A new study cites U.S. Open scoring data as evidence of loss aversion

Pebble Beach, Monterey, California

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif.—There is nothing particularly memorable about the second hole at Pebble Beach. Set inland and lined by trees at 516 yards, it offers no stunning vistas. Its history, in terms of iconic moments in championship golf, is unremarkable compared to many other holes here. But according to a new study, No. 2 at Pebble Beach does offer something distinctive: a window into the psyche of a golfer.

For this week’s U.S. Open, the hole is playing as a par 4, as it did in 2000 and 2010. In the three prior U.S. Opens here, it was a par 5. If a hole is fundamentally unaltered—with comparable setups and lengths—golfers would theoretically play it the same way no matter the par number attached to it.

But a pair of business professors at the University of Denver, Ryan Elmore and Andrew Urbaczewski, found that hasn’t been the case.

In a study of U.S. Open scoring data at two holes where par was changed from 5 to 4 without other substantial modifications—No. 2 at Pebble Beach and No. 9 at Oakmont—Elmore and Urbaczewski found that players approach the holes more aggressively and score notably better when the holes are labeled par 4s.

They estimate that players will score up to .187 strokes lower at Pebble Beach No. 2 and up to .220 strokes lower at Oakmont No. 9 when those holes are labeled par-4s. The upshot: golfers exhibit “loss aversion,” a concept in cognitive psychology referring to the tendency to prefer avoiding losses over making equivalent gains.

“These figures suggest that players tend to try harder when playing to avoid losing a stroke (on par 4s) rather than when they are playing simply to maintain their current score (on par 5s),” Elmore and Urbaczewski write.

Pebble Beach

Though equipment technology and physical fitness have helped players score better in general in this century, the authors discount that as an explanation for the lower scores they found. They said no other hole on either course that kept its par rating the same saw a consistent decrease in scoring average over the same period. They also controlled for potential weather-related effects.

At Pebble Beach, the psychological difference is noticeable even compared to the annual AT&T Pro-Am, where the second hole is a par-5. Jordan Spieth, who won that tournament in 2017, said the rating changes the way he thinks about leaving his second shot short of a large ditch about 100 yards in front of the green.

“Obviously par doesn’t really matter,” Spieth said. “But it’s nice when you feel like, ‘Oh, I have to lay up, but I can still hit a wedge and get a birdie putt,’ instead of, ‘Oh, man, I don’t want to make a bogey.’”

The USGA defines par as “the score that an expert player would be expected to make for a given hole.” The term was derived from the stock market in the late 1870s and has framed the popular understanding of golf scores for more than a century.
Technically, Tiger Woods won the 2000 U.S. Open here with a 72-hole score of 272. But the score everyone remembers from arguably the greatest performance in golf history is the one relative to par: Woods finished 12 under.

While lowering par appears to have helped elicit better scores from the pros at the U.S. Open, it can actually have the opposite effect on many amateurs. Since most weekend hackers hardly qualify as expert players, some coaches recommend that they set their own “personal par” for each hole. That is, a score that represents a more reasonable expectation based on their ability—so they don’t take a foolishly aggressive strategy for the sake of an arbitrary number.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that the whole idea of par has an impact on how people think,” said golf psychologist Bob Rotella. “The problem is people have made par into this magical number.”

If the pros respond to a lower par rating by effectively taking more risks or otherwise respond to the added pressure with lower scores, the effect is better golf. If not, it’s another argument for simply ignoring the whole idea of par—which is easier said than done.

“The bottom line is once you put that number up there,” Rotella said, “that’s what people tend to aim for.”