April 18, 2012

How good is the best woman at golf?

A decade ago, Annika Sorenstam was doing a lot of weightlifting*, and pulled away from other women golfers, becoming probably the best woman golfer ever for a few years. So, she entered the men's PGA tournament at Colonial in 2003 to a din of publicity. In the weeks leading up to that event, I collected a ton of data on the difficulty ratings of the courses that the PGA and LPGA play to provide an objective metric, and I announced:
So, I predict that if Sorenstam plays this week the way she's played in the rest of 2003, she'll miss the cut by four strokes.

And that's exactly what happened: she missed the cut to play on the weekend by four strokes. Out of 113 entrants, she outperformed 13 men, tied four, and finished behind 93. A highly respectable performance, but not up to Phil Mickelson's prediction (that she'd finish 20th -- although I'm guessing that was gamesmanship on the part of Phil, who is a sly devil) or Thomas Boswell's assertion that if she played the PGA regularly, she'd make the cut half the time and win a couple of events during her career. But, she beat the Vegas over-under line by eight strokes over two rounds. 

Of course, I was very lucky that she played in those two rounds about as well as she had been playing all year. Still, it was a pretty level-headed prediction. Sorenstam seems to have felt she'd given it a good shot, and didn't try it again.

I wanted to bring this up because prediction is widely recognized as crucial to science. On the other hand, one of my two or three most important contributions to the philosophy science is the idea that people tend to be more interested in those future events that are hardest to predict: e.g., will this stock outperform the market?  When thinking about the kind of things that people get most fascinated by, such as which NFL teams will beat the point spread on Sunday, the phrase "dart-throwing monkey" comes to mind. In contrast, most of the things that are pretty predictable, like test scores for large groups, bring to mind the phrase "boring and depressing."

In contrast, Sorenstam's entrance in that PGA tournament was the kind of novel event that is interesting to predict as a test of one's model of the world and struck the public, briefly, as not boring and depressing.

* By the way, I was attacked by the SPLC for noticing that Sorenstam, at her peak, had bulked up from weightlifting:
Sailer's website is rife with primitive stereotypes. On it, Sailer mocks professional golfer Annika Sorenstam for having well-developed muscles ...

What I actually said in my prediction article was, in the course of comparing her scoring proficiency to that of Corey Pavin:
Pavin is listed at 5'-9" and 155 pounds. The 32-year-old Sorenstam is 5'-6". She used to be listed at 130 pounds, but has clearly added a lot of muscle mass over the last two years. Now, she has that distinctive characteristic of a bodybuilder: her forearms no longer hang down along her sides because her upper arms are so muscular. Think of how Saturday Night Live's Dana Carvey and Kevin Nelon held their arms away from their sides while playing Hans and Franz, their Schwarzenegger-type "Ve vill pump you up!" muscle heads. (No doubt some male pros think she's been augmenting her weightlifting with steroids or human growth hormone, but there's no specific evidence for that at all.)

Noticing things is evil.


Anonymous said...

There are some sexy girls on tour these days

Anonymous said...

Michelle Wie shooting at 68 at a PGA event when she was 14 is such a statistical outlier that it remains almost incomprehensible.


She outplayed Ernie Els, then in world's top five, after practicing with him.

Ex Submarine Officer said...

This is totally off-topic, but I'm wondering if Steve can come up w/a good answer, this sort of question seems right up his alley.

Every US President from Kennedy to Bush I, w/the exception of Reagan (and he was in "Hellcats of the Navy", ha!), was a former naval officer.

Other than this nearly unbroken run over 3 decades, though, no other President has been in the Navy.

The odds of this being totally random seem astronomical, there has to be some underlying social/cultural explanation.

Anonymous said...

PGA golfers have two great skills, they hit the ball extremely long and straight on a consistent basis and they putt incredibly well.

Anna could hit the ball long enough, but she couldn't putt well enough. IOW, its hard to find men who can do both, to find a women who can do both at a Men's PGA standard is almost impossible.

Anonymous said...

A question for the HBD-sphere, is it sexist discrimination that those men who missed the PGA cut but would otherwise beat the best players of the LPGA aren't allowed to compete there?

