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randomness, luck, and golf

Updated: Jan 13

“An ideal golf hole should provide an infinite variety of shots according to the various positions of the tee, the situation of the flag, the direction and strength of the wind, etc.”
“There are many leading players who condemn the strategic aspects of golf. They only see one line to the hole, and that is usually the direct one.”

- Dr. Alister MacKenzie

MacKenzie considered the 14th at the Old Course at St. Andrews to be an ideal hole, which he studied extensively as indicated in The Spirit of St. Andrews.

An ideal golf hole is not monotonous. An ideal golf hole is not predictable. An ideal golf hole embraces variety and so-called luck. But what is variety and this thing we call luck? I prefer to look at it through the lens of randomness.

The term randomness is a golf ideal typically associated with firmer turf, a ground game, grass conditions, and variable weather like wind. For example, some argue that firmer conditions and a ground game afford a greater sense of randomness, thus adding variety to the game. On the other hand, a golfer’s lament may contend that golf is no place for randomness, as it removes the value of execution and strategy. In the face of a well-struck shot that ends up in a not-so-well spot, a golfer may scream, “A good shot should be rewarded!”

There are two common, but different, interpretations of randomness.

One interpretation reflects a pure form of luck. The other interpretation reflects a form of variance.

Both luck and variance are critical to the game of golf. Both luck and variance are conflated in discussions around golf, conditioning, and randomness.

To draw an analogy, let’s visit the Price is Right game Plinko (see

If your mornings were like mine, they were shaped by Bob Barker or Drew Carey. One of my favorite games was Plinko. I could hardly take the anticipation of each drop, and each contestant’s release of excitement or disappointment at the end of a drop was contagious. None have determined a fool-proof strategy that ensures a 10k price on each drop, and it feels impossible to predict which direction the disc moves as it approaches its outcome. It is as if Plinko is a game of luck. But Plinko is not a game of pure luck.

I cannot help but think of comparisons between the Plinko pegs and different hummocks and hollows in golf.

A game of pure luck, by its technical definition, refers to a game with an uncontrollable outcome. In a game of pure luck, a person’s own actions have no identifiably deterministic impact on the event outcome. This is not the case in Plinko. If one changes the horizontal or vertical position from which they drop their disc, they change the probability their disc finds any particular prize slot. Or, if one could perfectly replicate a previous drop position and release with an identical disc, then they could reproduce the result of that previous drop, thus placing the second disc in a predictable prize slot. Plinko is a game of variance disguised as a game of luck. Once released down the board, it is as if luck determines the disc’s destination due to the player no longer having control. Small variations in release can lead to large changes in outcome, and this creates a sense of pure luck. But this sense of luck is the variance built into the game combined with a sensation of unpredictability from the contestant and viewer.

Plinko is golf. Or, better said, golf in its purest form embraces what makes Plinko great. It embraces anticipation. It embraces the sensation of unpredictability. It embraces the emotions, reactions, and responses that go hand-in-hand with variance.

Returning to the term randomness, randomness in golf involves variance, and increased variance is associated with increased sensations of anticipation and unpredictability. Golf is not pure luck; the same ball hit exactly the same way under exactly the same conditions will have the same outcome. Your slice is going to slice, and your hook is going to hook. But, we don't have the benefit of exactness in golf. Golf involves randomness due to a number of elements including the strategic design of a hole, the conditioning of the course, changes in a struck shot, and varying weather conditions. Put these together and small changes in any or all can lead to large changes in shot outcome. Under such conditions a golfer may think they hit a good shot only to admonish an unexpected or unwanted result with, “That was bad luck!” When I hear such an exclamation, what I hear the golfer saying is, “That wasn’t the result I predicted!” They’ve been a victim of variance and misguided expectations, not bad luck or a poorly designed course.

I close by returning to a core principle of golf.

Golf owes the golfer nothing.

No shot deserves a particular outcome, no matter how well or poorly struck. Any such predictability neuters the game by removing the sensations of anticipation and the importance of responding to unexpected outcomes. Any such predictability further removes golf’s connection to life.

Author’s note: I began this post years ago, but never finished it. I was motivated to tie up the post by the ongoing debate regarding Rivieria Country Club’s 10th hole. This debate was put in the spotlight by Kevin Van Valkenburg’s recent dive and exposition into the hole:


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