“[Understanding] depends on things themselves…but also, crucially, on our bodies, our skills, our situations, and our interests. We achieve the world’s presence and we do so dynamically, and actively.”Alva Noë, The Entanglement

• • •

You may remember a controversy around the third hole at the 2023 Masters. It’s a short four with two options: bang driver up near the green and pitch up the hill or lay back with an iron and approach the green with a full wedge. The choice, effectively, is a shorter pitch or the added spin of a fuller swing.

A former player in the commentating booth advocated for the layup when the pin was up front. The front shelves, his school suggests, are just too small to hold consistently without spin and too elevated to allow the steep descent of a high lob. Laying back and hitting a full wedge is the only way to come in high and soft enough to hold the tricky green.

The statisticians disagreed. Any way you slice the data, there simply is no greater correlation to lower scores than proximity to the hole. By the expected-value calculations, a fifty-yard wedge is always easier than the same hundred-yard wedge, full stop. Anyone who laid up (or suggested that one should) didn’t understand the simple patterns that underlie scoring.

Back in 2003, a decade before Mark Broadie’s seminal paper invented modern golf statistics as we know them—even a year before ShotLink recorded its first shot—Tiger Woods came to the third tee wanting to hit his patented long-iron stinger. His caddie, Steve Williams, had “no question in [his] mind” that Tiger should hit driver to get closer to the green. Tiger eventually conceded to his caddie and hit driver. He hit it terribly. He refused to say a word to Williams for another six holes, and Williams considers the dispute the biggest on-course conflict he had with Woods.

Twenty years later, Tiger returned to the third tee at Augusta National. Those twenty years saw more data collected than could fit in your local library in 2003—data that (if you listen to the experts) suggest unilaterally that hitting driver is the objectively correct play on the third hole. Yet Tiger hit iron.

This contradiction requires one of two things to be true. Either Tiger has overlooked one of the most obvious and valuable pieces of golf strategy in history, or has stubbornly carried an unhelpful memory for twenty years, and is either way undeserving of his image as the smartest and most ruthlessly competitive golfer in history. That, or the statistical analysis isn’t quite as conclusive as the statisticians will tell you.

• • •

Consider a story about a lump of clay. On some indeterminate Monday, this lump of clay sits on a table. On Tuesday, a skilled sculptor shapes the clay into a beautiful statue. It sits on the table through Wednesday and is admired by many for its beauty and effect. The sculptor squashes the statue beyond recognition on Thursday. On Friday, the lump of clay sits on the table.

This simple story illustrates a substantial claim: that two ordinary objects can exist in the same place at the same time. No tricks, no obscure physics or linguistic gimmicks, no smoke or mirrors. The lump doesn’t cease to exist when the statue comes to be, though the statue wasn’t there before it was sculpted. There’s no trick: on Wednesday, the same stuff truly does make up two unique things.

• • •

It’s easy to see why the data revolution appears to be the Eye Test’s death knell.

Our modern lives are inseparable from our procession through data, leaving more data in our wake. This statement is banal to make and hacky to expound upon, both of which only affirm that data [gestures wildly] characterize our age.

Golf has been a game of numbers since the gutta-percha revolution, never mind silicon—a game of yards and inches, of carry numbers and elevation adjustments, of green speeds and wind directions, of handicap indexes, cut lines, and winning scores. After all, despite the incomprehensible complexity that keeps us hooked, golf boils down to nothing more than strokes on a scorecard.

This numerical nature makes golf the perfect target for statistical analysis. Simply, because golf is scored by strokes and strokes alone, any metric that measures progress to the hole in units of strokes thus measures golf’s essence. Strokes Gained statistics behave exactly this way; this is what makes them so valuable. With our oceans of ShotLink data (as well as even larger amateur datasets), we can predict an average expected number of strokes to hole out from any position on the course. By adding and subtracting these expectations from each other—for instance, from a shot’s start point to its end point—we can quantify how many strokes were gained or lost with each swing.

Statistical advances such as these have illuminated other sports with greater clarity than ever before. Whereas reading “0-3, 3Ks'' in a box score leaves you only with a rudimentary—even anecdotal—understanding of what happened last night, you can watch baseball today and know exactly why your fastball-hunting glove-first centerfielder hitting below the Mendoza line isn’t touching this guy’s .090xwOBA wipeout splitter.

But with golf, the further claim is that these statistics don’t just tell better stories; they tell the whole story. Golf success is measured by numbers of strokes; Strokes Gained measures in units of strokes; therefore, Strokes Gained measures golf QED. For a game of such nuance, the ruthlessly uncomplicated way of determining who wins and who loses is nothing more than the score you shoot. As such, at the end of the day, it’s all just a game of strokes.

