Why is Golf So Fragile?

Coming into the U.S. Open Tiger Woods was looking unbeatable. He had won the Memorial, hitting 14 out of 14 fairways. He had a great week of practice, he says, then some good rounds at Bethpage this week. And now, with the first day of play complete, he is eight strokes back, having had a calamity of a round, missing more than half of the fairways.

While Tiger Woods may very end up winning the tournament, how do these performance surprises happen? What is it about golf, in other words, that makes competency so fragile?

To put some numbers on it, Tiger is deemed the best golfer in the world because he wins 28% of all major tournaments that he enters. Meanwhile a top tennis player, like Roger Federer, wins a significantly higher percentage of majors, with Federer at 35% and the great Bjorn Borg at 41%. Winning competency in tennis is more stable, it seems, than in golf.

What is golf so fragile? The ball doesn’t move, and the player isn’t in motion, so two major variables disappear. Granted, the golf swing is longer and the clubs change, which is not the case in tennis (there are no serving rackets, etc.), but staying in place with the same equipment and a stationary ball are all major advantage.

One argument is that the length of the shots is the source of fragility. A typical golf shot must travel 200 yards or more, while landing in uncertain conditions. A tennis shot, on the other hand, only need go 80 feet or so (the length of a tennis court) and lands on a flat, artificial service, so the opportunity for small errors to turn into massively offline shots is minimized in tennis as compared to golf.

The subject of fragility is an important one, and an abiding interesting of mine in markets and economies. But the sports analogies are informative, with fragility showing up in surprising places.