Friday, January 17, 2020

Dean Knuth: Is the Pope of the Slope Fallible?

The World Handicap System (WHS) has a feature called the par adjustment.  Basically, a player’s course handicap is just his former USGA handicap plus the difference between the course rating and par—usually a negative number.  In an article (The flaw in the new World Handicap System,, January 1, 2020) Dean Knuth, who has promoted himself as the “Pope of the Slope,” made arguments against the par adjustment.  He relies on his credentials (e.g., former Director of Handicapping at the USGA, etc.), and foregoes any reliance on theoretical or empirical evidence to make his case.   His arguments against the par adjustment are either specious, untrue, or unsubstantiated.  Unlike his namesake, the Pope of the Slope is clearly fallible.  Golf Digest did Knuth a disservice by printing his article without the proper vetting.     

Excerpts from Knuth’s article are presented below in italics.  After each excerpt, a brief analysis demonstrating the “flaws” in Knuth’s arguments is shown.

Knuth: Let’s start with the fact that par is hardly the most reliable measure of course difficulty (that would be course rating). Almost any golfer can list two courses that are both par 72s but vary greatly in how tough they play. Differences in length, in obstacles, in penalty areas, make one drastically harder than another even when they have the same par. Par as a metric, then, is somewhat arbitrary…. Maybe you don’t want to go that far, but calculating a handicap around a less reliable measure of difficulty inherently makes for a less equitable system.

Knuth is correct that “par” is not a accurate measure of course difficulty, but that claim is irrelevant to the equity of the WHS.  For stroke play (i.e., not Stableford) competitions, the WHS could have picked any number to subtract from the Course Rating and competitive results and handicap differentials would remain the same.  The par adjustment simply adds or subtracts a fixed number from a player’s handicap under the expired USGA Handicap System.  If players are competing from the same tees, differences in handicaps among players remain the same.  There might be small changes in handicaps due to rounding, but they are random and would not affect equity.    When players compete from different tees, the course handicap is calculated with all players playing to the highest (or lowest) par.  Again, what particular par number is used will not affect the equity of competition.  Knuth’s conclusion that the par adjustment makes for a less equitable system is not substantiated. 

Knuth: …the new formula changes course handicap values from tee to tee as you compare the WHS to the USGA system at any course.  For example, where once a course handicap was a 12 from the back and middle tees, and an 11 from the front, under the new WHS calculations there will be much larger variations—as many as 18 shots in some instances—between tees. Part of the reason for this is that during the calculation, an approximation is being approximated again by adding Course Rating minus Par creating an imperfect “over-spreading” of the course handicaps  Knuth adds “ It’s why, to me, the WHS produces an unacceptably large course handicap variation for the same ability player.”

Knuth never explains why a large course handicap variation for the same player is unacceptable.   The reader just has to take his word for it.  It is not the variation of handicaps, but the difference in handicaps among competitors that determine fairness as discussed above.  Knuth states the par adjustment creates an imperfect “over-spreading”   of the course handicap. He never sets forth the criterion for “perfect spreading.”  He simply hopes his readers will assume “over-spreading,” whatever it is, must be bad.  

Knuth:  Golfers competing from more forward tees will be receiving fewer strokes than is truly equitable.  And if you want to follow the USGA’s “Tee it Forward” initiative, there is a disincentive because playing from shorter tees more drastically lowers your course handicap.

This is where an editor at Golf Digest should have interceded and asked for evidence.  Instead, Golf Digest was complacent and just assumed Knuth, with all of his credentials, must know what he talking about.   If Knuth’s claim that the forward tee player is treated unfairly was true, it would drive a stake through the heart of the WHS.  Of course, it is not true.   A player competing from the forward tees will receive a reduction in handicap, but so will his fellow competitors.   There is no change in equity due to the par adjustment.   Even one with a rudimentary knowledge of the WHS (e.g., Jerry Tarde, Editor of Golf Digest) should know this. 

There is a lot not to like about the WHS and its par adjustment. The USGA simplified the Rules of Golf to make them more understandable to new and casual players.  Then, paradoxically, the USGA adopted an arcane handicap system that baffles and discourages these same players.   This blog has openly opposed the WHS, but firmly believe its efficacy should be determined on empirical evidence and not on conjecture by so-called experts.   Knuth’s article makes no contribution to that end.  If Golf Digest had any integrity, Knuth’s flawed article would be taken down from its website.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your article. I had just read the Golf Digest article and couldn't understand any of Knuth's arguments. I assumed I must be really missing something. But I think it is Knuth who is missing the point. Since handicaps are applied as a differential it makes no difference whether you subtract out the delta between rating and par (or any other fixed value for that matter).

    If anything calculating a course handicap relative to par makes the course handicap more meaningful; your course handicap becomes a personalized par. Whereas before it was based only on course slope and so it had very little meaning relative to the score that you might be capable of shooting.

    Really surprised Golf Digest published it as it was written. Really speaks to the lack of math literacy.