David Brailsford, a former competitive cyclist, became the performance director of the British national team in 2003. British Cycling had stunk for most of a century, but Brailsford believed he could turn the team around by applying an idea he’d begun to formulate while earning an MBA – an idea he later described to the Harvard Business Review as “a philosophy of continuous improvement through the aggregation of marginal gains”. He was convinced that, if he and his cyclists broke down everything they did into small components and then improved each of them by just one percent, the cumulative impact would be a significant enhancement of their overall performance.
Brailsford and his team members searched for tiny improvements everywhere – in their equipment and their technique, of course, but also in such seemingly trivial elements as their handwashing method, the pillows and mattresses they slept on, and the accumulation of dust on the floor of their maintenance truck. The results were remarkable. UK cyclists won two gold medals at the Olympics in 2004, then eight at the Games in 2008 and eight more in 2012. In 2010, Brailsford also became the manager of Team Sky, a British professional team. He applied the same ideas there, and his cyclists won the Tour de France in 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017. Queen Elizabeth rewarded him with a knighthood in 2013.
I learned about Brailsford and the magic of marginal gains from my golf friend Tony. We were playing what we call a Two-Hour 18: a full round of golf, walking, in two hours or just longer. Playing that quickly is possible only when our course is virtually empty – early in the morning or late in the afternoon, or when it’s raining – but it doesn’t involve running, or even walking very fast. As Tony pointed out, we are able play in what most golfers think of as record time because we have intuitively identified and eliminated innumerable tiny time sucks – the same kind of thing that Brailsford did systematically with his cycling teams.
Brailsford’s thinking about marginal gains can probably be applied to life generally, but it lends itself especially well to pace of play. The average round lasts forever, Tony and I are convinced, not because golfers “play slowly” but because they waste 10 seconds here and 20 seconds there, pointlessly, on every shot on every hole. This is an existential issue for golf, because one of the biggest beefs that new players have about the game (in addition to the fact that hitting a golf ball is demonstrably impossible) is that it takes all day. If the members of a foursome each trim just 30 seconds a hole – a target easily within the capabilities of almost any player – the total savings, over a single round, add up to more than half an hour.
Tony’s and my discussion about marginal gains began with his observation that not wearing a glove (a practice he adopted many years ago for the purpose of playing faster) saves a surprising amount of time, because he isn’t continually pausing to put it on and take it off. Not everyone likes to play barehanded, but if you wear a glove, as I do, you can achieve the same benefit by leaving it on all the time or fussing with it only when you’re doing something else, like walking towards your ball. Here are some other
areas ripe for marginal improvement:
hit first, then search.
If a member of your group slices one into the scrub, play your shot before you wander over to help. This isn’t rude. He’ll probably have found his ball by the time you’ve hit, anyway, and you won’t be holding up the group behind you by joining the search.
hit first, then talk.
I’ve played with golfers who save their jokes until it’s their turn to tee off. They’ve got a captive audience, because no one can move until they’ve hit, so they tee up a ball, then lean on their driver and unwind. Tell them to save it.
leave your driver’s headcover in your car.
Ten seconds a hole? Twenty seconds a hole? Painless and easy.
tighten your pre-shot routine.
Only two or three of the two dozen regulars in my club’s Sunday-morning men’s game still take practice swings. That alone probably saves 20 minutes per round per foursome. If you can’t play without a practice swing, limit yourself to one. Pre-shot routines are important (supposedly), but they don’t have to last forever.
be ready to play.
During one family holiday, I sat on the terrace of our rented apartment, which overlooked a golf course, and spent a couple of hours reading a book and watching other people play golf. My main takeaway: absolutely no one I observed was ready to act when it was their turn to act. They stood or sat like zombies until they were away, and only then did they begin to check their distance, test the wind, pick a club, clean their grooves, put on their glove. Five minutes per foursome per hole, at least.
On a links course in Scotland in the early ’90s, I joined two members who were playing a club match, and even though I thought of myself as a speedy player, I had to concentrate to keep up with them. One reason they were fast is that at every green they left their clubs in exactly the right place: on their route to the next tee. If (like many slow players) you dump your bag or park your cart in a random location – or, worse, directly in front the green – the players behind you can’t hit until you’ve fully decamped. Sad!
Of course, becoming faster feels futile if everyone else is slow. But a non-dawdling foursome can speed up an entire course, by constantly nudging the group ahead. And there’s a bonus, which is that playing faster leaves less time for the most destructive force in golf: thinking.