Wednesday, June 18, 2014

How "Not" to Conduct a Competition

The USGA’s publications “How to Conduct a Competition” and “Tournaments for Your Club” both present guidelines for how a competition should be run.[1]    Neither publication, however, lists the pitfalls in applying the USGA Handicap System, nor assesses the equity of various tournament formats.  Golf professionals get little training in the nuances of the handicap system and the equity of various tournament formats.  If he is lucky, a young professional serves an apprenticeship under a seasoned and knowledgeable professional.  Too often, however, young professionals are promoted to head professional without the requisite knowledge to run the golf program.  Listed below are two prescriptions for a good professional:  1) Know the USGA Handicap System, and 2) Construct handicap competitions that are fun, simple, and equitable.  Let’s look at each prescription and see what can go wrong when they are not followed.

1. Know the USGA Handicap System – There are two sections of the Handicap System (Sec. 3-5 and Sec. 9-4) that are important in running tournaments.  Failure to understand and properly implement these two sections can lead to problems:
Sec. 3-5 Players Competing from Different Tees – This section details how handicaps are to be adjusted when players compete from different tees.  There is little empirical evidence that Sec. 3-5 ensures equitable competition.  The USGA should advise that Sec. 3-5 should be avoided wherever practical, but it doesn’t.  The USGA omits this cautionary note because it would cast doubt upon the efficacy of Sec. 3.5.[2]  It is always better to organize flights by the tees players compete from.  When that is not practical, the golf professional should know how to apply Sec. 3-5 correctly.  Here are examples of what can go wrong when Sec. 3-5 is applied incorrectly:
  • A Chapman competition was conducted where teams competed from different tees and the handicaps were adjusted in accordance with Sec. 3-5.  In making the adjustment the golf professional adjusted the handicaps of individual players.  This was incorrect.  The adjustment should have been applied to the team handicap.[3]  This mistake put the competitors from one set of tees at a serious disadvantage (i.e., their team handicaps were two strokes lower than they should have been).  None of those affected teams placed in the top half of the competition. 
  • In a scramble competition, the USGA recommends the 5 percent of the D player’s handicap be used in computing the team handicap.  In many cases, the D player’s contribution to the team handicap would be the same whether he played the front or back tees.  A team that recognized this anomaly moved their D player to the front tees (gaining 650) yards, and won handily.  In this case the Sec. 3-5 adjustment was inconsequential.  To correct this problem, all players of a certain type (A, B, C, and D) should be required to play from the same set of tees.
  • One professional conducted closest to the pin, long drive, and skins competitions for players competing from different tees.  The golf professional thought the competitions were equitable since handicaps were adjusted in compliance with Sec. 3-5.  When a player competing from the shorter tee won the long drive contests, competitors from the longer tees were not amused.
  • In another competition, flights were determined by a player’s handicap adjusted for Sec. 3-5.  Players in a flight could be competing from different tees. The golf professional decided to award a gross prize in each flight which gave an advantage to the players competing from the tees with the lower Course Rating.  It should be remembered that Sec. 3-5 is not intended for use in gross competition, but only in net competitions.

 Sec. 9-4 Handicap Allowances – A handicap allowances is the percentage of a player’s handicap that is used in different forms of competition.  The USGA recommends allowances in Sec. 9-4.  Suggestions for scrambles, which are not played in accordance with the Rules of Golf, can be found in “Tournaments for Your Club.”  Here are some examples of what can go wrong:
  • Confusing the Allowances for Four-ball Stroke Play and Four-ball Match Play - In four-ball stroke play, each player is only allowed 90 percent of his handicap. Some pros, however, have mistakenly applied 90 percent allowance to four-ball match play.  This is not correct.  In four-ball match play, players use their Course Handicap and play off the low-handicap of the players in the match (Sec. 9-4aiii).  Using the 90 percent allowance incorrectly gives the edge to the low-handicap team.  Another common mistake is to apply the 90 percent allowance to women’s four-ball stroke play.  Women should receive 95 percent of their handicap (Sec. 9-4bii).
  • Not Having a Clue - A member wanted to run a weekly game where foursomes would compete against each other using Stableford scoring.  The team score would be the combined score of all four players.  Teams would be drawn by the ABCD method so each team would have approximately the same handicap. There would be a simultaneous competition for individual net play.  The golf professional advised the member that players should only receive 80 percent of their handicap. The best explanation for the professional’s advice is that he confused the allowance for “one-best ball of four” with “four-best balls of four.”  The allowance for the former is 80 percent, while the allowance for the latter is 100 percent. That does not explain why he would recommend an 80 percent allowance for the individual competition.  The best explanation there is he “didn’t have a clue.”
  • Scrambles - A scramble event is often decided when the handicap allowances are adopted.  For example in one event, the player with the lower course handicap was allowed 25 percent of his course handicap.  The player with the higher course handicap was allowed 15 percent of his course handicap.    This allocation seems inequitable on its face.  A team of ten-handicap players would receive a handicap of 4.  A team of scratch players would receive a handicap of 0.   In essence, the ten-handicaps would have to play even with the scratch players over 14 holes and just lose by a stroke on 4 others.  This seems unlikely. The tournament results confirmed the inequity.  The low-handicap teams dominated the net competition.  The USGA suggests an allowance of 35% for the low-handicap player and 15% for the high-handicap player.  The golf professional should use these allowances as a starting point, but revise those allowances if low- or high-handicap teams do exceptionally well. 

