John Paul Newport is the golf columnist for the Wall Street Journal. His lack of analytics can often lead him
astray as it did in his column of July 23, 2011 (“Fighting Back Against
Sandbaggers”). First, he took some
tables off the Internet, and assumed they were valid—this is never a good idea
or good journalism. Second, some knave
misled him on the interpretation of the tables and the vagaries of the Slope System. This resulted in multiple errors. Third, Newport
pronounced the Tournament Point System (TPS) the Salk vaccine for sandbagging
on the basis of two phone calls. I doubt
the efficacy of the TPS, and strongly believe sandbaggers will be eating the
few remaining cockroaches when our planet comes to its end. More detailed comments are made below. Excerpts from Newport’s column are in
italics.
Among the most
fascinating pages of Knuth’s website…is one titled “Odds of Shooting an
Exceptional Tournament Score.” A
player in the 1321 handicap range, for example, will shoot better than his
course handicap only one round in every six.
The table Newport cites on Knuth’s website is also
Appendix E of the USGA Handicap System. Part
of that table is shown as Table 1 below.
When the probabilities shown in the Table were first developed there was
no Slope System and the probabilities were related to handicaps. When the Slope System was introduced handicap
ranges were switched to index ranges. Such a conversion is not theoretically
correct, but intellectual consistency was never the USGA’s strong suit. Newport should have used an index range of
13 to 21.9 to be in accordance with the USGA
Table 1
Appendix E  Exceptional Tournament Score Probability Table[1]
Net Differential

Handicap Index Ranges


05

612

1321

2230

>30


0

5

5

6

5

5

1

10

10

10

8

7

2

23

22

21

13

10

3

57

51

43

23

15

The values in the table are the odds of shooting a net
differential EQUAL OR BETTER than the number in the left column.
Looking at Table 1, an inconsistency should be obvious. If a player has an index between 13 and 21, he is 20 percent less likely to score a net differential of zero or better than a player with either a lower or higher index. This is the only case where the probability of any level of performance (e.g., 2,3…10 net differential) does not increase or stay the same as index is increased. Why is this index range cursed with such poor performance? I suspect it has to do with poor research technique. Any difference in probability among groups for scoring a net differential of 0 or better may not be statistically significant. This hypothesis cannot be confirmed, however, since the USGA does not release its studies for peer review. When I mentioned this anomaly to the USGA, the probability for the 13.21.9 index player was changed from 6:1 to 5:1 in the 20122015 edition of The USGA Handicap System. The USGA never admitted a mistake nor cited new research for the change.
The odds of a midrange
player shooting eight strokes better than his course handicap are 1 in
1,138. The odds of him doing that twice
in 20 rounds (much less than in a two or fourround tournament are 1 in 14,912).
There are several errors in this quote. Table 1 show the probability of shooting a
net differential of 8 or better, not just 8. Newport also errs in using handicap instead
of index. An example will make this
clear. Assume a player is a 13.0
index. He plays a course with a course
rating of 72.0 and a Slope Rating of 150.
His course handicap is 17. Assume
he shoots eight strokes better than his handicap (i.e., his net score is 64 and
his gross score is 81). The player’s
handicap and net differentials are:
Handicap
differential = (8172) x 113/150 = 6.8
Net differential
= 6.8 13.0 =  6.2 rounded to 6.0
So in this case, the
probability of a player shooting 8 strokes or better than his handicap is 323:1
and not 1,381:1. The probability of the
player doing that twice in 20 rounds is 1 in 3,385, and not 1 in 14,912. (Note:
These latter probabilities are taken from a Table shown in Knuth’s website that
also has technical problems that are not discussed here.) In his
defense, Newport was just using “handicaps” as instructed by Knuth. The fact that Newport did not notice the
inconsistency between “handicap” and “index” demonstrates Newport’s shortcomings
as journalist.
But clubs or
associations that run numerous handicapped or net tournaments are using another
more effective Knuth invention called the Tournament Point System.
Newport judged the Tournament Point System (TPS) effective
based on little evidence. It appears the
TPS has been around for at least 7 years and possibly much longer. If it was that effective, it should have
swept the nation. It appears Newport
only found two clubs using the Point System, one of which may have been Knuth’s
home club in California. The other club
that extolled the TPS was Lost Creek Country Club in Austin Texas. A call to the Lost Creek pro shop in 2014,
however, revealed the TPS it is no longer in use.
A club in Oregon implemented a version of the TPS nine years
ago. It was not a fair test, but it did
reveal critical flaws in the system:
Not Effective at Many Clubs – Many clubs do not have a large number
of major tournaments necessary for effective implementation of the TPS. Often, the MemberGuest is the only
tournament with significant prize money.
Under the TPS, a player could win the MemberGuest every year and not be
penalized. If minor events are put under
the TPS, the strategic player could chose to sit out these tournaments rather
than risk a penalty for an upcoming major tournament. The artful sandbagger could also go
unpunished under the TPS. If the TPS
cuts two strokes, he merely submits scores that raise his handicap by two
strokes.
Double Whammy – Assume a player with a 15 index had two net
tournament differentials of 8. Under
section 103 of the USGA handicap system, a player’s index could be reduced to
8.2. On a course with a 133 slope rating
his handicap would come down from 18 to 10.
Under the TPS his handicap would be further reduced by another three
strokes making him a 7 handicap. This is
draconian. Now the tournament committee may
think this unfair and not apply the TPS reduction. But if the objective of the TPS was to remove
discretion, it would have failed.
Too Complicated and Time Consuming – The TPS is not as simple as suggested
in the Newport’s column. When the Oregon
club used the TPS for weekly and flighted events, just about everyone was
getting a penalty. The latest version of
the TPS has now been changed to alter the point distribution and penalties as a
function of flight size and number of tournaments played. And who is going to keep track of all of
this? Pros certainly don’t want to do
it. Volunteers were relied upon at the
Oregon club. This led to haphazard
record keeping. Some tournaments were recorded,
others were not. Members showed their
dissatisfaction by declining to participate in tournaments. The TPS was quietly killed at the end of the
season.
In summary, Newport’s main fault appears to be he believes anything
that contains a modicum of mathematics or statistics. This should be a disqualifying fault for being
a Wall Street Journal columnist. Unfortunately, it is not.
[1] Note: Appendix E has been
abbreviated here. It actually shows odds
up to a 10 net differential.