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Golfers take par when they could do one better

tiger woods putts on the greenTiger Woods could make $1.2 million more every year. How? If he'd spend less energy trying to avoid bogeys and aimed for more birdies (no, not the ones in the trees—a stroke under par), according to a forthcoming paper.

Two researchers from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School analyzed info on more than 1.6 million putts on the PGA Tour over four years. They found that when players had the chance for birdie in one shot, they settled for getting par in two shots about 3 percent more often than when they shot to avoid a bogey (and get par).

Let's see if they take the acadmics' advice to be more aggressive when they're on the greens at the USGA U.S. Open Championship starting June 18 at Bethpage State Park in New York.

"When putting for birdie, you realize that, most of the time it's acceptable to make par," Justin Leonard, a pro golfer who has won a dozen PGA Tour tournaments but makes putts for birdie 5.7 percent less often than putts for par, told The New York Times. "When you're putting for par, there's probably a greater sense of urgency… not to drop a shot."

The researchers found that sense of urgency played out in the data. Birdie putts more often ended up short of hole, a finding that matches up with the concept of Prospect Theory, which holds that people are more likely to be cautious when aiming for a gain than avoiding a loss.

The concept of loss aversion is well known in psychology and behavioral economics. In study after study, people have proven that they focus more on avoiding a loss than scoring a potential gain.

And in golf, despite all else being equal—the distance, the scoring of strokes, the high-dollar prizes and brightly colored pants—even pro putters fell prey to the irrational (although less often than do greener golfers). The paper found that Tiger Woods himself missed a chance at birdie 3.6 percent more often than shots at par.

Golf isn't the only sport that traps athletes into emotional decisions. A paper [pdf] from the Texas A&M Mays Business School found that major league baseball managers too often take the score into account when deciding whether to attempt stealing second base. They found that teams already in the lead were willing to risk more to avoid losing than teams that needed to catch up. Indeed, the pang of an avoidable loss lingers longer than the rush of an expected victory.

Image of Tiger Woods putting on the green courtesy of Jim Epler via Flickr

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