Friday’s Golf Lies

Between cart path restrictions, new grass, wet spots, soft spots, hard spots and unfilled divots, the course is playing tough. The average gross score in Friday’s Kildare match was over 91 strokes, one of the highest averages ever recorded. Everyone survived, but some just barely. The team of Mike Nichols and Tom Hansen finished on top of the leaderboard two strokes in front of the team of Bruce Partridge and Mike Hickey and the team of Dave Inman and Nick De Santis. Ten teams braved the course. Nichols won low gross and Dan Hourihan won low net. He was the only golfer to shoot his handicap.

HansenNicholsChartWhat proved to be more interesting than the match itself was the discussion of the format and its “fairness”. It’s a word that’s not really in my dictionary, but when dealing with handicapped golf competitions, it’s a concept that can’t be ignored. To set the stage for the dialog, understand that the match consisted of two-man teams playing a best ball match where odd holes called for the best net ball of the team while even numbered holes required a best gross ball of the twosome. In an effort to level the playing field, the teams were built such that the combined handicaps were the same for each team. This meant that the lowest handicap golfer was paired with the highest handicap golfer. The process continues until it meets itself in the middle. In other words, the final team consists of two golfers with roughly equal handicaps midway between the highest and lowest handicaps. This raises the question . . .

Is it “fair” for a team composed of a six and a twenty-five handicap to compete against a team consisting of two fifteen handicap golfers playing in a format where half of the holes depend on a best gross ball?

The simple answer to the question is “No”. After analyzing thousands of rounds of golf played at Gainey Ranch, it becomes apparent the team with the low handicapper can be expected to score gross par or better on a given hole approximately sixty percent of the time.  For the fifteen handicappers, par or better is expected about fifty percent of the time. Advantage – low handicap golfer. Case closed? Not on your life.

There is no match format that doesn’t offer some element of unfairness. More often than not, the advantage goes to the higher handicap golfers. But the inevitability of inequity doesn’t in of itself justify unfairness. In Friday’s match, the team with the widest division of handicaps finished third. Does this prove the deck was stacked? The team with the third highest differential finished next to last. Does this prove the playing field was level?

If you look carefully at the picture above, one of the lines on the chart shows there is a strong correlation between “net score” and finishing position. Wow. What a concept. Play better relative to your handicap and you finish closer to the top. Go figure.

So what have I proven here? Not much really. I’ve shown that someone that plays better than his competitor usually beats his competitor. I’ve shown that “fair” probably doesn’t exist. Maybe I’ve shown that “if you torture numbers enough, they will confess to anything.” If you make the putt, you make the cut. And as Benjamin Disraeli supposedly said, “There are three kinds of untruths, lies, damned lies and statistics.”

Author: h. Alton Jones

writer/scientist/adventurer

9 thoughts on “Friday’s Golf Lies”

  1. Wow. It supports my theory and my performance results. When I play fairly well, I might place and if I play very well I might also place in the money. If you have a partner, the odds change based upon team play. Yesterday was a perfect example. Dan Hourihan was my partner and was the only player to shoot his handicap and was low net. I was his partner and had a lower handicap and shot a net 84! ! Regardless of the typical odds on any game format, anything (shit) can happen. Nice analysis Howard.

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  2. Following your logic, why have handicaps at all? The reason for a handicap is to “level the field” for purposes of competition. To play GROSS nullifies any attempt at equity. Lower handicap golfers are steadier than their higher handicapped bretheren. They hit the ball longer and straighter and more consistentiy. To say that someone was low net obviates and ignores the GROSS score altogether. You would never see this format in any USGA sanctioned event. The notion is preposterous.

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  3. Don:

    Yes my friend, you would never see this format in a USGA sanctioned event. That indeed would be preposterous. Many, probably most, of the games we play would be outrageous travesties if they were played as sanctioned events. Case in point . . . any “best ball” event where USGA mandated “handicap allowances” are not properly applied. Some of our Gainey Ranch “sanctioned” tournaments, i.e., Gainey Cup eligible events, would make the research guys at USGA tremble and break out in a rash. Consider last year’s “white tee” debacle and again, handicap allowances.

    However, these matches are not USGA sanctioned. They’re designed to add color, excitement and flare into our weekly competitions. If handicaps completely leveled the playing field, we’d have a tie at the top of every round. I agree that it would not be appropriate to play an alternating best gross/best net ball and bill it as absolutely “fair”. The point of the column was to point out that it WASN’T completely fair. However, the logic and the results both suggest it was at least competitive and for most, enjoyable.

