Avante Garde Golfer

A Journal of new ideas in the world of golf - published quarterly for the avant garde golfer

Spring Quarter 2020

Scholarly Review: What affects the golfer's handicap?

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Believe it or not, academic types frequently write about golf. You can find scholarly golf-related articles in medical journals ('Rotator cuff injuries among golfers'), psychology journals ('Stress measures in professional golfers'), physics journals ('Golf ball spin: effects of grooved vs. grooveless club faces'), and statistics journals.

An Avant Garde Golfer subscriber alerted us to a fascinating study on golf handicaps published in the Journal of Statistics. 'Nationwide Golf Handicap Survey - Statistics and Conclusions' is by Gregory Paine, Ph. D. and Marc Sebastian, Ph.D., both at the University of Maryland (Journal of Statistics, Volume 234, pages 234-239, January 2018).

Survey data articles like this one are the basis for oft quoted phrases such as '80% of golfers never break 100' or 'the average woman's handicap is 28'. When you go to the source, you find quite a lot of statistics and statistical theory, some of it frankly unintelligible to the average reader. Avant Garde Golfer will skip the theory and give just you the basics of this most interesting article.

Drs. Paine and Sebastian write:

"We started with the hypothesis that some factor or factors must correlate causally with golfers' handicaps. Surprisingly, we could find no data to prove any correlations, and so designed a statistical study to determine what they might be. Working through the University of Maryland's Division of Statistics, we placed ads in much of the print and electronic golf media, asking all golfers - from professional to the casual player - to fill out a 5 minute on-line survey and e-mail it to us. This project took place over a 6 month period, January-June 2016.

"Simultaneously, for statistical validation we contacted 24 private golf clubs in the Washington, D.C. - Baltimore area, asking permission to mail the questionnaire to all their members; 22 clubs gave us permission and we mailed 11,234 requests. 41% of these were returned. This printed response from a known cohort provided us with a statistical sample against which we could check the validity of the far more numerous e-mail responses received nationwide.

"For further validation, we obtained USGA handicap index scores for men and women in the U.S."

The survey asked respondents for:

  • their age in years and months
  • sex
  • age at which they first started to play golf
  • estimated number of 9- and 18-hole rounds played since first taking up the game ("Don't try to be precise, just provide your best estimate")
  • estimated number of 9- and 18-hole rounds played per year for the last two years
  • USGA handicap index if the player has one, and if not, then the average score for 18 holes on the course usually played (and the name of the course)
  • experience with other sports in high school and college
  • impact, if any, of new equipment purchased in past 5 years
  • number of instructional golf books and golf videos viewed during this period
  • "Any particular event or series of events that may have resulted in the improvement of your game?"

The survey also asked two most fascinating questions:

  • "Do you think your USGA handicap (or your average score that you reported) fairly reflects all penalties that should accrue during a round?" If not, the survey asked how many strokes should be added to the score ("Please provide your best estimate. Also, please note that even though mulligans may be allowed on your home course, when you take a mulligan that should count as your third shot for the hole.").
  • "Do you ever post a higher score than you actually shot, in order to give yourself a higher handicap for competitive advantage in tournaments?"

* * *

RESULTS: First, Paine and Sebastian show that the private club responses and the national survey gave statistically similar results for USGA handicaps. They also show that the USGA men and women handicap indices are statistically the same as the e-mailed responses. These two correlations indicate that the national survey is a valid one, and not statistically skewed (as might have happened, for example, if just the better golfers responded to the survey).

Paine and Sebastian obtained 423,345 responses from North American golfers (out of an estimated 30,000,000 potential responders, although there is no estimate of how many people were reached by the advertisements). Of the private club group, there were 5,032 responses (41% return rate). Without going into all the statistical jargon, suffice to say their results are convincing, and can be summarized as follows:

1 The single most significant correlate (in the statistical sense) of golf handicap was age at which the player took up the game; the younger the age, the lower the handicap. This correlation kicked in after playing golf for 8 years, and continued at all ages and for both sexes. Below is a graph for male golfers age 40-50 (the largest demographic group, at 138,322 responses).

Male Golfers age 40-50: Age at which game taken up vs. Handicap Index

2. The second most significant correlate of handicap was number of rounds played in the previous 10 years. (See Figure.)

Male Golfers age 40-50: No. rounds played previous 10 years vs. Handicap Index

3. The third most significant correlate was athleticism, which the authors quantitated as follows: two points for every year or part of year the golfer played a sport professionally; 1 point for every year or part of year the golfer played a varsity sport from 11th grade of high school through college (e.g., soccer, baseball, basketball); point for every year or part of year the golfer played a non-varsity sport, including intra mural collegiate activities; and point for every year that the golfer regularly engaged in aerobic sports (tennis, jogging, etc.). The authors agree this is not ideal way to measure athleticism, but believe it does tend to select out people who have reasonably good hand-eye coordination and physical conditioning.

All golfers: Athleticism vs. Handicap Index

Interestingly, not correlated with golf handicap was the estimated number of private or group golf lessons taken in a life time. In fact, the more lessons taken, the higher the handicap tended to be. The authors believe this is not cause and effect, but simply a reflection that high handicap golfers tend to take more lessons than better golfers, who tended to learn the game through trial and error and a lot of playing when young.

All golfers: No. Lessons (private & group) vs. Handicap Index

The authors explain the difference between causal and resultant effects by citing the obvious fact that club professionals have lower handicaps than club members. They don't have lower handicaps because they're paid as club pros (which would be causal), but are paid as club pros as a result of their lower handicaps (among other attributes). In other words you won't lower your handicap by becoming annointed club pro. Similarly (they point out) there is no evidence that taking lessons, buying new equipment, or reading golf books will lead (by themselves or collectively) to lower handicaps; they do not appear causal of better playing.

Fully 57% of respondents said their handicap did not reflect all penalties that would accrue in their typical rounds; the average additional strokes that would accrue per round was 3.3! The majority of this comes from the time-honored club practice of taking a mulligan a round (or a side, in some cases). This discrepancy in real vs. posted scores agrees with the long-held impression among club pros that handicaps are notoriously inaccurate, because penalties are not assessed (or are assessed incorrectly).

The opposite of posting lower than real scores is sometimes called sandbagging; this is done so as to give oneself competitive advantage in tournaments where strokes are awarded to equal the playing field. Sandbagging seems to be rare, or at least not admitted to. Only 0.7% of people stated they posted higher than actual scores. Paine and Sebastian believe this is because the ego of most players mandates that they post better, not worse, scores.

Finally, what about the 42% of respondents who did not report any variance in posted and real scores? Are they more honest for counting all penalties; or are they more dishonest for not reporting their own fudging of the numbers? Are there a lot of sandbaggers in that 42%? Impossible to know, state Paine and Sebastian.

So what does all this mean? First, the best golfers started playing when young, hit a lot of balls, and have an above normal amount of athleticism. Second, it's unlikely that the majority of golfer's handicaps are honestly reported. Club championships are one thing, and not much is on the line except bragging rights. But in the real world of amateur and professional competitive golf, there is no such thing as giving strokes based on handicaps. At least then you can always be sure the winner is the best golfer, period.

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