It's simple: Play. For. Something.
Because golf is a game of two parts: focus and athleticism. And as much as we want to be Henry Rowengartner in Rookie of the Year, we’re not going to wake up more athletic than when we went to bed.
But playing with something on the line is like a video game cheat code to help improve your focus, and your scores.
One of the best parts of golf are the “games within the game”. From Nassaus to Vegas to Bingo Bongo Bango, golfers have devised dozens of mini games to keep us focused during the round.
I’ve tracked dozens of rounds with me and my fellow average hackers, and we’re talking 4-5 strokes better per player when the right game is being played.
So let’s talk about what we play for, how we play for it, and which game to choose when. And you know I’m going to dive into my favorites. But first – the science of WHY this works.
Chapter 1: What are we playing for?
What we play for is actually more important than what game we play. The right wager will create optimal focus, and the wrong one could actually make us worse.
“You said science?” The psychology behind the perfect bet is called the Yerkes-Dodson law. It states that ‘there is a key level of arousal that drives peak performance of a difficult task’.
Now before you worry about your plus-fours turning on your foursome, ‘arousal’ in the psychological sense means ‘a state of being activated, and is one dimension of our response to stimuli’.
Too little arousal and we just don’t care. Too much arousal will create anxiety.
The amount you’re playing for must be enough to make everyone care, but should not seriously hurt anyone’s wallet. Keep in mind that a loss should damage your pride, not your friendships.
Note: I am assuming you’re playing with friends. If you are playing in huge cash games, STOP READING RIGHT NOW. If you are learning rules from this article before heading out to put your house on the line, cuff yourself to the radiator and call someone else to make adult decisions.
Before teeing off, discuss with your foursome the maximum someone could win, or lose, if they lost every part of the wager. The former should get people excited, while the latter should make them squirm, but not run for their cars. Try that amount, see how everyone does, and go up or down from there for the next few rounds to dial it in.
The perfect bet will create the optimal level of focus and adrenaline to get your mind and body performing at its peak. All our peaks are different, but if mentally you are at your peak then nothing is getting in the way of your athleticism.
Chapter 2: When do we get paid?
The timing of the wager is also key. One bet for 18 holes will make you focus for the first 3 holes (when the bet is fresh in our minds), and the last 3 holes (when the outcome is in sight). But you’re not interested in playing well for 6 holes, right?
Everyone can be a great poker player for 30 minutes. Then boredom, distraction, or over confidence sets in, and the sharks separate the chips from the minnows. Golf is no different.
You ever try and carry your 3 wood 20 yards further than it’s ever gone on a par 5? Then after it splashes in the pond fronting the green wonder why you left “I’m going to play smart today” at the range? It’s because we naturally can’t maintain our focus for 4 hours.
Professional tournaments aren’t 4 days long because the PGA loves Thursday morning TV ratings. They are that long because it is incredibly challenging to stay focused for four days on a single outcome. One of the biggest differences between us and the pros (and there are many) is what they have between their ears that enables them to do that.
After a bad shot Tiger said “[t]hat next shot should be the most important shot in your life. It should be more important than breathing.” He was talking to his son. To us he might say “You’re not that guy, pal.”
So the bet is our cheat code. Let’s shape it to make the most out of what we’ve got.
‘OK, I’ll make every hole worth 1 bet.’ That’s… Okay. But the funny thing about adrenaline is that it won’t keep pumping once your body gets adjusted to a specific stimulus – which it will over 4 hours.
If this is your first time playing with a wager, start your journey by trying a Nassau. It’s 3 equal bets over the course of a round. You win one bet for winning the front 9 holes, another for the back 9, and one for the overall 18. It’s fantastic, and fantastically simple.
For trivia buffs, the bet is named for the Nassau Country Club in Long Island. In the early 1900s they dominated other country clubs, winning by huge margins. The results of these matches were printed in New York newspapers, so their opponents were publicly humiliated. To get other clubs to keep playing them, Nassau member J.B. Coles Tappan (what a name!) invented the 3-point scoring system so at worst a player would lose 3-0. Much better than having the newspaper announce that you lost by 9 with 8 to play, a la Tiger Woods vs. Stephen Ames.
So give the Nassau a try and see what it does to your focus, and your scores! In Chapter 3 we’ll start getting into other games with My 3 Favorite Introductory Games!
Leave a comment with your favorites and I’ll make sure to get to them, as well as any other feedback on this series or topics you'd like to see.
And I hope this helps your focus and your golf, let me know!