The Freakonomics Golf Experience was a 3-day golf event at PGA Village in Port Saint Lucie. Luke Donald, his coach Pat Goss, Stephen Dubner & Steve Levitt (authors of Freakonomics and very great guys) are combining forces to write a golf book and this weekend was setup to provide a ton of data. I found out about the opportunity via a tweet from Pat Goss, applied and then kept my fingers crossed that I’d be selected. It was an opportunity of a lifetime and I’m so fortunate to have been selected to participate in the event. It was truly unbelievable!
I had my assumptions about what the weekend would hold. 9 holes on Friday, 4 hours of drills, challenges, and 18 holes of golf on Saturday and then 18 holes in the morning Sunday with 3 hours of drills in the afternoon. I assumed a lot of emphasis would be placed on the short game with a lot of practice on the short game area. And I assumed we would be tracked during our round to gain data on where we hit the ball, the clubs we selected and how we scored. I was right about all of that, but it was WAY more.
The PGA Village Learning Center is amazing. If I lived in the area, I would be here all the time. When we walked thru the arch leading to the practice area, I was instantly hit by the size of the complex. To our left was a big putting area and to our right was a big putting area. Directly in front of us were 6 bunkers with 6 different kinds of sand. Come on, where else will you find 6 different kinds of sand. The Learning Center is a massive circle, with putting, chipping, bunker areas, and short par 3-type holes lined along the edge and hitting areas inside. It took us about 10 mins to walk to the back of the Learning Center, which Freakonomics completely took over. In short, this place is golfer’s heaven.
When we arrived, we were given an individualized schedule. We played the rounds with our set group of Chris, Andy and I, but our practice was based on our handicap and current game. We were given a skill to practice each day, mine was putting from off the green, as well as Flash Tests and 2 Diagnostic Tests – putting and short game. The diagnostic tests could be done any time during the weekend, but the Flash Tests had to be done that day. Any time left over could be spent hitting balls on the range, doing a Trackman experiment, or completing any of the other tests or experiments. I wanted to do it all and maximize our time there.
I’ve never had the ability to practice for hours a day without having some level of guilt creep in. This is as close to having a pro’s schedule as I’ll every get. Between tests and experiments, I was able to hop on the range, drop some balls and practice. I could run over to a chipping area and practice putting from off the green. I was required to practice at least 20 mins on that skill. “Required!” Yes, please. I knew the weekend was going to be a long one, so I tried to avoid hitting a ton of balls on teh range, even though I could’ve camped out there all day long.
I completed the putting diagnostic first. We had to putt multiple balls from multiple lengths around a hole with varying distances and breaks. I was solid up to 12′. At one point I had tied the record for the most putts made. But as I worked out past 12′ my game started to break down. I wasn’t rolling them in and I even 3 putted. Once we reached 40′, I had really started to degrade. Bottom line… I need to work on my putting. I would do a lag test on Sunday, after getting some feedback from David Inglis about taking a longer backswing, and rolled more putts. But I need to spend time out on the greens and really focus on making good putts. I noticed that I wasn’t taking my calm, tension-free swing to the course and that my setup wasn’t the same. I need to focus on that.
The same thing holds true for the short game diagnostic. We had 9 stations from varying length and had to hit 3 balls at each station. I scored a 35. By comparison, Pat Goss had a 38, Steven Levitt had 37 and Luke Donald scored a 45 (the best, no surprise!). But I was confident and just hit the shots I felt I needed to hit. On the course I was tense. Shocker. The nest time I go out to play a round, I’m hitting every shot as if I was on the range. Its clear that my worst shot going after it with confidence is no where near as bad as my worst shot when I’m tense.
Flash tests were setup to test us on key skills like lag putting, trouble shots, and chipping from < 30 yards. These tests really gave me a clear picture of where I need to spend more time. I didn't do poorly on any of the tests and I didn't expect to do poorly based on where my game is at right now. But I also know that for me to get into the single digits and be a consistent 70s player, I need to have a solid short game and this really highlighted that work needs to be done. I really liked the tests. They added a bit of pressure which kind of simulated the feeling on the course. I could also see some great data opportunities for the Freakonomics team.
The experiments were excellent. They ranged from playing a long par 3 to playing a short par 3 and basically everything between.
We started Friday with a little Par 3 experiment. We got to the tee and had a green about 100 yards in front of us with 2 flags, one left and one tucked back right guarded by water in the front. The flag on the left was 93y and the right flag was 105y. We were instructed to play our first shot at the left flag and we would putt it out. The second shot was to be played however we wanted and we didn’t know which flag we would be asked to play to. The idea here was clear. Do regular mid-handicap golfers score better when they play at a flag or play for the middle of the green. I did this experiment 2X this weekend and I scored better when I went for the middle of the green.
Another experiment had us putt 4 balls from 3′ around the cup. The first time, we were asked to be aggressive. The second, we were asked to die it in the hole and the third time we were instructed to hit it however we normally would. When I was aggressive, I made more putts.
All the experiments were well thought out and a lot of fun. Being able to simulate on course conditions without having to be on course allowed us to still think and act as though we were playing for real, but still have the comfort of the range. I need to bring this feeling to the course!
Given my obsession with data, this was one of my most enjoyable tests. The first day we were there, the Trackman was setup on range and we were able to test our distance control. By the time we got there, the wind had picked up and was gusting to 20 mph. it was a 2 club wind and we were hitting straight into it. We had to hit 3 balls to set distances starting at 90 yards and up to 190 and focus on carry distance, not total distance. We were given our carry distance each time and allowed to change clubs if we wanted to. I have a decent idea what my distances but it took me a swing or two to grasp the 2 club wind concept. But once I had the club, I was close. Surprisingly enough, my most accurate distances came with the hybrid, which I hit within 3 yards of the distance. But I took David up on his offer to change clubs a couple times to get closer to the number. And having that info helped me through the weekend as the wind was a constant feature on the course.
On Sunday I completed another Trackman test, but this time the goal was to go straight at the flag, then right, then left. Again, I was hitting it really well. I was drawing the ball nicely, even fading it nicely, too. I had a few shots that landed to within < 1y of the target and managed to hit my hybrid right on the number at 190y out. The thing that struck me about the Trackman experiment is that I went after each shot without hesitation or nervousness. When I did that, the numbers and the results were great. out of all the shots I hit I can count on one hand the number of shots 20 yards offline. But when I think about the rounds I played on the course, I had many shots greater than 20 yards offline. This further reinforced my need to take a more confident approach to the course. David was also nice enough to run through a few of my numbers with me. My driver was spinning way too much and I need to remember on the course to keep the ball forward. I was hitting down on it and spinning it. I saw that on the course quite a bit, too. My distances are good and if I can get my consistency and confidence under control, I can stop worrying about distance, I hit it far enough for an amateur.
Can we take it to the course? We had a tracker with us each round taking note of each position we played from and our overall score and # of putts. They couldn’t help us with the game or the course, they were there to track. The rounds were a lot of fun.
I'm the Vice President of Digital Innovation and Mobile, which is probably the coolest job title out there. You can learn more about my work in emerging technology on the About or Work Pages.
As for this site, it's a place where I can jot ideas down and share some of the stuff I'm working on. The views are my own and some of them might not make much sense, but hey, that's part of the process. I'm also working toward being a single digit handicap golfer, so I post a lot about my golf game.