Practice Analytically, Perform Intuitively

There’s a famous saying in golf: “Drive for show, putt for dough.”

You’ll hear it at every course and every tournament. It’s the closest thing we have to gospel in the world of golf. It means that even though hitting long drives is sexy, the lowest scores are shot by the best putters. The saying makes intuitive sense. Golf is a game of getting the ball in the hole, so the best golfers are the ones who are the best at doing that. There’s only one problem with this phrase: it’s wrong.

How Computers Changed Golf

You can predict rapid progress in places where computers can see what’s happening. For all of the 20th century, there was virtually no data on the factors that led to golfing success. People had opinions, but nobody did data-driven analysis. That changed in 2004 when the PGA Tour started tracking every shot, all 1.5 million of them per season. Today, the system stores more than 174 attributes from over 20 million shots.

Armed with the data, statisticians including Columbia professor Mark Broadie dispelled myths about good golf. First, Broadie found that traditional statistics, like greens in regulation and putts per round, were misleading. Then he discovered that players focused too much on shots from under 100 yards. Ball-striking, especially off the tee and on shots from 150-225 yards, are the most important factors in the quest to shoot low scores. Thanks to this work, we can measure a player’s performance against the rest of the field and get a granular analysis of every aspect of a player’s game.

After studying Mark Broadie’s ideas, Bryson DeChambeau knew that the conventional wisdom, “drive for show, putt for dough,” was wrong. Known as “The Mad Scientist of Golf,” he’s spent the last ten years questioning conventional assumptions about how golf is played. He started with a controversial 1969 book called The Golfing Machine which describes 144 ways to swing a golf club and inspired him to adopt a single-plane swing.

Even though Broadie found that mid-irons have the biggest influence on scoring outcomes, Bryson focused on other aspects of his game because he’s always been an exceptional iron player. Bryson determined that if he wanted to be #1 in the world, he needed to drive the ball farther—challenging the popular belief that accuracy was more important than distance.

To hit the ball farther, Bryson changed his diet and his golf swing. Every morning, he eats six eggs, six pieces of bacon, and three pieces of French toast, then washes all that down with two protein shakes. With a new routine in place, he committed to daily workouts and swinging as hard as possible. On top of that, to improve his technique, he studied the world’s long drive champions. This is interesting because these guys are considered specialized golfers who are trained to drive the ball far but not score well. Adopting their form was akin to a marathon runner studying sprinters, but Bryson did it anyway.

Now, he’s 40 pounds heavier and the longest driver on tour. In 2019, he ranked 24th and 34th in strokes-gained off-the-tee and driving distance respectively. One year later, he’s first in both categories. This is unheard of.

In 2020, Bryson averaged 323.8 yards off the tee, which is the highest in PGA Tour history. In tee shots on par-4 and par-5 holes, Bryson averaged 18.6 yards longer than the average PGA Tour player, while remaining at the tour average in fairways hit per round. By Broadie’s strokes-gained measurement, he climbed from 55th on Tour during the 2015-2016 season to 2nd by the 2019-2020 season.

Seeing the errors in how people intuitively think about the golf swing made Bryson question how other parts of the game were played. Having majored in physics at college, he operates like a scientist. He subscribes to Charles Dickens’ famous line from Great Expectations: “Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There’s no better rule.”

Where other golfers guess why they’re struggling at the driving range, Bryson brings two military-grade launch monitors so he can quantify his swing path to the tenth-of-a-degree. Where other golfers use standard grips, Bryson uses the world’s largest commercially available grips so he can reduce wrist cock in his swing and hold the club with his palms instead of his fingertips. Where other golfers have a half-inch length difference between every iron, all of Bryson’s are cut to 37.5 inches, the length of a standard 8-iron. Where other golfers change their putting technique based on how they feel that day, Bryson’s implemented a system called vector putting: he uses math to compute the break and determine how the ball will roll along the grass. Where other golfers hit 7-10 degree drivers, Bryson copied the world long-drive champion and put a 5.5 degree driver in the bag. Where other golfers use a 45-inch driver, Bryson’s experimenting with a 48-inch one.

Bryson showed that a determined contrarian, armed with the right data and a definitive plan, can upend conventional wisdom and prove that there’s a better way to do something.

I also explain these ideas in a video on my YouTube channel.

