E. Michael Johnson believes that with his 5.7 handicap index he could beat someone from the 51st to 100th positions on the LPGA money list on a 6800-yard course at least once in 20 tries. Even though his interlocutor Stina Sternberg clearly won the debate (and later was gracious in victory), I feel compelled to add my own 2 cents on just how stupid Johnson's position and arguments are.
As a 3-times-a-week golfer this year who's seen my handicap index rise from a low of 2.2 early last decade (pre-kids) to a 4.1 at the end of last season and yesterday to its new high of 5.5 (which will rise still further until I start practicing my short game seriously enough to stop throwing away so many shots around the green!), as a friend of LPGA veteran Moira Dunn (with whom I played as lot of junior golf in central NY in the '80s), as a golf blogger who's written far too much already about my own game, and, by LPGA standards, as a wannabe-precision player and straight shooter-wishful thinker, I think I have a pretty good perspective on why Johnson is so wrong to think he has a 5% chance of beating a worse-than-average LPGA pro on any given day. You be the judge.
Just How Bad Do You Have to Be to Be a 6-Handicap?
Sternberg reports that Johnson is a bomber, which helps explain why he wants the competition with a mid-to-low-level LPGA player to be on a 6800-yard course. Even with a decided distance advantage, I'll bet Johnson would consistently squander it in the places most mediocre amateurs do: too many missed fairways and greens (and too often by far too much), weak recovery shots, and an awful short game--not to mention terrible strategic planning, flawed tactical decision-making (judging wind and other conditions, choosing a club/shot type/shape, reading greens, etc.), bad emotional management, and shaky nerves. It all adds up to too many disasters, too few saved pars and made birdies, and far too few rounds under 75. Let's face it: a 6 handicap is about as likely to break 80 as not on most courses. But even their rounds under 80 won't be as low as they ought to be. And they'll need to go very low by their standards to beat anyone from the LPGA. Where do they lose the most shots?
Let's start with the long game. Would you rather average 250 yards off the tee and be in the fairway 2/3 of the time or 275 and 1/3? I'd need to know more about Johnson's game to be sure, but my guess is he fits the latter profile, while I--in the midst of getting used to a tighter, more trouble-filled home course than The Easiest Course in the World I had been playing regularly from 1998-2004 and 2008-2010--can report that I'm hitting only 47.6% of my fairways and 31.9% of my greens in regulation at the Town of Hamburg Golf Course so far this season. In other words, my GIR average on my new home course would put me dead last and well off the charts on the LPGA this season, while my driving accuracy would be merely next-to-last. (When you count my away rounds, my overall GIR rate improves to 33%, so it's not like I've been a whole lot more accurate on other courses!) Now, on my best ballstriking day of the year so far, not-so-coincidentally on the driest course I played all season, Caledonia Country Club, in the Rochester qualifier for the NYSGA Men's Amateur Championship, I hit 8 fairways and 10 greens (but still only shot an 80 and missed my chance to return to Oak Hill by 4 shots). Even if my ballstriking averages improve over the summer to reach that to-date-peak performance, that would only put me at a 57.1% rate for fairways and 55.6% rate for greens. And even with those averages, I'd only move up to about 150th on tour in driving accuracy and GIR. So even averaging around 250 off the tee, which puts me around 75th on tour this year, I'd be at a terrible disadvantage to just about any LPGA pro in terms of ballstriking, whether the course is 6250 yards, 6500 yards, 6750 yards, or 7000 yards.
Consider how many shots I'd be giving up to the #51 players on tour in these key ballstriking stats: her composite average is 76.2% driving accuracy (Angela Stanford), 67.2% GIR (Natalie Gulbis). Even the #75 players (73.9% DA [Eun-Hee Ji], 64.6% GIR [Mollie Fankhauser and Jeehae Lee]) and #100 players (71.1% DA [Juli Inkster], 62.5% GIR [Hee-Won Han, Minea Blomqvist, Angela Oh, Marcy Hart]) aren't all that much wilder off the tee than the #51 player and even though a fairly significant gap opens up between them when it comes to hitting greens, they are all still light-years ahead of me. After all, how realistic would it be for me to average 10 greens in regulation this year? My career average is 7.36 GIR (or 40.9%) and in my best 2 seasons I averaged 9.33 (or 51.8%) in 3 rounds in 2009 and 9.26 (or 51.4%) in 35 rounds in 2010. If I'm hitting half my greens in regulation on a given day, I'm pretty happy. If an LPGAer is, she's fuming.
