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Risk & Reward -- how often do you chicken out?

Anyone who handles their own money, watches CNBC on a regular basis, or even half pays attention to any random sportscast will have heard the following term and likely tuned it out. Accountants sound credible when they say it, while newscasters are a step below that and the talking heads of sports find themselves slightly above Howard Cosell when they utter it.

Risk and reward. Unless you're glued to the business channel to find out how your investments are doing, it's a term you're only going to encounter in certain situations. But if you're a stock investor who tries to calm your nerves with a round of golf, you might find that phrase creeps in a bit too much.

I get why it gets tossed around and used as much as it does; golf lends itself to that way of thinking, especially when you get a certain swashbuckling left-hander out there on the Sunday of a major.

For those of you who don't know, risk and reward is an investment principle that indicates the higher the risk involved, the tradeoff is usually a higher potential reward. With the amount of money professional golfers play for these days, I can see why the R&R is so overused but I don't know if it should apply to the casual/amateur golfer.

Yes, I know that every game-improvement article ever written on golf says that by mitigating the number (and difficulty) of risks you take, the better your score will be. Game and Course management have become second nature for golf scribes, teachers and broadcasters.

Personally, I wish I'd never heard the term. I get that poor decisions have consequences (re: lost golf balls, tossed clubs, needing a moment behind the tee box to stop swearing), but in all honesty, if I can't take a few chances when I'm out for an 18-hole wander then when can I take them?

To illustrate my point, I think I have to quantify what I consider a risk during a round. If we're talking about something that can be avoided -- a water hazard that guards the left half of a fairway, for example -- by playing to the extreme right of the fairway and such, that's one thing. If it's playing to an island green, that's something else entirely.

I have three examples I offer to help further illustrate the point I want to make: Hole #17 at Rebel Creek near Petersburg, ON; Hole #5 at Innerkip Highlands near Innerkip, ON; and Hole #15 at Forest City National in London, ON. Each of them has something about it that can be interpreted as a risk/reward situation, but I wonder if they're mislabeled by that moniker.

Let's start with Rebel Creek's penultimate hole. It measures out at just 325 yards, so it doesn't really sound all that imposing for a par-4. The R&R choice is your tee shot, as you can choose to lay up off the tee in front of a small creek backed by natural wasteland or you can pull the big stick and try to drop it over all of that. The reward is a much easier, far more straight approach shot that gives you a good look at an oval green that runs away from you. The bunkers that flank the green complex are far less of a concern if you're on the green side of the waste area, but your landing zone is maybe 20 yards wide (if that). Staying on the tee side of the crap leaves you still having to negotiate it as well as figure out how your shot will dodge five bunkers.

There is a catch here: you have to have the shot in your bag to make it carry the wasteland to make it worth trying in the first place. Trying to bail out to the left is an option but you bring in a host of other problems if you wander too far left. My play has almost always been to try and carry the junk and take as big a bite out of the hole as I can. I've played Rebel three times, and I think the best I've ever scored on this hole is a five. At least one of my tee shots was so poor I didn't even entertain the idea it was in play somewhere, but the other two were playable. We'll call this my Bryson-esque exemplar.

At Innerkip, you get your first taste of R&R early. The fifth is the course's signature 'island' hole: a 350-yard par-4 that leads you down a small hill to a fairly generous landing area before you take on the green surrounded by water (save for a walkway peninsula to get out there). The risk isn't your second shot into the green, it's the first: by hitting driver, you risk putting yourself out of position to go for the green on your second shot (either too far back or too close and winding up between clubs).

I've played here more than I have Rebel, and I've enjoyed a certain amount of success on #5. I have a pair of birdies and a few pars to my credit ... accompanied by at least two errant balls that found the bottom of the hazard. In each round, I found myself with an approach anywhere from 95-180 yards. The further back I was (the result of a poor swing on the tee box), I struggled. But the closer I was, I found the water more often than I didn't.

My last example is one I've blogged about already. Hole #15 at Forest City is the very definition of R&R, as you have two choices on how to play it out -- take a chance and go out the stubby little finger of a fairway that juts out into the lake hazard, or take the long way around and deal with the bunkers, geese and wind. To be fair, if you try to go over the water, you still have to deal with those things as well as landing your ball on a green that might be 10 yards wide coming from across the water. If you have a stiff tailwind or you picked the wrong club, you can kiss that ball goodbye... so choose wisely.

I've played this hole both ways, and taking the chance to go over the water has paid off more often than playing it safe has. Don't get me wrong; there was a stupid amount of luck involved both times I birdied the hole, but it was still the product of taking a chance I was likely unwise to consider.

Big picture is easy to understand -- by playing it safe and minimizing the chances you take in situations like this, your score should be better by the end of the round. Keeping your ball in play and out of trouble is the surest way to turn a 102 into an 89 in no time. But there are times when you can look at that 102 and know you earned it the fun way.

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