2. Construct Handicap Competitions that are Fun, Fast, Simple, and Equitable - Listed below are some examples of competitions that do not meet one or more of the four criteria and should be avoided when possible:
  • Equal Gross and Net Payoffs - One of the most common prize formats is “Equal Gross and Net.”  Unfortunately, putting “equal” in the title does not make it so.  The low-handicap player in each flight has the edge in winning a gross prize and an equal chance of winning a net prize.   This is not equitable.  The argument for “equal gross and net” is the low-handicap player cannot compete against the high-handicap player in a net tournament.  This argument may be valid when there a large number of players and a wide range of handicaps.  Typically, a high-handicap player has a larger variance in his scoring so it is likely one of the high-handicappers has a good chance of winning—as well as finishing dead last.  If the competition is flighted and the range of handicaps within each flight relatively small, the argument that a low-handicap player cannot compete on a net basis loses much if not all of its strength.[4]
  • One-Best Ball and One-Worst Ball - In this format a team of four players use the best net ball and the worst net ball on each hole for the team score.   This format fails the “fast” test since the team cannot go on until the worst player is finished. It fails the “fun” test on two counts.  First, the second and third players do not have an incentive to do their best if one player is in great shape and the other player faces disaster.  It would not be fun, for example if the second player scored a birdie, but it did not help the team score.  Second, it is not much fun for the player when his one bad hole can knock the team out of the competition.  It is always better for a format to reward good play rather than punish poor play.        
  • One Ball Gross and One Ball Net – This format gives the advantage to teams with a low handicap player and thus fails the equity test. 
  • Shamble – In this format, all players tee-off.  The best drive is chosen and all players play from there.  It can be equitable if all teams are approximately equal—i.e., teams have A, B, C and D players of comparable ability.  Typically, however, the range of A players is fairly large.  Consequently, the teams with the better A players have a decided advantage, and the shamble fails the equity test.  (The advantage can be lessened if each player has to have a minimum number of drives selected.)    
  • Mystery Hole – In this format all players play the hole.  After completion of the hole, the team learns whose ball is to be counted.  This format fails the “fast” test as every player must complete the hole.  The format is improved somewhat if it is played under Stableford rules.  It still would require players to grind over short putts even though the result is probably meaningless.

                Every golf professional should attempt to learn which tournament formats are equitable[5] and which get high marks from the members for enjoyment.  Too often tournament participation ebbs because the golf professional does not do the requisite market research—i.e., what format sells?  This is neither in the best interest of the club or his longevity as the head professional.  

[1] Both publications are available at the USGA’s website,
[2] For a fuller discussion of the problems of Sec. 3-5 see Dougharty, Laurence, “The Problem with Section 3-5,”, March 4, 2014.
[3] See Dougharty, Laurence, “Chapman Handicaps and Sec. 3-5:  Proposed Changes to the USGA Handicap System,”, August, 19, 2013. 
[4] For an examination of the equity of “equal net and gross” see “Dougharty, Laurence, “Is Your Tournament Equitable,”, October 22, 2012.
[5] Ibid.  This article presents examples  of how equity can be assessed.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Why You Win or Lose in Team Play

Team play pits golfers from one club against another club.  Historically, clubs would choose their best players to go against the opposing club in a gross score competition.  The winner would have bragging rights for a year.  For a variety of reasons, team play in the United States has evolved largely into a net score competition.   There are four reasons a club will win such a team competition: 1) Errors in Course and Slope Ratings, 2) Favorable handicap allowances, 3) Handicap management practices, and 4) Chance.  In essence, winning is either caused by having an unfair advantage or luck.   Let’s review each reason to emphasize why winning is not a basis for bragging.

1) Errors in Course and Slope Ratings - Previous posts have explored the size of the errors in Course and Slope Ratings.[1]  Such errors make little difference in intra-club events.  Errors can have a substantial effect, however, on inter-club matches.  Table 1 presents various course statistics for five clubs that participate in team play in Central Oregon.  Looking at the statistics, it appears the five courses are approximately equal in difficulty for the scratch and bogey golfer.  Most golfers interviewed, however, believe Tetherow is the much tougher course.  Tetherow has undulating greens, blind shots and hazards, and is extremely penal to off-fairway shots.  These difficulties are not reflected in the obstacle values estimated for the course by the Oregon Golf Association (See Table 2). [2]   The scratch obstacle values for the five courses are approximately the same.  The bogey obstacle value at Tetherow is below the average of the other four courses.

