Philosophical questions

Would you bet on yourself to make a 5-footer for cash? A 15-footer? A popular question demands further analysis

July 14, 2020
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Prapass Pulsub

By now you might have seen the question circulating around social media about which distance putt you would choose for a certain amount of money. There are a bunch of variations, but it goes something like this:

Tap-in: $100

3-footer: $25,000

5-footer: $75,000

15-footer: $200,000

25-footer: $1 million

50-footer: $10 million

Put aside the first question about who exactly would be sponsoring this fictitious endeavor, and focus instead on which option you’d choose. But before you do, consider the percentages. According to data compiled by golf statistician Mark Broadie published in his 2014 book “Every Shot Counts,” professional golfers not only separate themselves from the rest of us in their ability to hit the ball absurd distances, but also in their efficiency with the shortest of putts.

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For instance, according to Broadie, a tour player makes 96 percent of his 3-footers, while an 18-handicap makes only 84 percent (a scratch golfer makes 93 percent). And the gap widens from there. Tour players make 77 percent of their 5-foot putts, while a scratch makes 66 percent, and an 18-handicap makes only half. And while a tour player is good for making roughly one out of four 15-footers, the 18 handicapper is closer to 1 out of 10.

All of which is to say, for many of us, this would be a crapshoot, and when we posed the question to our Golf Digest editors, the range of responses provided not only a window into our different levels of golf competency, but our risk tolerance, and in some cases, our fragile psyches.

3-footer

Joel Beall, scratch: Do you think you’re better than Collin Morikawa? You know, the guy who, statistically speaking, has been the most consistent player in professional golf over the past year? Because Morikawa missed a three-footer in a playoff at Colonial and damn-near blew a one-footer to get into sudden death at Muirfield Village. I don’t care how good of a short game you think you have, you’re not performing better with real money on the line. Take the three-footer and pray to the golf gods your ball accidentally collides with the hole.

Greg Gottfried, 24 handicap: I was going back and forth between the 3-footer and 5-footer and then thought, “What are you doing?! When have you ever consistently made a 5-footer?” Not that a 3-footer is a guaranteed make either. Honestly, if the tap-in was $1,000, I may take that one. But $25,000 is a lot of money. I mean, think of all of the Puma shirts featuring math equations you can buy for that cash. I’ll feel great about that $25K payday while watching everyone else miss in heartbreaking fashion. Drinks on me after.

5-footer

Max Adler, scratch: Assuming this isn’t some wacky sidehill/downhill slider, the 5-footer is the clear choice for any decent putter who’s behind on his kids’ college investment fund contributions. I make roughly 80-percent of 5-footers, and 80-percent of $75K is $60K, or more than double the payoff of the relative "sure thing" of a 3-footer. To say I make 15 percent of 15-footers in casual rounds is possibly generous, and that same application of probability equates to only $30K. Sure, it’d be nice to take a crack at a longer putt and abnegate responsibility for future self-loathing, but statistics suggest my kids are going to hate me anyway when they become teenagers.

Stephen Hennessey, 13 handicap: I’m picking the 5-footer all day … you have the highest percentage relative to the money you’d win. Max points out the actual math and money involved … and he’s a scratch and probably a plus-4 putter. For a higher-handicap like me, once you get to 15 feet and up, it’s almost like choosing a half-court shot over a free-throw in basketball at your chance of free money. $75,000 is a lot of money, and worth taking the most sure thing for most golfers.

Nicole Rae, 5-handicap: I'm all in on the 5-footer. After hours of grueling six-foot putting drills in college, I'm confident I could sink one from five feet when the pressure is on. The 3-footer is a gimme, but it seems like a missed opportunity to not go for an extra $50K just a little further back. Even the 15-footer is enticing, but I'm broke and live in New York City, so I'd rather have $75K from five feet than a missed putt and no money.

15-footer

Keely Levins, 5-handicap: I’m taking the 15-footer. Sure, it’s a longer putt than I’d want for $200K, but it’s also short enough that I know it’s makeable. It’s also long enough that I could forgive myself if I missed it. That’s not the case with the 3- or 5-footer. There’s a lot of baggage with those putts. I’d feel like I absolutely should make them, but I still know I’ve missed them in the past – so have you, so have tour pros. I don’t like that weird, I know I should make this, oh my God imagine if I miss this, holy sh*t I could definitely miss this headspace. I’m not interested in putting for money with that baggage, nor am I interested in walking around with that missed 3- or 5- footer haunting me for eternity. 15 feet? I don’t have any fears or questions in my head. I know it’s makeable, and I know it’s OK to miss. I’m putting a good, confident, unburdened stroke on that putt. And hopefully it’s dropping.

25-footer

Sam Weinman, 11-handicap: I’m taking the 25-footer precisely because I’m not supposed to make a 25-footer. Think about it. The 3-footer is merely an invitation for more self-loathing. You are supposed to make a 3-footer, which leads to tension, which leads to the greater possibility of a nervy stroke, which leads to a miss (does it sound like I have experience in this department?). By contrast on a putt you’re not supposed to make you will be freed up to make a better stroke, improving your chances of sinking it. And if you end up missing, you can tell your friends the story without the worry of them hitting you up for money.

50-footer

Chris Powers, 9-handicap: What’s the consequence to missing any of these? Some will counter with “you’re giving up a certain $25K pay day by not going with the 3-footer.” As a degenerate gambler and misser of countless knee-knocker putts, I’ve learned that absolutely nothing in this life is certain. Take the 50-footer and try to make $10 million. The worst thing that happens to you? You don’t make $10 million and your life remains completely the same. Maybe if it was “3 footer for $25K. If you miss you’re thrown into a pit of lions,” then I’d consider that one, in order to avoid the lion pit, which I’d inevitably be tossed into.

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