That modern statistics measure golf so fundamentally has upshots that reverberate all the way up golf’s intellectual ecosystem. For instance, golf strategy—once the subject of fierce books- and decades-long debate—turns out to reduce to a few simple commandments: advance the ball as far as you can toward the hole, avoid penalty strokes at all costs, and just get it on the putting surface (and definitely don’t short-side yourself if you miss). The exceptions to these rules are few, if any—for nearly any subjective assessment of two lies, there’s a data scientist to inform you of its statistical insignificance. Considering approach angles, hitting it below the pin, or getting lags to the hole to give it a chance, these all have been debunked as fallacies that the evidence simply does not support.

With modern statistics measuring so close to the game’s essence, less and less is up for discussion. Subjective debate withers in the face of objective answers. More and more, the guy arguing against the numbers at the 19th hole finds himself in an indefensible minority. Golf moves ever closer to being a computationally solved game, like tic-tac-toe or connect-4, where subjective assessments are trivial in the face of settled objective fact. The Eye Test no longer passes as evidence.

• • •

Responses to the statue and clay story—attempts to reconcile a compelling train of logic with the intuitive sense that “something’s up”—come in abundant flavors, none without aftertaste. One of the most common is to deny statues. This is nihilism, the deeply skeptical position that nothing exists beyond mere collections of particles and that any words (“statue” or “lump” or “sculptor”) are nothing more than tools of reference, “useful façon de parler.” While the particles might take on new shapes, nothing changes besides our own psychological interpretations—judgements that are illusory and detached from the real, cold, hard truth that there are no statues. Aesthetics and human value judgments are bunk. We live on a floating rock, nothing actually matters, at some point, the sun will explode, etc. etc. It’s all just stuff—stuff that’s subject to our mushy, illusory human interpretations, but really just mere lumps of stuff nonetheless.

As difficult as this position appears to escape, it has a fatal flaw: if it’s all just lumps and nothing more, than what explains the sculptor? Or whoever believes the “just stuff” theory? Or whoever’s reading about it? Are these really best understood as mere stuff?

• • •

Returning to the third hole at the 2023 Masters, it’s easy to see why the statisticians are so confident that driver objectively is the correct play. This is the upshot of expected-value-based predictive statistics: they very quickly become prescriptive statistics. Once the expected score can be calculated for any position on the golf course, they can be calculated for any possible position or region. From these data flows a strategic implication that based on statistical expectations, certain strategies objectively are better than others. The choice is simply between two average scoring outcomes, and any debate is between a better scoring opportunity and a worse one.

And in reality, players who hit driver really did score better than those who laid up—significantly so. Per Lou Stagner, to the front two pins, players who got the ball within 50 yards of the green averaged 0.30 shots better than those who laid back outside 85 yards. It’s undeniable that the better strategy appears to be to go for the green; despite any reason to hit a full wedge, players who hit driver simply scored better. On the strength of Strokes Gained data, the debate appears settled and the “lay up” argument debunked.

Except, curiously, players did lay up. Also from Stagner, from 2019 to 2022, players got the ball within fifty yards of the green 164 times, but they laid back outside eighty-five yards 216 times. These data are skewed by past champions and mishits, but the fact remains that many of the best players in the world decided to lay back and approach the green with a full wedge. Presumably, they did this despite the data telling them to do otherwise.

The participants at the Masters are the best players in the world. Each week, they play golf for their livelihoods and for millions of dollars. In their arena, single shots are the difference between keeping their job and losing it, between wearing the jacket or not, between playing Augusta National for thirty years worth of Aprils, or staying at home and watching on the couch. A lot rides on their performance, and this performance boils down to nothing more than getting the ball in the hole in the fewest number of strokes. Considering how robust the statistical analysis appears, it seems impossible for a competent player to do anything other than what it prescribes. And, in the words of Michael Wolf, these players are “probably better at golf than any of your friends are at anything they do for a living.”

So what gives? Why would anyone lay up? It’s no stretch to suggest that the players who laid up—professionals of the highest class—considered the strategies far more thoroughly than we have. It’s even less of a stretch to suggest that anything these top players do is intended to help them post the best score. If the predictive statistics were really so objective, it seems like everyone would have hit driver. That so many players laid up is evidence enough to question if predictive statistics are really so objective—maybe there’s more up for debate than we thought.

• • •

If the data revolution has taught us anything, it’s that one of the best bets to be made—be it to shave three shots or sell toasters or serve up spicy content or make Scrooge McDuck piles of money—is that past results will predict future outcomes. It’s on this basis that the description-prediction-prescription chain makes good sense. Numbers, when used properly, tend not to lie. But we can question whether they tell the whole truth—specifically, if there’s anything the numbers fail to capture, or even never can.

The Strokes Gained thesis, if you will, rests upon strokes being golf’s fundamental particles. Because golf is scored simply by the mere addition of strokes, its atoms are indivisible, fungible, and identical. At the end of the round, you simply add up the strokes and you sign. As such, any math done on strokes should capture the essence of the game—literally, the part that counts. There are no pictures on the scorecard, so it’s frivolous to consider golf an aesthetic exercise. There are only strokes. They all count the same. They are just lumps.

