Three Man Wolf – An exercise in golf gambling, game theory, and psychological warfare

There may come a day when I hand over the reins of the Golf Trip to someone else, but for now, I love this stuff.

I am our golf trip captain. That makes me a dictator, consensus builder, logistician, travel agent, handicap committee chairman, tournament chairman, billing department, menu planner, and group secretary. These are all jobs that I am happy to perform.

None of these tasks bring me as much joy as designing the team games and individual wagers that our group engages in each year. It’s an annual tradition that I cherish, locking myself away in the basement, isolating while trying to crack the code that strikes the best balance of fun and competitive spirit, then continuing to tinker and refine my creation right up until the trip occurs each August.

2020 was the first year that we have expanded the group to nine players from eight, dictating that it was the first year that we had a competition composed of three teams. For the past two years, we’d fielded two teams locked in a Ryder Cup-style battle. Thus, this year’s golf trip required an update to our stable of games that work for a three-ball composed of players from opposing teams. While traditional staples like a skins game and Nines (or 5-3-1) work nicely, I wanted to include something that would require thinking about the larger team competition in addition to the instant match at hand.

What’s a Buddies Golf Trip without a little friendly wagering, on and off of the course?

The Three Man Wolf Game

What I came up with for 2020 was Three Man Wolf. It is simultaneously simple, in that in mirrors a traditional Wolf game in style and rotating-captain format, and devilishly complex, putting players to tough decisions based a number of factors beyond their own score on each individual hole. The games makes players much more like a baseball manager or football couch trying to account for score, time, and situation, rather than a simple golf wager.

In our game of Three Man Wolf, every hole is worth six points. On every hole, the game is a 2-vs-1 Best Ball competition where if the Wolf, or solo player, wins, he gets all six points, while if the team of two players wins the hole, they split the points three points each. If no one wins the hole outright, everyone gets two points.

Here’s how it plays out on the course:

Scenario 1: Player 1 hits his shot and must decide if he wants to go Lone Wolf against the other two competitors as a team. Player 1 must decide before Player 2 hits; if he does not declare going Lone Wolf before the Player 2 hits, Player 1 forfeits his opportunity to be a Lone Wolf.

If Player 1 goes Lone Wolf and wins the hole, meaning his individual hole score is better than either of the other two players, he gets six points for that hole. If the score of either Player 2 or Player 3 bests Player 1, then Players 2 and 3 split the points three apiece. If Player 1 and either Player 2 or Player 3 tie for the best score on the hole, they all get two points for that hole.

Scenario 2: Player 1 hits his shot and does not declare Lone Wolf, which means he is committed to accepting a teammate, and can, at best, win three points for that hole. After Player 2 hits his shot, but before Player 3 hits his shot, Player 1 must decide if he wants Player 2 as his teammate against yet-to-hit Player 3.  If Player 1 chooses Player 2, then they are teammates, eligible of splitting the 6 points three per person, against a solo Player 3, who will have the opportunity to win all 6 possible points.

Scenario 3: Player 1 hits his shot and does not declare Lone Wolf, and after Player 2 hits his shot, Player 1 rejects Player 2 as a teammate. This means Player 1 has chosen Player 3 as his teammate without seeing Player 3’s tee shot.  They are teammates, eligible of splitting the 6 points three per person, against a solo Player 2, who will have the opportunity to win all 6 possible points.

Possible variations

During the pairings of the nine holes that we played wolf, it happened that the pairings included players from all three “flights” of our team members, meaning each pairing contained golfers of significantly different skill levels: one “A” player, one “B” player, and one “C” player. Thus, we played Three Man Wolf as a net game only.

I might not make Three Man Wolf a winner-take-all game next time around.

The allocation of strokes to the lesser skilled players adds an additional factor to the selection of teammates, as a higher handicap player receiving strokes against one or two of the other players is certainly an attractive theoretical option on any hole, but especially so on a par 3 hole.

The order on the tee remains on a fixed rotation in a normal Wolf game, with players changing the order of who tees off first, second, third and last on each successive hole in a consistent rotation.   One issue we found was that any given routing could produce an inequitable distribution of holes on any given nine or 18 holes.