How about short game? This is where pros, who practice this at least as much as their long game and tons more than virtually all elite amateurs do, have even more of an advantage. Let's look at the numbers: the 51st-ranked LPGAer averages 1.82 putts per green in regulation, the 75th 1.84 PPGIR, and the 100th 1.86 PPGIR. My average from 1994-2010 is 1.91 PPGIR, but I've only had 2 seasons where I've gotten under 1.90 (1.857 in 2009 and 1.887 in 1994). And I may have just gotten lucky those years, as I only got out 3 times in '09 and 9.5 times in '94. All of which makes this season, where I've already played 12 times, pretty amazing by my standards: so far I'm averaging 1.847 PPGIR (which would put me around 85th on the LPGA this season). My total putting is also way down from my career average (31.74 putts per round) this season--all the way to 30.16 PPR--as you'd expect when I'm hitting so few greens, but not nearly what I need to get my handicap moving in the right direction, mostly due to terrible chipping and pitching. So my career-best putting average would have put me around 80th on the LPGA last season but only about 100th this season. My overall career averages would once again put me at 150th or worse in both putting stats in pretty much any year you cared to check.
So it's not just that my career scoring average is 79.68, I've averaged under 78 in only 3 years (76.67 in 3 rounds in 2009, 77.23 in 82 rounds in 2002, and 77.64 in 49.5 rounds in 2003), and in this spring's soaking-wet conditions I've ballooned to 81.33 (the 4th-worst of my career), it's also that I've lost the ability to go low. Sure, I shot that 1 bogey-free 33 my 1st time playing the front at Harvest Hill, but I've shot 38 or better only a quarter of my 9s this year and 40 or better only half of them (compared to career averages of .330 and .594)--and not on Harvest Hill's back 9, either. Yesterday's experiment with a yellow Srixon ball at Hamburg was a perfect example of where I'm losing shots: despite hitting only 4 of 7 fairways and 4 greens in regulation, I was on the fringe 3 times (always on the wrong side of the green from the pin!) and even though I had my favorite club in my hands I took 3 putts to get the ball in the hole each time, which turned a 35 into a 38. You think I could afford that kind of sloppiness against any LPGA pro?
Just How Well Do 6 Handicaps' Games Travel?
My lag-putting problems with a new ball (to me) aside, I'm actually a pretty good putter on courses I'm familiar with, but even then I'm not getting my approach shots nearly as close to the pin as the pros, nor are my pitches and chips getting as close on average, so it's going to take improvements in both my overall ballstriking and my recovery shots around the green to take better advantage of my putting skills. To give one example of how costly the latter problem is, I'd be playing Oak Hill in July if I could have managed to have even a mediocre day with my run shots at Caledonia; what was usually a strength of my game became a huge liability because I simply couldn't adjust to the speed, undulations, and hardness of the greens on a new course to me. Even though I was right around almost every green--and 2 of the 3 par 5s on the back in 2--I bogeyed every single hole whose green I missed, failed to birdie either par 5 I was chipping for eagle on, and, to add insult to injury, even 3-putted a short par 4 after blowing a makeable birdie putt 7 feet past the cup (just as I had on the front!).
But where the way my weaknesses compound each other becomes most visible is in how few birdies I average per round: 1.31 for my career, 1.63 last season, and so far 1.58 this season. To even get into the top 150 on the LPGA this year, I'd need to improve my average to 2 birdies per round, a mark I've exceeded only once in my entire career (in that fluky 2009 season). But if I'm going to beat an LPGAer, I'm going to have to make at least a few birdies in a round. How likely is that, when I've only made 3 birdies in a row 4 times in my life, had 5 4-birdie 9s in my career, and 3 5-birdie rounds, 21 4-birdie rounds, and 46 3-birdie rounds out of the 762.5 I've recorded since 1987 (for a rate of 9.2% of my rounds with 3 birdies or more)? Basically that would mean I'd have at most 2 real chances to win out of 20 tries!