Put yourself in the shoes of the mediocre male athlete, you can't beat the best male athletes, but you can dominate the female leagues but aren't allowed to. Think about it.

Anonymous said...

Steve, did you see David Feherty's interview of Annika on his Monday night show? She spoke at length of her decision to compete at Colonial. She said she did it to test herself against the best on a course that hosts the best. While she never said she had become bored with the LPGA tour, I gathered she had as she said it's her personality to always look for new challenges. She stressed that she was looking to learn from the men and I do believe she was being honest.

I always liked her and came away from that interview with her with an even greater respect for her.

(Still miss Nancy Lopez).

Anonymous said...

"There are some sexy girls on tour these days"

You must like Korean lesbians.

Steve Johnson said...

"Now, she has that distinctive characteristic of a bodybuilder: her forearms no longer hang down along her sides because her upper arms are so muscular"

Hypertrophied lats do this, not upper arms.

Anonymous said...

"There are some sexy girls on tour these days"

I've just recently begun watching a few LPGA events again since I now have the Golf Channnel. What I've noticed is that the tour's most talented performer of the moment, Yani Tseng, is very, very butch, and normally that wouldn't be a great thing for the LPGA, a tour still looking for today's version of a champion with the gregarious manner, the big smile, and the femininity of Nancy Lopez. (Annika, while a great golfer, was very shy and unexciting. Even her golf swing was so repetitive it was boring because she so rarely found trouble.)

However, Tseng is a real performer for the crowds, and a very gregarious presence. The galleries seem to really like her, and I am not just referring to the hoards of lesbians that attend the first major in the desert in what used to be the Dinah.

Steve Sailer said...

"Every US President from Kennedy to Bush I, w/the exception of Reagan (and he was in "Hellcats of the Navy", ha!), was a former naval officer."

During WWII, American naval officers and seamen got along better than army officers and soldiers. Perhaps there was more of an "we're all in this together feeling" in the Navy. The tension between officers and men in the Army isn't widely remembered now, but people felt it after the war.

Steve Sailer said...

"Michelle Wie shooting at 68 at a PGA event when she was 14 is such a statistical outlier that it remains almost incomprehensible."

Right, and she had some other jaw-dropping performances against grown men before the estrogen came flooding in. She may have had more amazing performances against grown men at 14-15 than Tiger Woods did. Of course, it took him longer to burn out, too.

The Anti-Gnostic said...

"Anna could hit the ball long enough, but she couldn't putt well enough."

I've read that T gives you better spatial-temporal reasoning. I've seen hackers make incredible breaks. I'd also be surprised if she could generate enough of the right kind of spin to put a good, clean draw on the ball so it runs down the fairway from a tee shot.

astorian said...

Even the most passionate feminists would probably concede that, since men tend to be larger and stronger than women, male golfers should be much better drivers than the ladies (though the occasionsl Laura Davies will come along and hit some monster drives).

But what surprises everyone is how much better men are than women at the SHORT game. It's counter-intuitive, I know, but the male golfers have a greater advantage over the women in finesse than in brute strength.

People EXPECT the men to be much stronger, but they often assume the ladies can carry out the relatively delicate acts of chipping and putting at least as well as the men.

In reality, even a muscular lady who holds her own with the men off the tees generally falls way behind due to inferior work with the irons and the putter.


Leonard said...

A question for the HBD-sphere, is it sexist discrimination that those men who missed the PGA cut but would otherwise beat the best players of the LPGA aren't allowed to compete there?

Of course it's sexist discrimination. Duh. But it's good discrimination, not bad. It creates competition where there otherwise would be none. Think of weight classes in boxing or MMA. Without them, only heavyweights would be viable, thereby reducing the total competitions to a fraction of what we have. If you allowed men into practically any women's event, it would cease to be a women's event. Note that the reverse is not true: allowing women into "men's" events (by opening them to everyone), doesn't change almost all of them at all.

Now, you might say that both men and women should have their own events, for purposes of symmetry, perhaps. On the other hand, by allowing women to compete with men, we reveal the truth of HBD to the sort of people who would otherwise deny it.

