the superstar effect

My colleague in Kellogg’s management and strategy group, Jennifer Brown, has done some interesting research that might have implications for how we think about self-fulfilling prophecy. Her research on rank-ordered tournaments suggests that people actually perform worse when competing in the same tournament as a superstar. The context is the PGA tour. The superstar, of course, is Tiger Woods. She finds that when players compete with Tiger Woods their score is, on average, .2 strokes higher than normal (if you don’t follow golf, a high score is bad). The reason for this, she suggests, is that players don’t try as hard when Woods is in the field. The effect disappears when Woods is having a bad day, suggesting that players pick up their performance when they feel they have a chance.


The finding is pretty surprising given that golfers’ performances should be independent of one another. People who love golf talk about the pleasure of competing against one’s self. Although you can observe others play, your play isn’t supposed to directly affect theirs and vice versa. The explanation for this deviation in performance must be based in subjective processes. My immediate thought was that it was the result of risk-taking behavior (that is, players try harder when Tiger is there and this causes them to take unnecessary risks). Research by Matt Bothner, for example, suggests that players fluctuate their level of risk taking based on competitive crowding. But Jen’s study shows that players don’t seem to be taking riskier shots;  they just perform the same shots worse when Tiger is lurking around.

Here is a summary of the research. You can download a copy of the working paper here.

Written by brayden king

August 12, 2009 at 4:36 pm

5 Responses

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  1. Sounds like a neat paper, but I don’t agree that we should take it as

    given that golfers’ performances should be independent of one another.

    That doesn’t seem right to me. Sure, your play isn’t directly affected by others (unlike sports where the other player is actively trying to get the ball away from you or block your shot or preempt your next move, etc). But I’d say that competitive golf is all about creating a situation where one needs to play consistently and without error, but where excellent performances from other players makes the state of mind you need for such consistency hard to achieve. The best players are the ones who can play as if their opponents and the crowd are not there. Much as in snooker, darts, or archery, the turn-taking aspect of the game ratchets up the chances of “unforced” (really, indirectly forced) errors. Everyone is waiting to see which of the players will crack first under the pressure and have their game fall apart.

    You might be able to empirically distinguish this process from the “just not trying” hypothesis. One possibility is that it’s those who are in the running for the lead that crash more, rather than players further down the field who know from the beginning that they won’t win no matter who is playing. Another is that bad scores due to not trying might be distinguishable from bad scores due to cracking: errors might be evenly distributed across rounds in the former case, but clustered at “clutch moments” in the latter (e.g., staying in contention until you crack and shoot a double bogey on the 15th and 16th holes, or whatever).



    August 12, 2009 at 5:47 pm

  2. No, golfers performances should not be independent of each other. Imagine this: for a course your average is 75, and you’re playing against someone whose average is 80, and there’s $100 on the line. How do you play? You play your normal, conservative game, because if you do so, you’ll almost certainly win. But the next week, you’re still the same player, but you’re golfing against someone who averages a 68. If you play your conservative game, you’ll almost certainly lose… but if you take some of those riskier shots, trying to go over the trees in one stroke instead of around them in two… because while you probably won’t make it over the trees, it’s the only real chance you have to win.


    Nat G.

    August 16, 2009 at 8:13 pm

  3. I have not read the entire report, so perhaps this is addressed…but there is a simpler explanation for the findings, namely the difficulty of the course being played. Tiger limits his schedule to mostly major tournaments (U.S. Open, Masters, etc.)and more prestigious events, where the average scores are naturally higher (worse) due to the difficulty of the courses. He does not play in lower-tier events, where the winning score is typically much lower than majors. That difference alone could easily account for .2 stroke variation. In fact, I’m surprised it’s not a larger margin.


    Dave Maddox

    August 17, 2009 at 1:53 pm

  4. I find the “Tiger Effect” study to be suspect on two levels. It doesn’t take into account the nature of the courses on which a competitor faces Tiger Woods, and I feel that it incorrectly characterizes the competitive psyche of the professional athlete.
    Tiger Woods plays about 30-40% of his schedule at the major Championships, the most challenging events on the calendar. These events are contested on courses that are significantly more difficult than typical Tour venues. The winning scores are typically very close to par, while it is not uncommon for winners at the other easier venues to have winning scores that are 10 to 15 strokes better than that. The other events that Tiger plays are on courses that have either hosted major championships (e.g., the ATT National that he hosts at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, MD) or are challenging historic courses (e.g. Doral Country Club, Firestone Country Club, etc.). The more difficult venues that Tiger plays will increase the aggregate scores of the field playing in the event in comparison to the easier courses, which Woods does not participate.
    I also feel that drawing a conclusion that players “lie down” for Tiger is erroneous. The nature of the competitive athlete is not to lie down, rather to try harder. That said, a well-documented stat is that Tiger shoots 4 strokes better than his playing partner in the final round of a tournament. The reason is not that the competition lies down, rather the opposite. With his unique combination of prodigious power and superb short game, Woods is capable of such a wide range of shots that he has far more scoring chances than the typical player. Consequently, his opponents will feel that they need to attempt shots that they normally would not risk in order to stay even. Trying to do more than they normally do rarely results in lower scores, rather, the risky shots are punished when they do not succeed, ending up in awkward positions that ultimately add strokes to the players score. And when Tiger is having a “bad day”, players are certainly encouraged but it is because they can play within their own capabilities and have a chance to win rather than trying to approximate Tiger’s level. Zach Johnson, Rich Beem, David Toms and others have been beneficiaries of this. If fact, Tiger missing the cut at this year’s British Open enabled an unspectacular but relentlessly mistake-free Tom Watson to contend for a major championship . There can be no doubt that Watson would have been pushed to play differently had Tiger been in contention.
    I have not collected and parsed the stats , but I feel that doing so will lead to a more rational conclusion than one that has professional athletes lying down for the Number 1 player in the world. That premise is dismissive of the skill and drive of the other PGA Tour professionals, and of the spectacular things that Tiger Woods has achieved.


    Michael Williams

    August 17, 2009 at 10:26 pm

  5. […] Woods their score is, on average, .2 strokes higher than normal,” says an interesting post from “The effect disappears when Woods is having a bad day, suggesting that players pick up their […]


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