In this series, I’m compiling some of the quips and one-liners that I’ll use with my students to hopefully make my lessons more memorable for them.
This is a story that I like to tell my probability and statistics students when we cover the law of averages.
One of my favorite sports is golf, and one spring afternoon in my senior year I went out to play a round. I was assigned a tee time with two other students (that I didn’t know), and off we went.
Unfortunately, the group in front of us were, as I like to say, getting their money’s worth out of the round. Somebody would be stuck in a sand trap and then blast the ball into the sand trap on the other side of the green. Then he’d go to blast the ball out of that sand trap, and the ball would go back to the original one.
Golf etiquette dictates that slow-playing groups should let faster groups play through. However, this group never offered to let us pass them. And so, hole after hole, we would wait and wait and wait.
On hole #9, a player walking by himself came up from behind us. I’m not sure how that happened — perhaps the foursome that had been immediately behind us was even slower than the foursome in front of us — and he courteously asked if he could play through. I told him that we’d be happy to let him play through, but that the group in front of us hadn’t let us through, and so we were all stuck.
As a compromise, he asked if he could join our group. Naturally, we agreed.
This solo golfer did not introduce himself, but I recognized him because his picture had been in the student newspaper a few weeks earlier. He was Notah Begay III, then a hot-shot freshman on the Stanford men’s golf team. Though I didn’t know it then, he would later become a three-time All-American and, with Tiger Woods as a teammate, would win the NCAA championship. As a professional, he would win on the PGA Tour four times and was a member of the 2000 President’s Cup team.
Of course, all that lay in the future. At the time, all I knew was that I was about to play with someone who was really, really good.
We ended up playing five holes together… numbers 10 through 14. After playing 14, it started to get dark and I decided to call it quits (as the 14th green was fairly close to the course’s entrance).
So Notah tees off on #10. BOOM! I had never been so close to anyone who hit a golf ball so far. The guys I was paired with started talking about which body parts they would willingly sever if only they could hit a tee shot like that.
And I thought to myself, Game on.
I quietly kept score of how I did versus how Notah did. And for five holes, I shot 1-over par, while he shot 2-over par. And for five holes, I beat a guy who would eventually earn over $5 million on the PGA Tour.
How did the 9-handicap amateur beat the future professional? Simple: we only played five holes.
Back then, if I shot 1-over par over a stretch of five holes, I would be pretty pleased with my play, but it wouldn’t be as if I had never done it before. And I’m sure Notah was annoyed that he was 2-over par for those five holes (he chili-dipped a couple of chip shots; I imagine that he was experimenting with a new chipping technique), but even the best golfers in the world will occasionally have a five-hole stretch where they go 2-over par or more.
Of course, a golf course doesn’t have just five holes; it has 18.
My all-time best score for a round of golf was a four-over par 76.; I can count on one hand the number of times that I’ve broken 80. That would be a lousy score for a Division I golfer. So, to beat Notah for a complete round of golf, it would take one of my absolute best days happening simultaneously with one of his worst.
Furthermore, a stroke-play golf tournament is not typically decided in only one round of golf. A typical professional golf tournament, for those who make the cut, lasts four rounds. So, to beat Notah at a real golf tournament, I would have to have my absolute best day four days in a row at the same time that Notah had four of worst days.
That’s simply not going to happen.
So I share this anecdote with my students to illustrate the law of averages. (I also use a spreadsheet simulating flipping a coin thousands of times to make the same point.) If you do something enough times, what ought to happen does happen. However, if instead you do something only a few times, then unexpected results can happen. A 9-handicap golfer can beat a much better player if they only play 5 holes.
To give a more conventional illustration, a gambler can make a few dozen bets at a casino and still come out ahead. However, if the gambler stays at the casino long enough, he is guaranteed to lose money.