Santa Clara University

Leveling the Course

A Look at the Fairness of the Golf Handicapping System

There’s a computer in Pebble Beach that knows how well you golf. Maintained by the NCGA (Northern California Golf Assn.), it collects golf scores submitted electronically from courses all over Northern California and keeps tabs on individual golfers. Every month it runs each player’s score through a complex formula and issues the golfer an index. The index is converted to a course handicap, which forms the basis for competitive play.

But is it fair? Steven Nahmias, Professor of Operations and Management Information Systems at the Leavey School of Business (and a longtime avid golfer himself) came up with a model for testing it.

Professor Steven Nahmias

“Golf is one of the only sports where people of varying abilities can compete fairly,” he says. “If you’re not a golfer, you have no idea how complex the handicapping system is, and even among active, informed players, probably 90 percent don’t know how it works.”

There has been little published academic analysis of the USGA system to date, but Nahmias, who has made several presentations of his paper, said, “I have to believe the USGA did a similar analysis internally and hired someone with a background like mine to run it.”

The paper is titled “The USGA Golf Handicapping System: Is It Fair?” In it, Nahmias explained the USGA formula and used computer modeling to test it against 5,000 hypothetical rounds of golf played by five levels of players. In a truly fair handicapping system, with strokes knocked off the total score or hole score for less gifted players, each player should be able to win the same proportion of the time.

Indexes are calculated by the USGA based on the best 10 of the last 20 rounds. Adjustments are made for several factors, including the course difficulty, length, and excessively high scores on a single hole. The index is converted to a course handicap based on the difficulty rating of the course (known as the slope).

Looking at the range of handicaps, Nahmias broke golfers out into five categories:
    • Scratch players, those who play near par and have a handicap near zero.
    • Low handicappers, players with single-digit handicaps.
    • Consistent bogey golfers, those who are about a shot above par on average and have handicaps in the 14-18 stroke range.
    • Inconsistent bogey golfers, the players with the same 14-18 handicap, but with a high variance in their scores.
    • High handicappers, the players whose course handicap is 20 strokes or more. For the purpose of the simulation, Nahmias used a player with a 30 handicap.

Working with Eugene Yano of the Yano Accountancy Corporation of San Francisco, Nahmias ran those five hypothetical golfers through 5,000 simulated rounds at a real golf course, Palo Alto Municipal. It’s a long but fairly open course with a difficulty rating close to average.

The scores of the hypothetical golfers were then compared to see how they would have fared against each other in various types of competitions. Overall Nahmias and Yano found that the USGA system is pretty fair, but definitely favors some types of players, depending on the competitive format.

In head-to-head competitions, for instance, lower handicappers came out a bit ahead. In a skins format among a large group of players, where the player with the best net score on a hole wins, scratch players did noticeably worse and the less-accomplished players did better. Nahmias says that’s probably because the hole-to-hole variance of higher-handicap golfers gives one of them a reasonable chance of doing as well as the scratch golfer on any given hole, then winning when the handicap is applied.

“There are thousands of competitions all over the country every week and countless Sunday bets that depend on this system,” Nahmias notes. “If you play competitive golf, the key thing is that you want it to be fair.”

And for all the attention that goes into the formula, problems still arise because golfers enter their own scores into the computer on the honor system.

“People cheat in two ways,” Nahmias observes. “There are ‘sandbaggers,’ who post higher scores than they actually shot to get a higher handicap for future competitions, but they usually get found out pretty quickly.

“And then there are vanity handicaps that arise from people not reporting very high scores. A lot of golfers can’t stomach how lousy they really are.”

HANDICAPPING THE SYSTEM: Steven Nahmias, himself a longtime avid golfer, has run a detailed statistical study of the USGA handicapping system and found it mostly fair, though benefiting certain types of players in specific competitive formats.

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