For instance, we played this game on the back nine at Pine Needles G.C. in Southern Pines, NC, our Player 1 in each group played first on a par five hole, and then two par three holes. Player 2 was the hole captain on three par fours, while Player 3 got two par fours and a par five on which to be the decision maker. In the future, I would consider arbitrarily assigning hole captains irrespective of the sequential order to try to mix up the distribution of hole types to create more equity and interest, i.e., making sure no one got all par fours or more than one par three on which they were the decision maker.

The Blind Wolf wrinkle

The greatest variation of them all was something I added to specifically encourage reckless risk-taking and additional excitement: the Blind Wolf option.

On each hole, the hole captain (Player 1) had the election to go Wolf, playing his own ball against the team of his two competitors before hitting his own shot, a move known as going Blind Wolf (for players of the Spades card game, this is essentially going blind nil).

Why would anyone engage in this kind of insanity? Because it was worth triple points.  The allure of accumulating 18 points in one fell swoop was too exciting for some golf degenerates to pass up, adding an extra layer of intrigue to the decision making, allowing for wild swings in scoring, strategy, and momentum.

It’s an intimidating prospect to all but the most cocksure golfer, to bet on themselves before they see the result of their tee shot. However, if you think through the base statistical probabilities, if a player were to successfully pull off the Blind Wolf challenge one out of three times (or two out of six is playing a full 18 hole match), they would break even with their competitors.

Thus, if can win a Blind Wolf option two of three times for nine holes, or simply 3 times (of 6 possible) in an 18-hole match, he will have gain a significant point advantage over the other two competitors, assuming they have not engaged in the same all-or-nothing strategy. Especially if playing a net game with accurate stroke allocations, the opportunity costs of NOT going Blind Wolf are pretty high.

I’d put the mental acuity requirements to excel at our Three Man Wolf right up there with a poker game.

The Game Theory within the game

Part of the beauty of our Three Man Wolf match was playing it later in the week within a larger team competition. By the time we engaged in the Wolf matches, we knew roughly that our three-team competition had become a two-team race. Given that I had set the game up as a winner-take-all match, in addition to wanting to win the match, I wanted to make sure the player from the other competitive team didn’t win.

That kind of secondary motivation, the constant, fluid score-keeping calculus is the real joy, for me, of this Wolf game. Making sure that certain people didn’t win colored everything, from partner selection as captain to risk-reward analysis on individual shots. There was an added level of pressure created within the game because of what the results meant to the larger competition outcome.

For example, had I been able to amass a small lead within our match, I could have chosen to play defense with partner selections. I would have done everything in my power to put my closest competitor on my team, both through explicit selection as hole captain and with my actual golf shots, the thought being, if he’s on my team, he can’t close on his deficit to me.

Three Man Wolf also adds intrigue to whomever ends up being eliminated from winning first. Though that player might be out of the money for the overall competition or within the Wolf match, his play could very well determine the winner. As a group, we went through dozens of hypothetical situations that put players to uncomfortable decisions, where loyalties would have been questioned, integrity tested, and significant pressure applied to simply do the right thing.

Therein lies the beauty of the game, for me. Putting pressure on players not only to play and score well on each hole, but to make the correct structural decisions within the confines of the overall match, and perhaps even a larger competition. It will remain a mainstay of our trips for however as long as we continue to have a number of players that threesomes continue to make sense.

What we found, in practice, is that once someone attempts to go Blind Wolf, if they are successful, they basically force their competitors to try to keep up. The triple points are almost too much to make up through normal scoring means.  Unfortunately, that takes a little bit of the strategy and drama out of the decision making, because the math is pretty simple: go big or go home.

Perhaps in future years, the Blind Wolf challenge will only be worth double points of a regular hole, making the risk-reward decision less in favor of making that election, but still giving the desperate player a chance to make up a deficit in short order. Either way, Three Man Wolf is a fun, new wrinkle on a classic golf side game that will likely be a part of our golf trips for years to come.

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