Wednesday, February 13, 2013

What Does the New Equitable Stroke Control Procedure Mean for Golf?

(Note: This post is a reprint of an article first published in 1993.  It is posted here because 1) It will be referenced in an upcoming post,  and 2) It iilustrates the political nature of decisions on handicapping at the USGA--a recurring theme of this blog.)
Introduction - The United States Golf Association (USGA) adopted changes in the Equitable Stroke Control (ESC) procedure for adjusting scores in 1993.  The USGA maintained that the new procedure would increase the equity of competition, and should have no effect on playing time or the prevalence of sandbagging.[1]

The USGA's conclusions, however, appear to be based on questionable analysis and an unrealistic view of the golfing world.  A more probable outcome is that the new ESC (termed ESC93 in this paper) will not lead to any significant improvement in the equity of competition and might actually lessen it.  ESC93 procedures will undoubtedly increase the problem of slow play, and make life easier for the sandbagger.  To see why all of this will happen, this paper examines the old ESC and ESC93 in light of four criteria mentioned by the USGA in defending the change: equity of competition, simplicity, speed of play, and the effect on the practice of sandbagging.

Equity of Competition - The purpose of ESC is to prevent unduly high scores from having an abnormal effect on a player's Handicap Index.  The USGA presented three arguments for why the ESC93 procedure will increase the equity of competition.  Each is examined in turn:

1. Under the Old ESC (see Table 1 below) high-handicap players frequently were not able to post their average hole-score on difficult holes. 

An example of the inequity ESC93 was designed to correct would be a player with a thirty-four handicap who averages 8 strokes on a par four, but can only post a maximum of 7 strokes (i.e., a triple bogey) under the old ESC.  Under ESC93 he would be allowed to post a maximum hole-score of 9 (See Table 2).


Table 1


Course Handicap
Limitation on Hole Score
Plus or Scratch
Limit of one over par on any hole.
1 through 18
Limit of two over par on number of holes equal to Course Handicap.  Limit of one over par on balance of holes.
19 through 36
Limit of three over par on as many holes as course handicap exceeds 18 strokes.  Limit of two over par on balance of holes.
37 through 54
Limit of four over par on as many holes as the Course Handicap exceeds 36 strokes.  Limit of three over par on balance of holes.

Table 2


Maximum Score Posted on Any Hole
9 or less

            The size of any correction to equity will depend in part on the frequency with which a player's average score exceeds the maximum score permitted by ESC.  In our example, a thirty-four handicap player averages approximately two over par on the holes he plays.  A hole that would require 4 or more strokes over par on average should be a statistical rarity.  Therefore ESC93 would not appear to have a large impact on equity because it corrects for a problem that seldom occurs.[2]

            Even the small contribution to equity of ESC93 in stroke play may be outweighed by the inequity it could cause in match play.  The player in our example is now allowed to post a quintuple bogey on a par four hole.  To demonstrate a possible inequity created by ESC93, assume the player in the example has two holes where he always posts the ESC limit of 9-strokes, and that he is still a thirty-four handicap.  He will then average approximately 1.6 strokes over par on the remaining 16 holes (i.e., he plays like a 28 handicap).  Our player should have a big advantage over the player who earns a thirty-four handicap with a more even scoring pattern.

            In match play a score of 5 strokes over par should be considered "abnormal."  Any strokes over a triple bogey are irrelevant since the hole most probably would have been lost by then.  Allowing a player to post a nine would seem to be just the thing that ESC was designed to eliminate.  In effect, our player is rewarded because of his abysmal play on two holes.  This is not only inequitable, but it sets up an incentive system that is detrimental to promoting good golf. 

2. The old ESC depends upon the par of each hole, and par ratings are often set higher than they should be. 

To make the argument, the USGA gives the example of a hole under 401 yards for women that is set as a par five at one course but as a par four at another course.  This would result in different equitable stroke control limits because of the difference in par ratings. If this is a problem, it does not appear to be a compelling reason to change the old ESC system.  A simpler solution would be to require governing golf associations to approve the par rating of each hole in accordance with USGA guidelines.[3]

3. The old ESC causes unfairly low course handicaps just below the break-points.

            In fact, the ESCC93 procedure has the same problem, if not worse, as the old ESC procedure at the "break-points."  Let's examine the breakpoint problem under the old ESC procedure first.  Assume we have an eighteen and a nineteen-handicap -- one player above and below the breakpoint under the old ESC system.  The nineteen-handicap can post one triple bogey while the eighteen-handicap cannot post any triple-bogeys.  Now assume the two players have identical eighteen-hole scores and each player has a triple bogey.  The handicap difference of one stroke would remain even though the players had identical rounds.  While this is inequitable, it is also fairly insignificant.  Even in the unlikely scenario of our example, the handicap inequity is at most one-stroke.  In trying to correct this inequity, however, the USGA has only made matters worse.

            Assume a nine and a ten-handicap as an example of players at the breakpoint under ESC93.  If each player has the same score which includes a double-bogey on a par five, the nine-handicap would post a score one-stroke lower than the ten-handicap.  If they both scored the same but each had a triple bogey on a par four, the same one-stroke disparity would appear in their adjusted scores.  Just as with the old ESC, the handicap of the player below the breakpoint is underestimated.

            While the old ESC limited the adjusted score difference of identical scores to one-stroke, under ESC93 the difference in adjusted scores could be much larger.  If both players double-bogeyed all of the par fives, for example, then the difference in adjusted scores would be four-strokes.  In the words of the USGA, the nine-handicap would receive an "unfairly low handicap."  Therefore, ESC93 does not eliminate the breakpoint inequities as the USGA maintains, but actually increases the possibility and the size of such breakpoint inequities.

