Quantum Golf

One of the ways to keep games interesting for both players and spectators is to have quantum effects in the criteria for success.

A quantum effect is created when success or failure in a game is made to depend on a sharply delineated result according to a strict category criterion. The game of golf provides a useful example of this. No golf shot is definitively good except the ones that end with the ball in the hole rather than somewhere else.

When played at a high professional level, golf scores vary in a narrow range. In a particular event, a score of 70 might be very good, while 75 would be disappointing. 65 might be extraordinarily good, and 80 a disaster. So each individual stroke is, at least potentially, very important.

Much of the drama in golf comes from its recognition of a strict binary with respect to the result of each stroke. If the ball comes to rest in the cup, the hole is over. But if it isn’t, the player needs to play at least one more stroke. This puts a great deal of significance on what might otherwise seem to be the least interesting part of the game – putting.

The difference between a very good tee shot and an indifferent one is usually on the order of some fraction of a stroke. A brilliant drive might make the player, say, 20% more likely to score a one-under-par birdie, and perhaps another 20% less likely to score a one-over-par bogey, than an indifferent drive. So that brilliant drive is worth, on average about 0.4 strokes on the final score for the round. But the difference between a putt that ends in the hole and one that does not is always at least one full stroke.

This difference is even more dramatic in match play golf, where each hole is a separate competition for a single point.

In medal play, it’s possible for unusually bad or good shots other than the final putt to have greater significance. A very bad shot – one that lands out of bounds or in a water hazard, can cost the golfer two strokes, one counting the shot itself, and another penalty stroke. A spectacularly good shot, like a hole-in-one on a par 3 hole, might save two strokes. But the definitive stroke on any hole has to the the one that lands in the hole, and that’s usually a putt.

The popularity of golf as a spectator sport is something that many people find difficult to fathom. Part of it, I think, comes from the huge importance of putting. Unlike other parts of the game, putting does not require exceptional strength or stamina. And anyone who has played a little golf has, on occasion, holed long putts. So, I suggest, some people enjoy watching golf because they can imagine themselves in the game more readily. They know that they can’t throw a big-league slider or tackle a 250-pound running back. But they could, at least sometimes, sink that putt.

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