In the Laboratory of Golf

mad-scientistIt was “Experimental Wednesday” with the J-Golf group. We were in the golf lab on two fronts – playing under adverse conditions and dealing with human behavior and decision making.

Six four-player teams competed with sustained winds of fifteen to twenty miles per hour. Gusts reached forty miles per hour. Keeping a golf ball in a straight line was all but impossible. In some situations, just placing the ball on the putting green meant chasing it down after the wind took it east. There were times when simply remaining upright was a formidable challenge; not everyone was successful. Adjusting for wind velocity became an issue even on short putts.

In our golf laboratory, we looked at how the extreme conditions impacted golfer performance in general and in particular, which groups of golfers would be most impacted by the adverse conditions.

One school of thought held that the low handicap golfers had the most experience and would be better equipped mentally and physically to adapt. The opposing school of thought argued that low handicap players would be prone to hitting their drives much longer than high handicappers and that the longer ball flight would yield control to the whims of nature for a much longer time and offer the potential for greater disaster.

In the realm of human behavior and decision making, we threw in an experiment with pari-mutuel betting. If you’re a moralist, don’t get your knickers in a knot – this is not “gambling”; it is science. “Gambling” implies the existence of a random result. In this case, the goal of the participants was to apply all the deductive prowess available to deduce the correct outcome. It was interesting to observe that as the odds (as determined by the wager volume distribution) of any given team winning changed, the betting vectors swung wildly in one direction or another.

To provide additional control to the overall experiment, teams were created where one team had an average handicap of three, another averaged twenty-one, and others fell somewhere in between. One group’s total handicap was half the handicap of one player in a competing group.

The pre-match odds favored the lower handicap golfers. For the most part, bettors believed skill and experience would triumph. The long odds on some of the higher handicap teams did bring in some bets from those hoping for a good payout, but the two teams with the lowest handicaps dominated the betting.

So how did it work out? The results tend to support the old adage that “Old age and treachery will always beat youth and exuberance.”

With twenty-three golfers in the field, only two played better than their handicaps, Bob Joselyn and Scott Hull, the 22nd and 23rd ranked players in the field by handicap finished tied for first place in the low net category with 64s. On the front nine, the team with the highest total handicap finished in first place. The team with the second highest handicap finished in second place. The team with the lowest handicap came in last. The results on the back nine weren’t much different from the perspective of statistically significance. Of the seven skins won, five of those seven went to players with handicaps well above the average.

What can we conclude from these results? Frankly, probably a fair amount. However, if we’re going to try this experiment again with pari-mutuel betting, I’m not sure I want to share my conclusions. After all, I bet on the two teams with the highest handicaps. Good luck next time.

Author: h. Alton Jones

writer/scientist/adventurer

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