    When two ball or four ball matches are played without “handicap allowances”, there is favor granted to the higher handicap golfers. Interestingly enough, I’ve yet to hear a single high handicap golfer complain about this injustice. Skins games are inherently unfair unless handicaps are zero-based, i.e., everyone plays off of the lowest handicap. But we play them anyway.

    If you think Friday’s format was unjust, you’ll love what we’re doing Monday. We’re playing a best ball format and then dealing from a deck of cards. Each team gets one card for each stroke below par it finishes. The team with the best poker hand at the end of the round wins. In theory, one team can finish twenty-six under par and have half the deck with which to construct a hand. Another team can finish five under par and end up with a royal flush. How fair is that? We’re anticipating everyone will have a ball playing this, but I’ve got a hunch the USGA may not be enthused about endorsing it.

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    1. WE DO HAVE FUN IN OUR GROUP. THE GUYS ARE GREAT AND MOST EVERYONE ENJOYS THE GAMES PLAYED REGARDLESS OF FORMAT. THE GAMES I PUT TOGETHER ARE NEVER INTENDED TO SIGNIFICANTLY FAVOR ANY PLAYER OR GROUP OF PLAYERS. EVERYONE AND EVERY TEAM HAS A CHANCE TO WIN. IF YOUR GAME IS OFF, THERE IS ALWAYS A CHANCE AT A SKIN OR TWO. I DON’T KNOW IF I HAVE THE GUTS TO DO YOUR MONDAY’S GAME. I NEVER HAVE ANY LUCK AT CARDS. HAVE FUN, THAT’S THE OBJECT. AT MY AGE, FUN IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN SHOOTING A GREAT ROUND (ALMOST)! !

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  4. It is not surprising scores are rising coming into the final handicap adjustment before the season.

    And yes, I believe a “gross” format involving higher handicappers is unfair. The format completely eliminates the equaling/fairness provided by the handicap.

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  5. That is why the team’s handicap is balanced so there is a low handicap and high handicap player. Each player brings a certain potential to a low net, low gross game. Is it perfect? Maybe not, but it creates a challenge and our group is not short of competitive players.

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  6. A higher handicap player is not advantaged by getting a stroke from a lower handicapped player. The “gift” of a stroke is done to permit the higher handicap to play “even” with the lower handicap, not giving him an advantage. If a team’s handicap is so called “balanced”, 2 middle handicappers have no advantage at all with a low and high handicapper paired together. I for one always have fun in our group, but I also feel that the format of gross vs. net is inequitable. Giving strokes to higher handicapped players allows them to be competitive. In match play, gross could never work fairly. Stroke play is trickier, and you would usually get strokes off the low handicapped player, and not the card. Balancing a team’s handicap does nothing to the outcome, since the strokes fall where they may. This is especially true of a 4-ball event. Balancing the handicap works best where there is a true ABCD player in every foursome and we play one best net and one best gross. This is indeed a difficult and challenging format…but works well since you have 4 not 2 players. This last event was the first time that I felt I had no chance. All in all Dennis does a most laudable job, I would be the first to praise his efforts. I just happen to disagree with the last game. Hell, I still played and enjoyed the day…and that is what is the most important thing…although there are several guys I have never played with.

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  7. I’m with you Don. As a guy who is in the middle of the handicap range for our group, I’m more likely to get paired with someone in the middle range. Two 11s can’t compete in a gross game with a 1 and and 21. The 1 statistically is more likely to get a pair or better on most of the holes. The 11s are statistically less likely to get pair or better on most holes (thus the 11 handicap). And the 11s are likely to tie at best on most or all gross holes.

    If we play a gross game, then pairing the lowest hanicap with the highest handicap doesn’t make sense from a equitable perspective. Why not bificate the list into two groups. Lows handicaps and higher handicaps. Then pair the lowest handicaps in each group. Would this be a more equitable approach?

    Howard I beleive you can do an analysis of my assumptions? What are the results? Do you have such a large disparity in scores? Or does it make this game more competitive?

    I guess my point is why apply a traditional grouping for handicaps when the game only takes handicaps on only one half of the holes?

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    1. Your focus is only on the low gross holes. A 22 handicapper gets 4 strokes on four holes and one stroke on 18 holes. I low handicapper obviously has an advantage on most low gross holes, but what about the flip side. That’s why it is a team event. I’m a 14 handicap. Last Wednesday I shot a gross 39 on the Arroyo nine with two birdies with a net 32. I don’t believe I was the low net !

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