Friday, May 31, 2013

Bureaucracy, Anchoring, and Adam Scott

 The United State Golf Association (USGA) recently released a forty page explanation of its decision to adopt Rule 14-1b that makes anchoring illegal.[1] The explanation could have been considerably shorter.  To wit:

The USGA looks upon the long putter in the same way Judge Smails views Al Czervik in Caddyshack.  Though we believe the long putter should be banned, a previous USGA Committee ruled it legal.  Rather than start a food fight with our former colleagues, we have ruled “anchoring,” the most pervasive stroke using the long putter, illegal.  It is our hope that this ruling will diminish the usefulness of the long putter and in the end lead to its demise.

The USGA goes to great lengths to argue “that freely swinging the entire club is integral to maintaining the traditions of the game and preserving golf as an enjoyable game of skill and challenge”[2]and therefore, Rule-14-1b is necessary to protect the integrity of the game.  It’s more likely the USGA is trying to protect its image of the game.  The Nabobs of New Jersey see a player using a long putter holding the U.S. Open trophy as a portent of societal decay.  Unless it acts, the next thing you’ll see is “some stuck-up jockey boy sittin’ on top of Dan Patch.” 

The USGA has acted before to protect the manly image of the game.  When Sam Snead started to putt croquet style, setting golf on par with an English lawn party, the USGA was quick to make the style illegal.  Adam Scott is the modern day Snead.  Scott’s golf swing is characterized by grace and power.  He walks the fairways with movie star looks and Aussie charm.  He is every man’s son and every woman’s heartthrob. Scott is the perfect image golf would like to project…until he gets to the green.  There he takes on the persona of Maude Frickert sweeping off the front porch.  If he only putted like Mr. Jones or Mr. Hogan, then all would be right.  Rule 14-1b is adopted to take care of that.

Much of the USGA’s explanation is muddled for the purpose of drawing attention away the Rule’s real objective.  First, the USGA argues the Rules of Golf are not established on the benefits of a (putting) method that might or might not be allowed.[3] Second, they argue anchored methods of stroke clearly provide a player with a potential advantage.[4] (If the Rules are not based on benefits, why devote a section to the potential advantages of anchored putting?)  Third, the USGA argues empirical evidence is irrelevant because ”the Rules of Golf…rest on considerations such as tradition, experience and judgment, not on science and statistics.”[5]  In essence, the USGA argues benefit is irrelevant, then implies it is another reason for 14-1b, and finally argues that this benefit cannot be measured but only assessed by the combined wisdom of the USGA Rules Committee.

If science and statistics are to be banned in rule making, doesn’t this argue for closing the USGA Test Center?  After all, can’t the initial velocity and spin of the ball be measured by human judgment?   The ban on square grooves in 2007, which is an action very similar in form to the ban on anchoring, was the subject of intense empirical analysis.  Interestingly, there is no mention of the square grooves controversy in the USGAS’s lengthy report.

But the Luddites at the USGA aren’t content with arguing science is irrelevant. They mistakenly argue there is not sufficient evidence for an empirical analysis.  The USGA contends that ShotLink (a system used on the PGA tour) measures the success of putting, but does not measure inherent ability, recent or current injury or physical conditions, current form, extent of practice, effect of conditions, and countless other factors that may affect a player’s performance.  The USGA does not realize that all empirical analyses, by necessity, omit variables. This does not mean analysis cannot be a valid predictor of performance. For example, assume you have a cross-sectional study of school performance.  The explanatory variables are school spending, socio-economic status, and so forth.  You do not have data on whether a student felt well on test day or if he tends to choke on tests.  The study assumes such missing variables are not correlated with the explanatory variables (i.e., they are part of the random error).  The study would still be capable of making an estimate of the impact of school spending on student performance, and provide a probability that the impact is greater than zero (i.e., the significance test for the coefficient of the school spending variable). The same would be true in a study of the effectiveness of anchoring. 

The USGA also does not seem to understand the ShotLink system.  It argues the ShotLink data are used to produce a putting statistic known as “strokes gained-putting,” as well as a number of statistics which are intended to assess…the comparative success of Tour players.  The ShotLink data base actually consists of millions of putts.  Pope and Schweitzer made use of this data base in trying to determine if players were more successful at par putts than birdie putts.[6] Pope and Schweitzer employed many of the control variables the USGA appears to insist on.  They used player fixed effects that consist of various measures of a player’s ability.  They also included variables measuring the position of the putt on the green, distance from the hole, and the player’s position in the tournament to name just a few. It would be a simple matter to introduce a dummy variable representing whether a player anchored or did not anchor his putter.  The estimated coefficient of that dummy variable would be an estimate of the size of any advantage of disadvantage of using an anchored putter.

The USGA also contends that if statistical analysis showed anchoring was not an advantage, it could be due to a biased sample.[7]  Many who have gone to the long putter are simply not good putters, and it is not fair to compare them with a group that contains Tiger Woods, et. al.  Using ShotLink data, however, it would be possible to examine how the elite players using the anchoring method do on short putts under pressure (i.e., when they are in contention on Sunday) and compare their success rate with elite players who do not anchor. 

The USGA’s reluctance to undertake scientific inquiry stems from the probable outcome of such research. Since players using the anchored method do not rate highly in the putting statistic the PGA Tour keeps--Strokes Gained Putting—it is unlikely more formal analysis would find the advantage for anchored putting the USGA claims.[8]

In summary, it is our belief—based on “experience and judgment”—Rule 14-1b will not do anything to level the playing field since the playing field is already level.  It will obtain its real objective, however, of moving golf up on the perceived scale of athleticism, edging it slightly ahead of curling--except in Canada. 


[1] United States Golf Association, Explanation of Decision to Adopt Rule 14-1b of the Rules of Golf, Far Hills, NJ, May 21, 2013.
[2] Ibid, p. 8.
[3] Ibid., p. 6.
[4] Ibid, p. 10.
[5] Ibid., p. 13.
[6] Pope Devin. G and Schweitzer, Maurice E., Is Tiger Woods Loss Averse? Persistent Bias in the Face of Experience, Competition, and High Stakes, American Economic Review (February 2011, pp. 129-157
[7] USGA, op. cit., p. 14.
[8] As of May 26, 2013, Keegan Bradley was ranked 37th , Webb Simpson was ranked 44th ,  and Tim Clark was ranked 54th in Strokes Gained-Putting.

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