Science Shows Us Where Intuition is Wrong

Trusting empirical data over intuition was one of the defining ideas of the Enlightenment. Through paradigm shifts like the Copernican Revolution, which found that humans weren’t the center of the universe, people began trusting instruments over their senses. That isn’t to say that science is always correct, but ever since the Enlightenment, it’s been obviously foolish to ignore it. Yet, that’s exactly what golfers did—for decades.

Old school players have criticized Bryson for his scientific approach. The golf announcer Brandel Chamblee says the way Bryson focuses on the geometry and physics of the swing robs him of his natural talent. He criticizes today’s young golfers for training too much and being overly technical. There’s some wisdom in his critique, but the explosion in information propelled by cutting-edge technology is making golfers indisputably better.

Golf isn’t the only industry with obvious edges that people are slow to exploit. There are market inefficiencies in many sports. In baseball, Billy Beane famously proved that scouting techniques were outdated and flawed. Then, he found a way to systematically identify under-valued players and strategies. He noticed that talent scouts favored athletic-looking players, but the visibly muscular players weren’t always the best ones. He also instituted defensive shifts and focused on players’ on base percentages instead of batting averages. In basketball, players improve by watching slow-motion videos. Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum was seven-years-old when YouTube was invented, so he grew up studying Kobe Bryant. He didn’t just watch the highlights. He studied Kobe’s footwork, the deception in his shot fake, and the rhythm of his jab steps.

In both of these cases, athletes recalibrated their intuitions based on what the technology showed them, and Bryson follows in their footsteps.

At the same time, a respect for science doesn’t mean intuition goes out the window. In fact, an analytical approach can make your intuition stronger. For example, computers have improved the quality of tournament chess because players have learned how to think more like intelligent machines. Computers don’t just make fewer mistakes; they play with a different style because they see the board differently than humans. As Tyler Cowen wrote: “Younger players, who grew up playing chess with computers, are especially good at this. For older players, it is a good way to learn how unreliable your intuitions can be.” Like aspects of Bryson’s swing, some of the computer’s most effective chess moves are ugly to the human eye because they violate our intuition for what a good chess move looks like. But if you spend enough time watching the computer move, you can incorporate those tactics into your intuitive game and become a stronger player. Intuition isn’t as static as we think. With the right tools, it can improve over time.

I’ve learned this through my personal golfing experience, too: an analytical practice routine sharpened my intuition on the course. When my golf game began to struggle during my junior year of high school, I started working with one of the top golf coaches in the country, Terry Rowles. Using the same cutting-edge technologies as Bryson, we practiced as much with computers as the naked eye. By placing small sensors on my chest, we compared the movements of my body against PGA Tour averages and trained my intuition finding the optimal swing position.

During my senior year of high school, I wrote a 60-page technical manual on the physics of ball flight and the biomechanics of the golf swing. My elevated approach to practice improved my on-course performance because quantitative measurements informed my intuitions about how to improve. Meanwhile, I saw how often TV announcers with a traditional mindset were wrong in their analysis. What they saw with their eyes contradicted what I measured with my instruments. By the end of high school, I was armed with technical knowledge and good enough to be recruited by a Division 1 college.

Art Meets Science: Practice Analytically, Perform Intuitively

You don’t reach a state of mastery when you know everything. You reach it when you’ve absorbed the knowledge so deeply that it becomes a part of you.

All artists study the techniques of others until they become a part of their identity. Hunter S. Thompson once re-wrote all of the Great Gatsby so he could feel what it was like to write a great novel. Robert Louis Stevenson used to copy paragraphs by his favorite writers from memory so he could internalize their wisdom. Likewise, Bryson copies the motion of his favorite players and incorporates their movements into his swing until they become natural. For example, he incorporated Jordan Speith’s chicken wing swing motion into his own swing to reduce arm rotation and stop himself from hitting shots left of the target. Today, his new swing aligns scientific optimization with the intuitive movements of his body.

In praise of the golfer Moe Norman, Bryson once said: “Why was he able to hit it straight every time? It wasn’t that he was thinking about everything. More like he was thinking about nothing. He found his baseline, then let himself be an artist, not a machine. That’s the ultimate triumph in golf.”

The night before his first major championship victory, Bryson was disappointed with the performance of his driver. Instead of going home after the round, he went to the driving range, where he was the only player hitting balls under the lights. He problem-solved with his technical launch-monitor and his technically minded coach, but his breakthrough came when he took a swing and said: “Oh, that feels right.” Instead of waiting for mathematical perfection, he called it a night once he found the proper feeling for his swing. 24 hours later, he was a US Open winner. By practicing like a scientist, he can play like an artist.

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