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Why playing golf is like finance: Pádraig Harrington on golf, The Open, the Ryder Cup and Tiger Woods

29 July 2021

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Pádraig Harrington, winner of two Open Championships and a PGA, knows all about the complexities of his game. Here are some the highlights of his conversation with sports broadcaster Joe Molloy in our fourth Private Funds Industry Live broadcast

Pádraig Harrington won three major golf tournaments in 13 months during 2007-08. But before turning professional, Pádraig trained as an accountant. That may explain why he can talk so convincingly about the similarities between the worlds of golf and finance.

Speaking just after the July 2021 Open Championship in Sandwich Bay, Pádraig explained how US golfer Collin Morikawa came to win the Championship: “He hit the ball straight and his iron play is the best in the world.”

Yet the simplicity of this analysis belies the complex interaction of factors that aligned to bring Morikawa victory. It also belies the difficulty of planning, managing and executing in a game where the margins between success and failure are wafer thin.

In golf or finance, complexity is the key to success

As with golf, as soon as you have any halfway sensible thoughts about the workings of private capital, complexity becomes a factor.

In golf, it’s not just about hitting the ball. Players must select the right club, know the lie of the ground, feel the strength of the crosswinds and avoid

bunkers and other hazards – among many other things. They need back-up teams too – sponsorship specialists, travel managers and fitness coaches.

In finance, you have to choose the best corporate structures, appreciate the time horizons, watch the economic weather, anticipate potential problems, and work within the rules and regulations.

And as with golf, the outcome possibilities in finance are almost infinite. Variables shift along with shifts in other variables. Even the simplest objective, in other words, can become swamped in complexity.

Harnessing the skills to win – in business or golf

Pádraig said the organisers of The 2021 Open, held at the Royal St George’s course in Kent, “widened the fairways but made it very penal to miss them. They kept the green slow but that meant they could put flags on slopes… and little knolls.”

There were, he said, some “crazy” flag positions. But because the balls rolled relatively slowly across the grass, the standard was difficult rather than impossible.

In the context of complexity, the golf/investment metaphor comes full circle. Understand the complexity; factor in the risks. Next apply intelligence and experience while making allowance for misfortune. Then both golf and finance can be seen in terms of clear achievements.

Morikawa saw his name rise to the top of the leaderboard, in other words, because he applied many different skills into a single winning performance.

Pádraig Harrington on captaining the Ryder Cup

As current captain of the European Ryder Cup team, Pádraig has to make choices based on a vast array of factors. He says he will look closely at statistical data when deciding which players to pick and when to play them.

Advanced technology today means every aspect of leading players’ game can be quantified in microscopic detail – just as financial performance can be quantified and analysed.

“You just can’t say there’s a set rule,” he says. “There are so many aspects.” You have to think about who is in form, he says, whose style best suits the playing conditions. And then there’s psychology.

“Some players need to be lifted, some players need to be taken down; some players need taking responsibility away, some players need responsibility,” Pádraig says.

Meanwhile he allows gut instinct to complement the statistical information and the specialist analysis of team members.

Pádraig Harrington on Tiger Woods

How good is Tiger Woods? “You see things appear on social media: ‘pick your best golfer in each category’… just pick Tiger in every category,” says Pádraig. “He was that good.

“His best trait, mentally, was that he just never wanted to give a shot up. The shots he played were incredible when he was pushed to do it… he liked the competition.”

But even as Tiger won tournament after tournament, Pádraig says he often played within himself and as his career progressed he became more conservative and structured.

“There would have been more spectacular shots if he’d been pushed more,” says Pádraig.