But strokes are counted on the basis of shots hit, and these shots always have aesthetic properties: good or bad, beautiful or ugly, well-struck or missed, lofted or flighted, pounded or finessed, fortunate or unlucky, clutch or tragic. In this sense, golf’s fundamental particles are not strokes, but shots. To say that golf is essentially a game of strokes is to say that some version of golf exists without these aesthetic elements, as mere points on a course map. But, considering chickens and eggs, the shot always comes first. A stroke is merely the counting of a shot—a shot that always expresses all its beauty (or ugliness) and comes to rest before you can scratch something on a card. No final position of the ball exists without the way that it got there. There are no strokes without shots; for every lump, there must be a statue.

To revisit the baseball analogy: none of that .090xwOBA splitter’s success comes from the numerical information—not Whiff% or Chase%, not even the sub-900 spin rate or the 27” of vertical break. It comes from the fact that, when your centerfielder watches the ball coming, he thinks it’s a fastball in the zone and chooses to swing before the bottom falls out of it. The numbers merely try to describe a kind of pitch the batter will think he can crush before it tumbles into the dirt. And, if your second baseman sees the exact same pitch and lays off it, it loses all its effectiveness. In the end, the only thing that matters is the way the batter sees it.

In this way, while these modern statistics are undoubtedly useful for the insights they give us, they have no causal connection to the most fundamental way we play—as humans, having those human experiences the just-stuff folks want so badly to argue away. Golf, like all human activities, is an essentially aesthetic experience. Even the most technical players can’t hone in carry numbers or spin rates without the experience of doing so, and—while the numbers are great indicators of how well they executed—it is only by recreating that feeling that they can do it again.

Golf, in every sense, is played by golfers who experience the game. Similarly, while statistics can teach us plenty about scoring, no statistic can capture what it’s like to score, to play winning golf. If they could, the statisticians would be racking up major championships. But execution comes down to a person producing a quality golf shot, and there’s no way for people to produce that shot without the feeling of doing so. There’s a reason we use the same word for sensation and for developing aptitude—whether it’s a swing feel or a body position or confidence itself, execution relies on experience.

For those who write off these aesthetic ideas as distractions from some cold, hard, numerical truth of the matter: let’s not forget that Rory beat the robot. Golf isn’t played in a dome, in a lab, or on a computer—it’s played, in Bobby Jones’s words, “on a five-inch course—the distance between your ears.” Maybe these experiences constitute something truer about the game than numbers can capture. Maybe our aesthetic understanding isn’t a distraction that keeps us from statistically perfect golf; maybe it’s a wisdom that, in some well-tuned moments, can let us transcend it. The finest golf robot in the world can deliver a club to a ball with literally inhuman precision, removing any variance we could ever think to control. That this robot fell to a very much human Northern Irishman suggests something unquantifiable about our game—something that cannot be captured but can only be seen.

As for our own eyes—eyes of those of us without four major championship wins—we can all remember looking down some putt we had no business making and knowing dead-to-rights it was going in the heart. These are moments in which our vision—not just sight, but the entire human experience—lets us transcend any statistical expectation. The numbers might say your chances are slim, but in those beautiful moments when you see the ball going in before it’s struck, you aren’t a probability; you are a golfer.

It's exactly this humanity that lets us do the incredible things that make sports magical. Ask anyone—from your buddy who drained a twenty-five-footer to win seven skins last Saturday morning to a journeyman pro who stuck a six iron to seven feet to secure his first pro win—whether they believe these shots are mere statistical anomalies. Try to tell them that nothing more than a favorable dice roll lets their ball deviate from the mathematical expectation with exact imprecision to produce glory. They’ll look at you confused for a moment, probably offended, before saying, “No, I hit it.”

• • •

Statistics undoubtedly yield insights that are both true and useful, and the strategies that these statistics prescribe can be just as helpful. Stats tell us about our capabilities in the aggregate, suggest our limitations over time, and suggest strategies that help us maximize our performance. And, if we hit average shots all the time (it’s worth noting: all golfers hit a lot of average shots), these strategies are a wonderful way to improve our scores. Make no mistake: much money has been won on the golf course by maximizing expected value, and to disregard the insights modern statistics give us is foolish.

However, matters of strokes may or may not be settled, matters of shots certainly aren’t. Statistical predictions have no causal governance over our ability to hit each shot for ourselves. We uniquely create each outcome on a live course in the context of a live game, and, as long as we’re on the golf course, the outcome is still up to us. And, while we size up a shot, we can consider the numbers, but these only tell half the story. The aesthetics really do matter; statues are just as real as lumps. If we’re to understand our game in all its beauty, we must be able to see both.

Connor Belcastro graduated yesterday from Princeton University, where he majored in philosophy while playing on the men’s golf team. He is writing occasional pieces this year for No Laying Up while he pursues a professional career.