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Golf by the Numbers

Jan 18, 2012 -- 11:46am

By Russ Evans

For the first time since I started playing golf 15 years ago, I can say I’m a twelve-handicap. Not twelve exactly – my current index is an all-time best 12.7, which is down from 13.5 last year. Interestingly, I said I was a fourteen-handicap in 2011, rounding the 13.5 up five-tenths of a point. Now I’m rounding the 12.7 down seven-tenths of a point. Guess I just like even numbers.

Golf handicaps are a funny thing. They’re also a bit complicated. So complicated, in fact, that I needed someone smarter than me to decipher the mathematics of it all, so I enlisted the help of Dr. Lucius Riccio, Ph.D. at Columbia University who specializes in Engineering & Business Analytics, who recently joined me on Golf Exchange Radio.

Dr. Riccio wrote a research paper on golf handicaps that came to the attention of the USGA back in the 1970’s. Under the leadership of Frank Thomas and Dean Knuth, the USGA put a group of Ph.D.’s together, including Dr. Riccio, to come up with an improvement to the current handicapping method of the day. Their solution was the slope system, which was an advancement in the practice of handicapping for amateur golfers. Prior to the slope system, a golfer’s handicap was as much a function of the courses he regularly played as his inherent ability. The slope system removed the affect of the course. The reality in the days before slope was a 10-handicap on a very difficult course could be four or five strokes better than a 10-handicap on a very easy course.

Knuth, who was the USGA’s Senior Director of Handicapping for 16 years and is affectionately known as ‘The Pope of Slope’, wrote in the April 2010 issue of Golf Digest, “Slope Rating measures the relative difficulty of a course for bogey golfers when compared with the course rating. Course rating is a measure of a course’s difficulty level for a scratch golfer.” So essentially, if every golfer in existence were a scratch, we’d only need course ratings. The slope system was supposed to be the equalizer for players with handicaps.

Not all agree the handicap and slope systems work as well as they should. Jim Lackritz, a professor emeritus of management information systems at San Diego State University, thinks the system favors lower handicap players. In a recent article for Chance, a journal of the American Statistical Association, Lackritz explains that the handicap index is calculated by taking the 10 best scores over a 20 round period. So the handicap is a statistical construct of the player at his best, and the better player you are, the more regularly you play your best golf. Higher handicappers tend to fluctuate scores more up and down and at larger variances than their lower scoring counterparts. This is why most golfers only play to their handicap about 20% of the time and someone with an index of 15 has an average score of 90, not 87.

Dr. Riccio also shared with me that Greens-in-Regulation is the strongest indicator of ability and the most important stat for an amateur golfer. In an axiom that holds true most of the time, a player must hit three greens to break 90, eight greens to break 80, and 13 greens to break 70. Putting is not nearly as important to scoring as Greens-in-Regulation is. If a 95 shooter played tee-to-green and had Luke Donald or Steve Stricker putting for him, he might break 90 on occasion, but rarely. On the other hand, if a 95 shooter had Bubba Watson or Dustin Johnson hitting tee shots for him, he would regularly shoot in the mid-to-low 80’s. So about two-thirds of the difference between a 95 shooter and a scratch golfer is tee-to-green play, and only about one-third is putting.

Confused yet? If so, then it’s probably a better time than any to head for the first tee. As golfers know, sometimes ignorance is bliss, especially on the golf course.

Listen to Russ Evans every Sunday morning from 9-11am on Golf Exchange presented by The Honda Classic. You can email him at revans@thehondaclassic.com.

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