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Why All Golfers Make This Mistake, Even PGA Tour Players

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Hitting the hero’s shot almost always makes you the villain.

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Welcome to Play Smart, a game improvement column that appears every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from game improvement editor Luke Kerr-Dineen (who you can follow on twitter right here).

Standing on his golf ball on the 72nd hole at the Travelers Championship on Sunday, Sahith Theegala, who was five under on the day, decided to back up. He tried to drive the ball over the edge a few feet from him, hoping to find the front edge of the green just over 100 yards away.

“We were trying to figure out what was the best way to make 4 and try to force Xander [Schauffele] to birdie,” he said later.

Theegala said there was more room for error than it seemed on television. A great shot would have given it a birdlike appearance; a piece would leave him a throwing shot. There was only one thing he couldn’t do: cut it. And with pressure cooking, that’s exactly what he did.

“Never in a million years did I think I would be allowed to cut it down,” he said.

Playing golf under pressure tends to do that to people. His subsequent double bogey sent the trophy into the hands of Xander Schauffele.

When you’re a PGA Tour player, capable of doing amazing things with a golf ball and, in Theegala’s case, five under par over 17 holes, I’ll give you some slack. Theegala chose to back himself up, and you have to give him the benefit of the doubt.

On the surface, though, it at least seemed like a questionable play for him, which for a player of his quality means it’s the kind of shot the rest of us should avoid at all costs.

This is why.

Moneyballing your way out of trouble

Nick Faldo, on the broadcast, questioned Theegala’s choice to hit the driver off the tee on the 18th. There is no doubt in my mind that this was a serious criticism. Everything about Peak Faldo’s game would suggest that he would have drawn something conservative in the middle of the fairway and had his opponent golf to beat him. Theegala’s problem was that he didn’t have a 3-wood in the bag, which would have been the obvious choice for non-drivers.

And besides, most of the guys were driving this hole on Sunday, including eventual winner Schauffele. Theegala had each of the previous three days and also fancied the opportunity on Sunday.

“It was just a perfect tee ball for me. Just a high cut on the tree. I hit him a thousand times this year. I have to trust him, he is my bread and butter. I put a big swing on it, hit it right in the middle,” Theegala said. “Maybe it was the adrenaline, I squared my face a bit earlier than normal. He just didn’t cut it.

It happens, and it doesn’t mean it was a bad decision. But questions begin to arise on his next shot.

Theegala felt that trying to advance his ball as close to the green as possible was his best opportunity to put pressure on Xander. That’s probably true, but it was also an awkward shot that you need to hit under pressure. Clearly, that brought with it a non-zero chance of something unexpected going wrong, which is exactly what we saw happen.

What if Theegala had thrown his face wide open, forgotten about the green, and played this shot like a greenside bunker? His drive came out 124 yards from the green; if he had hit his ball back down the fairway, from all the way to the side to diagonally forward, that puts him somewhere in the bottom yellow oval.

Passing his ball about 100 yards would have given Theegala an 85 percent chance of par or bogey.

PGA Tour

Based on the Shotlink data you can see above, that yellow circle encompasses shots from 96 to 116 yards made on Sunday. There were 14 of them in total, and here’s how the score for each of them broke down:

7 pairs (blue)

5 little birds (red)

2 bogies (black)

It would only have taken a single shot to put Theegala in this position. Once she did, the scoring data for the day suggests that she would indeed have had a 50 percent chance of landing on three shots from here, and a 35 percent chance of landing on two. Looking at Theegala’s own proximity stats from the season so far, a shot from 96 to 100 yards would likely drop him close to a 18 foot putt to save par – a putt you make on 15 percent of the time. Probably a bit more in this case, because he was one of the top 10 players on the field to put during the final round.

Anyway, that’s what chipping out and adjustment gives you: a chance to save par and an 85 percent chance of nothing worse than bogey. Does Xander still birdie 18 knowing he needs it to win, or at least secure a spot in a playoff? That is an alternate reality that we will never know. Instead, the result of Theegala’s more ambitious attempt was to leave him with a similar-length bogey putt, which came off brutally, and a double-bogey that left him splitting second place.

The lesson: don’t take the hero shot

Again, this isn’t about kicking a man while he’s down – I was really rooting for Theegala on Sunday, and will be more so the next time she’s in contention.

This shot from Sunday was just a fascinating reminder of how the game of golf forces us to override our basic human instinct to want to do more when we feel like our backs are against the wall. To bounce back from a bad or unlucky shot with an even better or luckier next shot. Actually, it’s best to think of times like this as a speeding ticket. Pay your ticket and continue on your way.

When you come across the opportunity to land a hero shot, do yourself a favor and don’t do it. Take the simplest and most boring route to get back to your position and continue on your way. There may be no glory in taking the boring route, but there will be a trophy waiting for you at the end.

Luke Kerr-Dineen

Golf.com Contributor

Luke Kerr-Dineen is Game Improvement Editor at GOLF Magazine and GOLF.com. In his role, he oversees the brand’s game improvement content spanning instruction, equipment, health and fitness, across all of GOLF’s media platforms.

An alumnus of the International Junior Golf Academy and the University of South Carolina-Beaufort golf team, where he helped them rise to No. 1 in the NAIA national rankings, Luke moved to New York in 2012 to earn her master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University. . His work has also appeared in USA Today, Golf Digest, Newsweek, and The Daily Beast.

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