Table 1
Course Statistics

Course Rating
Slope Rating
Bogey Rating
Broken Top (Green)
Bend (Blue)
Awbrey Glen (Gold)
Tetherow (Tan)
Crosswater (Tournament)

Table 2
Obstacle Values

Scratch Obstacle Value
Bogey Obstacle Value
Broken Top (Green)
Bend (Blue)
Awbrey Glen (Gold)
Tetherow (Tan)
Crosswater (Tournament)

There are methods for estimating the errors in Course Ratings.[3]  Golf associations are hesitant to study the problem because they lack the expertise and it is not in their interest to challenge the accuracy of the Ratings.  Without the requisite data, a range of errors is assumed and the resulting impact on matches is evaluated.  For simplicity, it is assumed the scores of each player are normally distributed with a  standard deviation of three strokes (i.e., 68 percent of all scores will be between plus and minus three strokes of the player’s average score).  From these assumptions, the probability that the player with the advantage (i.e., his Course and Slope Ratings are below the true Ratings) will have a lower score than his opponent can be estimated.  The results are presented in Table 3.[4]  The probabilities of winning are for a stroke play event.  This is an adequate if not an exact proxy for winning a match play event. 

Table 3
Probability of Winning with Various Errors in Handicap
Error in Handicap
Probability of Winning

 Table 3 shows that a player with a 2-stroke advantage has a 68 percent chance of winning.  A 2-stroke error in handicap is not out of the realm of reason, especially for the higher-handicap player.  Assume Tetherow had the same rating as the Nicklaus Course at Pronghorn (Rust Tees).  The Nicklaus Course and Tetherow are considered equally difficult by many players.  If anything Tetherow is more difficult for the bogey golfer.  The Rust Tees have a length of 6533 yards, a Course Rating of 71.3, and a Slope Rating of 143.  Applying these new Ratings at Tetherow, a 10-index player becomes an 8.5-index.  So when the Tetherow player goes to Bend, he would now play as a 10-handicap rather than a 12-handicap under the current Ratings.

A typical team event consists of 10 single matches and 5 four-ball matches.  If there was a 2-stroke error in handicaps, the team benefiting should win 6.8 of the 10 singles matches on average.   In the four-ball matches, where both players have a two-stroke advantage, the team benefiting from the errors should do even better.

2) Handicap Allowances – In some team competitions, the handicap allowance is a percentage of a player’s index.  In the case of Central Oregon, the percentage is 80 percent. This gives the team with more low-handicap players an edge.  For example, assume a 10.0 index was to play and 8.0 index on a course with a Slope Rating of 130.  The 10.0 index player would receive three strokes in the match if it was played at full handicap.  If the 80 percent allowance is applied, the 10-index player only receives two strokes.  As shown in Table 3, this decreases his chance of winning by 9 percent.  A team composed of lower-handicap players than its opponent should have a decided edge.

3) Handicap Management Practices – There will always be some players who increase their handicap over what it should be.  There has been a case (not in Central Oregon) where a team chose to forfeit a match rather than play against a notorious sandbagger.  There are unethical players who are scorned in club tournaments, but welcomed to compete for the club’s team.   Having one or more sandbaggers on the team increases the probability of winning while at the same time decreasing the reputation of the club.

4) Chance – Chance is omnipresent in golf.  The poor shot that skitters on to the green or the great shot that is hit with a gust of wind and ends up in a hazard are examples of chance at work.  But winning because of chance should not be cause for pride.  After all, if you called heads, and the flip came up heads you would not attribute your win to any superior physical or character trait.

In summary, there is no reason to take great pride in winning a team match.  The winner either had an unfair advantage or was lucky.  In theory, team matches should not be about winning, but making friends with players from other clubs, enjoying the competition, and learning how to win and lose with grace.  History will little note nor long remember who won a team competition.   Emphasis on winning, rather on the social aspects of team competition, diminishes the benefits of participation.   


[1] Dougharty, Laurence, “Empirically Verifying Course and Slope Ratings,”, April 18, 2013.
[2] To calculate the obstacle values, it was assumed that the Course Yardage was also the “effective” yardage.
[3] A promising method is being developed by Peter Preston.  Preston uses away scores to estimate the actual Course Rating.  These estimates can be compared with the official Course Rating to determine if significant differences exist.  See Preston, Peter, “Estimation of Golf Course Ratings from Player Scores,” paper presented at  59th ISI World Statistics Congress, Hong Kong, August 2013.
[4] The methodology behind these estimates is shown in Dougharty, Laurence, “A Sandbagger’s Guide to Winning,”, December 19, 2013.