Anonymous said...

I think not playing on the the courses with the most challenging of greens might explain why the ladies don't develop the short game skills of chipping, pitching, and putting that rival those of the men.

The women who can drive the ball long and straight, use fairway woods accurately on the par 5s (and hybrids), find that those skills pay off the most on the courses they play.

These same women took up the game in childhood and adolescence and played on the same courses as boys
and played with the boys and I'd imagine, they saw early on the payoffs of distance and probably spent more time on their long games as a result.

I could be wrong about this as well, but I'd guess that the average female golfer who is a junior golfer, then a college golfer, spends less time on golf than do her male counterparts. By the time both are pro, I think the males have put in more time on their games.

Gene Berman said...

I remember that Babe Didrikson (Zaharias) dominated womens' golf "back in the day," though I knew not much about the game then (or now).

But I was briefly acquainted with Hank Wittenberg (Olympic light-heavyweight wrestling champ in '48 and 2nd in '52) and, in the course of a day spent together, he recounted that his friend, George Zaharias, had egged him to wrestle Didrikson. According to him, he had done so and confessed to being
surprised at what a "handfull" she turned out to be.

Anonymous said...

"A question for the HBD-sphere, is it sexist discrimination that those men who missed the PGA cut but would otherwise beat the best players of the LPGA aren't allowed to compete there?"

Sure, but "discriminating" is actually a positve word. It's been made negative by the pc crowd.

Can't you just see what Mike Tyson in his prime (not just MT) would have done to some bantam weight?

What's nice about competition in golf at the amateur level is the handicapping...just like in horse racing.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of Michelle Wie-I know she's about ready to graduate from Stanford but she did play recently and looked awful. Her putting was as bad as a beginner.

I do hope she gets "it" back.

Five Daarstens said...

"Steve, did you see David Feherty's interview of Annika on his Monday night show?"

That was a very good interview. I've been a long time fan of the LPGA and it has gone downhill alot in the last few years. The interview with Annika reminded me of the good days of the 90's. PS Feherty is a very good interviewer when he is not in a silly mood.

DailyKenn.com said...

I'm wondering . . .

If women may compete in men's sports, should not men be allowed to compete in women' sports?

Anonymous said...

"Noticing things is evil."

You racisss noticer!

(How much of PC and the whole multi-cult weirdness exists because people just try to be polite and not openly notice things? Like everyone at the bus stop studiously looking away from the schizophrenic screeching to himself? Society often seems to be in round-the-clock first-date mode, studiously not-noticing...)

Anonymous said...

If women may compete in men's sports, should not men be allowed to compete in women' sports?

There's mixed-doubles. Also figure skating.

jody said...

how good is the best man at competitive golf? by definition the best guy at anything is the best in the world, but it's all relative to participation rate. and that's just not very high in this sport.

now you're talking about women, who don't care about sports to begin with, and then knocking it way down to a sport that few of them play competitively. that's how koreans have come to "dominate" the game. few people were playing the game, so it was easy to get to the top, just by taking it seriously and playing in large numbers.

and yes the women cannot putt. if you watch PGA for years, then watch LPGA a few times, you'll be surprised at how badly they miss putts. you'll be left puzzled at how they are missing shots which you are accustomed to men automatically sinking.

it's like watching NCAA basketball players miss shots that you are accustomed to seeing NBA players automatically make.

jody said...

just so we can use numbers, and not guessing, here are the high school participation rates for all women's sports in the US, as measured by the national federation of state high school associations, the body that governs this stuff. for 2010-2011, the number of high school women who played each sport, in thousands of women:

475 track & field - outdoor
438 basketball
409 volleyball
373 softball - fast pitch
361 soccer
204 cross country
182 tennis
160 swimming & diving
74 lacrosse
71 golf
61 field hockey
60 track & field - indoor
30 team tennis
25 bowling
19 gymnastics
18 water polo
15 softball - slow pitch
12 badminton
9 ice hockey
8 weightlifting
7 wrestling
5 flag football
4 skiing - alpine
4 skiing - cross country
2 crew
1 fencing
1 equestrian
1 canoeing
1 football
1 rifle

press release:

source PDF with all the numbers:

obviously, these figures exclude participation in the club version of any of these sports, which, for some sports, is not a trivial omission.

