have some statistics courses under your belt, but you don’t need it to appreciate their curiosity and devotion.

Plus, they were smart enough to cite me in the study…for which, I tweeted Mertz, I was so flattered.

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