Tuesday, October 15, 2013

USGA War on Sandbagging- Part IV, USGA to High-Handicapper: “Drop Dead"

(The United States Golf Association (USGA) has made various attempts to control players who manipulate their handicaps in order to do well in tournaments.  The name for such manipulation is “sandbagging.” If the USGA’s effort can be characterized as a war, then it is not winning.  A series of five posts examines the history and effectiveness of the USGA’s war plan.  Part I details the flaws of the USGA’s earliest attempt at controlling sandbagging.  Part II examines a proposed policy that increased the penalties for alleged sandbagging. Part III argues the current handicap system may actually encourage sandbagging.  Part IV explains why the USGA could be losing the effort to win the hearts and minds of local golfers.  Part V examines the flaws in the USGA's current war strategy. Part VI asks if the USGA's efforts are counterproductive and suggests it may be time for the USGA to withdraw from the battlefield. Part VI asks if the USGA's efforts are counterproductive and suggests it may be time for the USGA to withdraw from the battlefield.)

The USGA has implemented policies over the years that in theory reduce the chances of a high-handicap player winning.  The USGA makes no secret of the bias against the high handicap player.  It has openly stated that a player’s handicap underestimates his average score by 13 percent.[1]  This note discusses the history and reasons behind this discrimination.  To paraphrase President Lincoln, it is concluded the USGA is run by the low-handicap player, for the low-handicap player, and to ensure the low-handicap player shall not perish at the hands of a high-handicap player.  Has this bias in USGA policies been effective?  Evidence, mostly anecdotal, indicates the bias introduced into the Handicap System by the USGA has been minimized by the action of the affected players. 

Why Does the USGA Discriminate Against the High Handicap-Player? -  A possible motive for this discrimination is the elitism that pervades the USGA.  The USGA looks upon the high-handicap player the same way you look at your shoe when you step in dog leavings.   The USGA is run an Executive Committee that has long been dominated by low-handicap players.  The average index of the male members of the Executive Committee is 6.3 (as of 11/15/12).[2]  Of course, having a low-index does not mean the Committee members could not treat high-index players with benevolence.  History, however, demonstrates they do not.

Before 1976, the Bonus for Excellence (BFE) was 85 percent.  That is, a player’s handicap was only 85 percent of the average of his ten best out of twenty scores.  Now anyone should have seen the BFE was extremely unfair.  Apparently, the Executive Committee did not see a problem, or if they did they chose to ignore it.  It took an article by Dr. Francis Scheid, who was later to become an original member of the USGA Handicap Research Team, to demonstrate the inequity of the USGA Handicap System in a 1971 article.[3] His research concluded that the better player should give his weaker opponent 127 percent of the difference in handicaps.  Working with its typical alacrity it took the USGA another 5 years until the bonus for excellence was increased to 96 percent.[4] 

Over the years the number of scores used to compute a player’s index has increased, but only grudgingly.  In 1958, the USGA implemented a national consensus of using the best 10 of 25 scores. Using the best 10 of 20 scores was adopted in 1967. [5]  This last move reduced the discrimination against the high-handicap player, but did not remove it.

The original Equitable Stroke Control which limits the number of strokes a player can post was originally opposed by the Executive Director of the USGA, Joe Dey, who argued it discriminated against players with high handicaps. He was overruled and Equitable Stroke Control was adopted in 1974.[6]

The implementation of the Reduction of Handicap Index for Exceptional Tournament Scores Performance was policy aimed at the high-handicap player.[7]  A player is eligible for a reduced handicap if he has two tournament differentials that are more than 3.0 lower than his handicap index. High-handicap players are more likely to have such scores by mere chance.  According to the USGA, a 31.0 index player is at least three times more likely to have a net differential (Handicap Index – Tournament Differential) of -3.0 or less than a scratch player. [8]  This suggests the vast majority of reduced indices will go to high-handicap players, and a review of a club’s handicap report will show this to be true.

As Dean Knuth, for Director of Handicapping of the USGA, wrote “Historically, the USGA wanted to reward the accomplishment of better players…”[9]  But why?  What other sport gives the better player an advantage?   A probable reason for this favoritism is that some low-handicappers (read USGA Executive Committee) do not like losing to high-handicappers who are considered athletically and socially inferior. But even with all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, can the high-handicap player be kept down?  We turn to that question next.

