Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Golf Digest Handicap: Why Bother?

Golf Digest started offering a handicap service in 2013.  The question is “Why bother to offer or get a Golf Digest handicap?”  Golf Digest was once the flagship magazine of the golf community.  It has been listing badly as of late.  It is hard to be current when you only publish once a month.  Its time lapsed photography used for instruction seems antiquated in today’s internet and iphone world.  In an effort to be relevant, the editor’s decided Golf Digest should become hip – the magazine for millennials.  The magazine recently featured articles about the best looking girlfriends on Tour, the joy of playing shirtless, the thrill of having sex on the golf course, and a cover story on Paulina Gretsky—golf’s equivalent of a  Kardashian.  It appears Golf Digest has traded its dignity for stagnant circulation at best.

The Golf Digest handicap may be a gesture of atonement for its sophomoric behavior.   If public service was the motive, however, the Golf Digest handicap would have to have some value for there to be absolution. Unfortunately, the Golf Digest handicap is of little benefit to the player for the following reasons:

Not Universal – For a handicap system to be effective, competing players must use the same handicap system.  Golf Digest argues its handicap “allows golfers of all skill levels to compete against one another fairly.”  This assumes other players have a Golf Digest handicap which is very unlikely. If the other players have USGA handicaps, they would probably look upon your Golf Digest handicap like a cashier looks upon a $3 bill.[1] 
No Peer Review – An absolute necessity for a handicap system is peer review.  Peer review gives some assurance (maybe p=.85) a handicap is a true measure of a player’s potential. Peer review is absent from the Golf Digest handicap system. 
OversoldGolf Digest argues its handicap is “a way to determine where your game needs the most help.”  Handicap systems, however, can identify a bad golfer but not pinpoint why he is bad.  At best, the Golf Digest handicap can put you in a class of players (e.g. 20+ handicap) who usually have these deficiencies (e.g., sliced drives, inadequate short game).  Since players are typically aware of their weaknesses, it is unlikely the Golf Digest handicap will provide any new information.
Absence of Slope Rating – The Golf Digest Handicap was developed by Dean Knuth, former Director of Handicapping at the USGA, who was responsible for the adoption of the Slope System.  Knuth argues the Golf Digest handicap is fair and “portable.”  His statement goes against 30 years of arguments made by himself and the USGA proclaiming only the Slope System can make handicaps portable.   If you are a muni player (Slope Rating = 110) and Jerry Tarde, Managing Editor of Golf Digest, asks you to be his guest at Pine Valley (Slope Rating = 155), you will be at a serious disadvantage with your Golf Digest handicap. 
Measure of Progress – The Golf Digest handicap does let a player measure how his performance changes over time.  A player with a minimal knowledge of spreadsheets, however, can track a USGA handicap using actual Course and Slope Ratings.  If that is too difficult, the player can track his differential (Adjusted Score – USGA Course Rating) and get essentially the same information provided by the Golf Digest handicap. 

A better explanation than public service for the free handicap is Golf Digest’s desire to increase visits to its website.  Golf Digest has been giving away “free stuff” for years in hopes of stemming subscriber defections.  For example, it has tie-in sales where the magazine is given away if another product is purchased—e.g., a golf association membership or a large purchase at a golf store.  (Note: About 25 percent of Golf digest’s circulation is listed as “free or nominal rate distribution.”)  Now it is giving away a free handicap in hopes of harvesting the player’s e-mail address or having him click on an ad that appears on the posting sheet.
The Golf Digest handicap is aimed at the universe of players who 1) Are not serious enough about the game to get a USGA handicap,  2) Are serious enough to want to improve their game, and 3) Are aware of the existence of the Golf Digest handicap.  This should be a very small population indeed.   Golf Digest’s gambit should fail as both a marketing ploy and as a viable handicap.  To answer the title question of this post, neither the magazine nor the player should bother with the Golf Digest handicap.
The USGA vs. Golf Digest Handicap

For legal reasons, Golf Digest could not use the USGA handicap formula.   The Golf Digest handicap differs from the USGA handicap in the following four ways:

1. The Course Rating is estimated solely as a function of yardage.
2. There is no Slope Rating.
3. Different equitable stroke control procedures.
4. The sample size of scores is smaller.

Each of these differences affects the difference between a USGA and Golf Digest handicap:

Course Rating formulae – The USGA’s course rating formula for men is:

                Course Rating(USGA) = Yardage/220 +40.9 + SOV
                                                 SOV= Scratch Obstacle Value
The Golf Digest formula for the Course Rating is:
                Course Rating(GD) = Yardage/200 +39

For all courses greater than 4200 yards, the Course Rating(GD) will be larger than the yardage component of the  Course Rating(USGA).  This difference could be a proxy for SOV which the Course Rating(GD) does not explicitly incorporate.  Instead, it could be assuming the SOV is an increasing function of yardage.
This adjustment for omitting the SOV may not be sufficient.  The table below shows the USGA and Golf Digest Course Ratings for a selection of courses in Southern California.  The USGA Course Rating is higher is 6 of the 7 cases.  Therefore, the Golf Digest Course Rating formula would, on average, yield a slightly higher handicap than the USGA Course Rating formula.    

USGA and Golf Digest Course Ratings

USGA Rating
Golf Digest Rating
Los Angeles CC(White)
Torrey Pines South(White)
PGA West Stadium(White)
Rancho La Quinta Jones(White)
Wilshire CC(Blue)
Bel Air CC(White)

Absence of the Slope Rating – The Golf Digest Handicap system is the product of Dean Knuth.  Knuth was also the lead designer and proponent of the Slope System while he was at the USGA.   The Golf Digest handicap will have all of the same flaws Knuth noted in his arguments supporting the Slope System. Knuth may have believed the casual player mostly plays the same course so “portability” is not all that important.  In many cases, this is not an unreasonable assumption.
Different Equitable Stroke Control(ESC)l Procedures – The Golf Digest handicap system limits a player to a net double bogey.  The USGA sets limits on hole scores depending a a player’s handicap.  Sometimes the Golf Digest ESC is more penal, and at other times the USGA ESC is more penal.  Take a 15 handicap for example.  The USGA allows him a maximum of 7 strokes on a par 5.  If he strokes, on this hole, however, Golf Digest allows 8 strokes.  On a par three, the USGA allows a 7strokes, while if the player doesn’t stroke Golf digest only allows 5 strokes.  The differences in strokes would probably even out, so the two  ESCs should not result in significantly different adjusted scores.
Differing Sample Sizes – The USGA takes the average of the ten best differentials out of the last 20 and then multiplies by .96 (the Bonus for Excellence).  Golf Digest takes the average of a player’s second, third, and fourth-best scores out of the last ten.  Without submitting the proof, the average computed by both methods will be similar. 

In summary, the Golf Digest handicap is a reasonable estimate of a player’s USGA handicap except for the omission of the Slope Rating.  If a player plays most often at the same course, the Slope Rating loses importance and the two handicap systems yield approximately the same result. 

[1] The differences between the Golf Digest and United States Golf Association handicaps are detailed in the Appendix.  In many instances, the Golf Digest handicap will approximate the USGA handicap.  It is not a replica, however, and cannot be considered equivalent for any serious competition.  

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