Now I hear you thinking, "so Johnson was actually being too harsh on himself--he actually has about a 10% chance of winning any given day!" The key problems with that logic, of course, are that 1st, in many of those rounds I failed to break 80, and 2nd, the courses I'm familiar with usually feature much slower (hence easier) and bumpier (hence more difficult) greens than the LPGA plays. Nor do I typically have to deal with travel, different courses every week, different conditions every day, and tournament pressure, not to mention the pressure of playing golf for a living against players at least as good and often a lot better than you are, rather than just as a fun supplement to the worlds of work and family. I found in college golf that my tournament scoring average tended to be a few shots higher than my summer scoring average. That was partly due to playing in colder (and generally worse) weather in the fall and spring, partly due to tournament pressure, and partly due to playing courses that were more difficult and less familiar to me than my home courses. Even when you're used to it, as I was in college, the pressure of competition interacts in interesting ways with other factors, and it's more often than not to your detriment.
So how would my game hold up under the pressure of being in position to beat a pro? Well, consider my last 3 tournaments: I shot a 79 last July in the Utica City Amateur with 10 greens in regulation, 36 putts, and 2 birdies at Valley View to miss the cut; I shot an 80 in the NYSGA Mid-Amateur qualifier last August with 8 greens in regulation, 31 putts, and no birdies at Edison Country Club; and I shot an 80 in the NYSGA Men's Am qualifier last week with 10 greens in regulation, 33 putts, and 1 birdie at Caledonia Country Club. My scoring average for those 3 rounds was therefore 79.67 (right at my career average through 2009 of 79.68!) and I averaged 9.33 GIR (way better than my 7.36 career average), but I averaged 33.33 PPR (well above my 31.74 career average), 2.231 PPGIR (compared to a career average of 1.946), and 1 birdie per round (compared to a career average of 1.31 BPR). If my short game has brought me that far down of late against some good but mostly halfway-decent amateurs in those fields, how would it hold up against a professional, particularly in the very few rounds I'd be playing well enough to actually hold my own with her?
Now Put the Shoe on the Other Foot
More to the point, how much better would a female professional from the toughest tour in women's golf play absent all those factors that tend to drive scores and scoring averages up? How would she do facing the same course and weather conditions as I was facing on a given day? (I'll bet that 90% of the time an LPGAer fails to break 75, she's faced some combination of wind and/or rain that would tend to drive moderately-skilled amateurs' scores over 85.) How much better than her norms on tour would she do with the pressure off, and how much would that add to the advantage she'd have already gained by a 6 handicapper's being under more pressure than he's used to?
Let's take an example of a player I know and have played with (albeit decades ago). Moira Dunn, who's currently at #99 on the LPGA money list, was shooting a 4-birdie 70 at Panther Creek (and going 11 for 14 in fairways and 14 for 18 in greens) the very same day I failed to even break 80 at Caledonia. So how low might she have gone if we had been playing the same course? I may have finally caught up to her in driving distance--and may even be able to outdrive her now at times, even if that 240-yard average on the 2 hole they measure may well be deceiving--but even though she's been struggling to keep her LPGA card for years now, she did 10 shots better than me on a 6750-yard course (whereas the NYSGA took us back to the tips and extended Caledonia to maybe 6700 yards) under a lot more serious pressure than I was dealing with. Moreover, even though Panther Creek is notoriously wide open, its rough was much tougher than Caledonia's, so I'm sure the 3 fairways I missed badly enough to invoke tree trouble added to my score in ways similar to Moira's 3 missed fairways, so I don't think Caledonia's tightness would have given her problems the way playing an LPGA venue would have presented to me. Either place we played, I would have been at a huge disadvantage that day.
And any day we'd happen to tee it up together. I wouldn't put my odds of beating her at 5%--I'd put them at 1%. Yup, I figure I'd need 100 tries to take her down once--and probably more.
Let the Games Begin
For the competition to be fair, we'd need to start by playing 4 rounds each on 5 different courses, all of them unfamiliar to both of us, right? Who do you think would handle this better--someone whose job it is to figure out how to size up a new course every week and how to improve her scores as she gets to know it better like Moira, or someone like E. Michael Johnson or me? Obviously Moira, right? Some days she'd kill us, some days she'd just beat us, and every once in a while she'd have some real competition from 1 of us. Where I differ from Johnson is in my sense of how few times that last condition would actually occur and how well we'd perform when our great play and/or Moira's terrible play opens the door for us that little crack. I don't see any way either of us beats her in those 40 head-to-head competitions. I'm wondering how many 6800-yard courses we actually have to play 4 rounds on before her winning streak ends. 10? 15? 20?