            Additionally, the ESC93 procedure exacerbates the problem by adding more breakpoints.  Under the old ESC procedure, only the breakpoints between 18-19 and 36-37 affected a significant number of golfers.  The ESC93 procedure includes four breakpoints (9-10, 19-20, 29-30, and 39-40) for this same group.  In summary, the ESC93 procedure makes the problem at each breakpoint more severe and adds more breakpoints.

ESC93 also has the problem of not treating all players evenhandedly.  While the ESC93 tends to raise the index of most players, it will reduce the indexes of high single-digit handicap players.  Based on a simple probabilistic model, a high single-digit player will be giving his low double-digit handicap competitor one more stroke when the ESC93 procedure is fully implemented. [4] 

Simplicity - The USGA argued that "clubs have difficulty teaching golfers to use the old ESC procedure correctly."  The argument that a growing innumeracy among the golfing public requires a switch to a mathematically less demanding ESC formula seems strange coming from an organization that just foisted the Slope System on that same public.  Certainly more golfers understand the old ESC system than can correctly explain the Slope System.  Does this mean the Slope System should be abolished?  While simplicity is a virtue, it should not be the primary criterion for selecting appropriate handicapping procedures.

Pace of Play - The USGA states that the pace of play has nothing to do with ESC.  The USGA's position simply is not logical. ESC93 will require players to play more strokes.  That more strokes require more time seems irrefutable.  Under the old ESC, a thirty-handicap could pick up after five strokes on a par three (scoring a 6-x).  Under ESC93, the player picks up after eight strokes (scoring a 9-x).  Watching a player play out for his nine will be as painful as it is time consuming. 

            The USGA has defended its position on the specious argument that high handicappers can play as fast as low handicappers.  While that assertion may be true under certain assumptions, it avoids the appropriate research question.  The USGA should have asked, "Does it take the same player longer to play 8 strokes than 5?"  Framed in this way, the direction, if not the size, of the effect of the ESC93 on the pace of play is obvious.

            The USGA has also argued "ESC does not tell a player when to quit hitting a ball."  Again, the USGA misses the point.  While ESC does not prohibit a player from exceeding the limit, it does act as an informal barrier to such action.  If a player is not involved in stroke play competition, he will often quit hitting the ball when he reaches the ESC limit.  To quit sooner than the ESC limit would cause an unjustifiable low handicap.  To quit after the limit is reached would serve only to irritate his playing partners.  The USGA has chosen not to recognize the role of ESC in shortening playing time because such recognition would not support their change in policy on ESC. 

Effect on Sandbagging - Under the old ESC, the unethical player (assuming a ten-handicap) was limited to two-strokes over par on any one hole.  ESC93 allows him to take four-strokes over par on a par three and three-strokes over par on a par four.  Under the ESC93 procedure, he can have fewer bad holes and still maintain his handicap.  This increases the strategic advantage the sandbagger already holds over the ethical player.  The USGA recognizes ESC93 makes it easier for the sandbagger to ply his trade, but makes the argument "that it would be a step backward to write rules or to develop a handicap system solely to trap sandbaggers."

            Of course no one has argued that trapping sandbaggers should be the sole purpose of the handicap system. The system should have the dual objectives of estimating a player's ability and making it difficult for the unethical player to manipulate the system to his advantage. 

            Having two objectives can often force tradeoffs.  For example, in calculating a player's handicap only the ten best scores out of the last twenty are used.  This is inequitable to the player who has large variation in his scoring.  His handicap will overestimate his actual ability, and he will be at a disadvantage to the steadier player.  By selecting only ten scores, however, the USGA was making it difficult on the sandbagger to artificially inflate his handicap.

            While no system can be devised that is "sandbagger-proof," any new system should make it tougher for the sandbagger to ply his trade.  ESC93 does not meet this simple test.

Conclusions - ESC93 has the advantage of being simpler, but will not make the contribution to equity the USGA claims.  Simplicity may lead to a more uniform and consistent application of ESC.  This benefit may be outweighed, however, by the detrimental effects on the pace of play and the prevalence of sandbagging.

            ESC93 is also an example of the type of tinkering with the Handicap System that should be avoided.  The conservative administration of the game of golf should be the guiding philosophy of the USGA.  Changes should only be undertaken if there is documented evidence that new policies will make significant contribution to the objectives of the USGA.  The USGA has a good record in that regard with their equipment testing program, rules and competitions, and turf grass research.[5]  It is only in the area of handicap administration where too often the USGA has confused motion with progress. 


[1]  See Position Paper on the New Equitable Stroke Control Procedure, United States Golf Association, Far Hills, NJ, 1992. 
[2] And if it does occur, it reduces the probability that the round would be in his lowest ten of twenty differentials.
[3]  The USGA went back to par-based ESC in 1997 for players with handicaps under ten. Consistency in reasoning has never been a USGA strongpoint.
[4] This is a rare time the Handicap System was changed to benefit the high-handicap player.  A more complete history of the discrimination against the high-handicap player will be documented in a future post, In Defense of Sandbagging, forthcoming.
[5] The USGA’s record in equipment testing is open to debate.  Geoff Shackelford makes a strong argument that the USGA was too late in stopping the increased distance due to changes in clubs and the ball.  See Shackelford, Geoff, The Future of Golf, Sasquatch Books, Seattle, WA, 2005.

No comments:

Post a Comment