One reason for the paucity of research on golf handicapping is the USGA's virtual monopoly of the issue. This monopoly guarantees there will be no forum for competing ideas. It is like a world without combatants Google, Apple, and Microsoft, but only Microsoft. The press could play a role in questioning this monopoly, but it has not. The reasons are probably twofold. First, golf writers are not trained in the subject matter, and find it easiest to parrot the USGA line. Second, golf publications have a symbiotic relationship with the USGA so there is little to be gained by challenging its host organism. Let's go back in time to document one incident in the fawning relationship between Golf Digest and the USGA.
Nothing demonstrates the insular mentality that resides USGA headquarters than a letter written to Golf Digest by Dean Knuth, Director of Handicapping. The letter demonstrates both the arrogance and ignorance by which the USGA rules the game. It started when a reader wrote to Golf Digest (December 1996) challenging Knuth’s analysis:
In the October Digest (“The Gatescate Scandal”, Dean Knuth is quoted a saying the odds are 1 in 200 that you beat your handicap by three strokes, 1 in 570 that you beat it by five strokes, and 1 in 82,000 that you beat it by 10 strokes. I suggest Dean check the batteries on his calculator. If the odds are 1 in 200 that you beat your handicap by three strokes then Greg Norman would shoot a 66 once in every 200 rounds. It would also mean that your garden variety, 18-handicapper would be a model of consistency, shooting within two strokes of his handicap more than 90 percent of the time.
As far as 10 under goes, I’ll bet nearly everyone with a handicap of more than 15 had done it a least once and in a lot fewer rounds than 82,000. I don’t have any idea what Bill Gates handicap is, but it’s pretty clear ol’ Dean is the wrong guy to calculate it. He is statistically challenged.
Golf Digest let Knuth reply directly below the reader’s letter--a privilege very few if any are afforded:
First off, Greg Norman had a USGA handicap index in 1995, his level of play equated to a plus 7.5. That is to say, 7.5 strokes better than a scratch golfer. The average USGA course rating is approximately 71, so Greg’s better-half scoring average would be 63.5.
On tour, the courses are set up to a course rating of 76 on the more difficult stops. There his best average would be 68.5. To beat his handicap index by three strokes, he would have to shoot 60.5 on the average course (that we play), or 65.5 on the strong tour course. (Note: The average tour player is a plus 3.5).
With respect to the garden-variety 18-handicapper, he or she averages three strokes over his or her course handicap and plays to it 25 percent of the time. Beating your handicap by three strokes or more – twice in tournaments – becomes such a rare event that Section10-3 of the USGA handicap system automatically reduces the player’s USGA index. Less than 1 percent of golfers are reduced under that procedure, so its an uncommon event except by the sandbaggers of the links. However, it is true that the size of the handicap index does affect the probability of making a low net score.
I have been called a number of thing, but never before “statistically challenged.” I scored a perfect 800 on the math section of my SAT test in high school, graduated from the Naval Academy and got a masters in system technology. USGA statistics are based on a database of million of scores and were worked out by our handicap research team of statisticians, mathematicians, and professors.
Knuth argues that he is not “statistically challenged” because he scored 800 on his SAT and had a masters in system technology. Arguing “credentials” is never an effective or reasonable method to quiet one’s critics. This especially true when those credentials consist of a 30-year-old test score and a degree that is the academic equivalent of making the cut at the B.C. Open.
Knuth commits so many errors in his short letter, he makes the reader’s case for him. Knuth wrote that beating your handicap by three strokes or more –twice in tournaments – automatically reduces a player’s USGA index. Knuth’s assertion is not true. A player who has only two tournament scores must average at least four strokes below his index before his index is reduced. It is disconcerting that the USGA Director of Handicapping demonstrates a lack of understanding of the system he governs (See section 10.3 of The USGA Handicap System).
Knuth mistakenly wrote beat your “handicap” when he should have written beat your “index.” The USGA procedure reduces a player’s index for performance that beats his index, not his handicap. A player who beats his handicap twice by four strokes may or may not get a penalty reduction depending on the Slope Rating of the course. This can be easily demonstrated. The player’s score is:
Score = Course Rating + (Handicap - 4)
The player’s index differential for this round is:
Index Differential = (Score - Course Rating) (113/Slope Rating)
= (Handicap - 4) • (113/Slope Rating)
= (Index • Slope Rating/113 - 4) • (113/Slope Rating)
= Index - 4• (113/Slope Rating)
The penalty for exceptional tournament performance is determined in part by the difference between the a player’s index and the index differential:
Index - Index Differential = 4 • (113/Slope Rating)
If the Slope Rating were 155, the player would only beat his index by 2.9 strokes, and no penalty would be assessed under Section 10.3. If the player beat his handicap twice by four strokes on course with a low Slope Rating (e.g., Slope Rating = 80), the player would be penalized.
Knuth mysteriously omits the effect of the Slope System in estimating Greg Norman’s scores. It is mysterious since Knuth is the major proponent of the System. Knuth argues that if Norman had an index of +7.5, his best average would be 68.5 on tour course with a rating of 76. Knuth’s assertion would be true if the Slope Rating of the Course was 113. More than likely, however, the Slope Rating would be at least 145. In that case Norman’s best average would be 66.4 (i.e., Norman's unrounded handicap would be 9.6. This illustrates a troubling paradox of the Slope System: the higher the Slope Rating, the lower the score Norman would be expected to shoot.
Golf Digest was made aware of these errors, but never ran any correction. Knuth also did not respond. Knuth knew he did not have command of the facts or the theory. If his opponent could not be cowered by his impressive (but not verified) high school test scores, Knuth knew he would lose the argument on the merits.
Golf Digest as a major publication could be a countervailing force to the USGA. Like the press in other settings, it could serve as a watchdog. Golf Digest has consistently rejected that role believing its institutional health is better served by being compliant rather than critical.