Why it Hasn’t Worked – The USGA is omnipotent in many areas.  If the USGA writes a rule it is followed religiously—except when it involves Tiger Woods.[10]  When it defines allowable equipment specifications, manufacturers toe the line.  It is not unreasonable to assume the USGA’s Handicap System was also developed under the assumption player’s will strictly adhere to its dictates.  The USGA assumed that if the probability a player would win a stroke play match was reduced to far below .5, a player would simply continue to play and absorb the increased losses. 

The USGA failed to appreciate the difference between equipment specifications and handicapping.  The size of a clubhead can be measured with precision.  The ability of a golfer, however, does not lend itself to exact measurement.  Moreover, what data the USGA does have is generated by the player himself.  So when the handicap system was designed to favor the low-handicap player, it seems likely the ethical player would inflate his handicap so the chances of him winning were approximately 50 percent.  This benefits both him and his low-handicap competitor who both want a fair match—in theory.

Given the injustice, it is surprising high-handicap players have not taken to pitch forks and torches to protest.  The fact that they haven’t suggests they are either docile or have found a more effective way to settle their grievance.  Interestingly, the USGA has not documented any research on the equity of the Handicap System for singles play.  Such research could have two possible outcomes, neither favorable to the USGA.  First, it could show the discrimination in the Handicap System is working against the vast majority of players.  This is not good for public relations.  Second, the research could show that high-handicappers are doing better than expected.  This would mean the large majority of the nation’s golfers are engaging in sandbagging.  Again, this is not a finding the USGA would want to promote as they ask for the $25 membership fee.

Anecdotal evidence does suggest that the Handicap System does not generate the habitual number of losers theory would predict.  Typically, the average low-net score is not the highest in the last flight (high-handicap flight.)  In match play tournaments open to all handicaps, it is not obvious that the low-handicap player has a greater degree of success than the high-handicap player. If this anecdotal evidence is accepted (and the reader should cross check this with his/her own experience), it means players have adapted to make an inequitable system equitable. In essence, the USGA does not appear to have captured the hearts and minds of golfers in its war on sandbagging.


[1] Stroud, R.C., Riccio, L.J., “Mathematical underpinnings of the slope handicap system,” Science and Golf I, E & F Spon, London, 19990, 135-140.
[2] No index record could be found the president of the USGA, Glen Nager.  He has been described as a single digit handicap in USGA publications (USGA Elects Glen Nager as 62nd President, February 4, 2012).  Curiously, the USGA did not list Mr. Nager’s home club as they did for other members of the Committee. Mr. Nager could belong to a high-end club that likes to keep it membership secret and therefore does not participate in GHIN.  In the average calculation Mr. Nagle was assumed to be a 5.0 index. 
[3] Scheid, Francis, “You’re not getting enough strokes,” Golf Digest, Trumbull, Connecticut, June 1971, P. 52.
[4] The same year, however, the Executive Committee took care of their own by recommending four-ball matches, both match play and stroke play, be played at 80 percent of the player’s handicaps. There apparently was no research behind this recommendation, and it was later changed in 1978 when research proved the 80 percent allowance was not equitable.
[5] History of Handicapping (Part II)I: The USGA Leads the Way, www.USGA.org.
[6] Ibid. Equitable Stroke Control has been changed so it does not discriminate against the high-handicap player.  This change was made, however, in the name of simplicity and not equity.
[7] Section 10-3, The USGA Handicap System, 2012-2015, USGA, Far Hills, NJ, 2012
[8] Appendix E, Ibid.   Appendix E is in error.  The probabilities shown in Appendix E are actually the chances of having a net differential of -3.0 or less and not of having a differential between -3.0 and -3.9.  For a full discussion of the errors in Appendix E see “USGA Maintains Infallibility,” www.ongolfhandicaps.com, April 11, 1912.
[9] Knuth, loc. cit.
[10] See Bureaucracy, Augusta National, and Tiger Woods, www.ongolfhandicaps.com, May 13, 2013

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