My Round of Golf With a Nobel Prize Winner

In the current issue of Golf Digest (February, Tiger on the cover), I have an article about a day I spent with Richard Thaler, a professor at the University of Chicago and the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics. Thaler and I and Steven D. Levitt—a co-author of the Freakonomics books and also a U. of Chicago professor—played golf at Beverly Country Club, not far from the university, where both of them are members. Eugene F. Fama—Beverly member, Chicago economics professor, Nobel Prize winner—had wanted to join us but was stuck in Austin.

I liked Thaler and Levitt a lot, and I’m sure I’d have liked Fama, too, if he’d been able to back out of his Texas commitment. Thaler and I had all day to talk, so there’s stuff I didn’t have room for in my article. One is Thaler’s idea for giving tennis a rough approximation of golf’s handicapping system. (He used to be a tennis player.) This is a real issue in recreational tennis—which, unlike recreational golf, pretty much can’t be played with enjoyment by people who aren’t roughly equal in ability. Thaler’s idea, which he calls Equilibrium Tennis, is to replace normal tennis scoring (15-30-40-Game) with tie-breaker scoring (1-7), which is easier to adjust.

He explained: “Let’s say that, based on how we’ve played in the past, we decide that you should be giving me two points. So we play a tie-breaker in which I start out ahead by 2-0. If you win two tiebreakers in a row, we move the spot, so now I get three points. Eventually, if we play regularly, we’ll know the right spot, and we can adjust it further by moving the serve. So maybe I get two points and the serve, or I get three points and you get the serve.” And there are other possible tweaks (these are my suggestions, not his): the better player doesn’t get second serves; the worse player gets to hit to the doubles court.

Modifications like these would make tennis at least slightly more golf-like—a good thing, I would say, although avid tennis players (who tend to be prickier than avid golfers, in my experience) might disagree. But there’s only so far tennis can go in becoming a true handicap sport. The former tennis superstar Ivan Lendl belongs to my club’s enemy club, on the other side of town. He plays in their golf club championship, which he has sometimes won. I once asked him what would happen if he played in the tennis club championship as well. He said, “No one would be able to return even one of my serves.” And he has a bad back!