jody said...

now, what can we see? first of all, track & field is king, and has been, always. the best track runners, you can generally say empirically, are the best at what they do. they are better at running fast on a track or jumping over an obstacle, than any other athletes are at whatever it is they do in their sport. and so on and so forth, on down the line.

now, there is competitive golf, all the way down at number 10. but the ordinal number, is not the number we most need. the number we most need is the absolute number, and that's about 71,000.

with participation rates of 160,000 and 182,000, we could roughly say that the best american women swimmers and tennis players, are about twice as good at what they do, as the best american women golfers are. and at 475,000, the best american track & field athletes are about 6 times as good.

now, there is certainly room for argument with that oversimplification. not all athletes are equal. a unit in activity A is not always equal to a unit in activity B. and international participation rates change this stuff a lot, for a global look at the sports situation.

but the general principle is sound. higher participation rate = the best woman in the bigger sport is better at what she does than the best woman in the smaller sport.

Anonymous said...

Gene Berman, Steve is positive that Sorenstam would beat Babe or Mickey Wright, just like Tiger would definitely dust Ben Hogan and Bobby Jones. Fitness, training, etc.

I say take Tiger and Annika and send them out with gutties and hickory and see how they do!

Anonymous said...

"If women may compete in men's sports, should not men be allowed to compete in women' sports? "

Because having it both ways is only for the winners.

Simon said...

I know I'm swimming against the tide, of political correctness and common usage, but I can't stand the word "woman" being used as an adjective.

It sounds vulgar to me. First of all it's uncouth - because it sounds ungrammatical, even if it has become acceptable. In early times people with poor grammatical skills would describe a female doctor as a "lady doctor". Now "lady" has connotations of living up to some sort of standards, and it's now unacceptable to expect that of a protected group.

Secondly, woman as an adjective sounds ugly. A "female golfer" sounds attractive and ... feminine. Woman, on the other hand, sounds blunt, and hairy legged.

I suppose stripping the language of implied standards and beauty is exactly the goal of people who insist that "woman" be used as an adjective in place of "female".

English has no Académie française (officially) besides PC. However, as you have no doubt gathered, I don't like it.

Camlost said...

And a few years ago you had a lot of idiots out there claiming that Leila Ali could become a championship fighter on the men's side.

Leila herself went on David Letterman and dismisses such talk as utter nonsense, noting that the ability to both deliver (and take) powerful punches just doesn't exist with women due to the way they're built...

Pat Boyle said...

I was surprised that women are such poor golfers compared to men. But on reflection I realized that in all my many days I have never watched a single round of women's golf.

I have watched women's tennis on occasion but never women's golf. Is it regularly broadcast?

I tried once or twice to watch women's basketball but that's a much different game and a boring one too. Women's tennis is nearly the only female sport that has broad appeal. Every four years we see female Olympic gymnasts or beach volleyball players. But no one tunes in women's sports on a random weekend.

Except for Women's Ninja Warrior.

There have been about twenty Ninja Warrior tournaments. There are four stages. The third stage emphasizes upper body strength. No woman has ever gotten to the third stage. In fact the third stage is too tough for any normal sized man. Many Olympic medalists have failed on this stage. This stage is optimized for 130 pound men with no body fat.

Only one woman has ever finished even the men's first stage. So they invented a whole different set of stages for females. These female oriented obstacles emphasize balance rather than strength. In the men's tournaments a guy will lose strength and fall in the water. The women lose their balance and fall in the water.

Traditional sports emphasizes male characteristics. Women look ridiculous boxing or throwing a ball. If we must have female sports they should be sports invented specifically for women like Women of Ninja Warrior.

Truth said...

"If women may compete in men's sports, should not men be allowed to compete in women' sports?"

No, because women don't "compete" in men's sports, they "enter" men's sports; and if men "competed" in women's sports there would be no more women's sports.

Anonymous said...

"Feherty is a very good interviewer when he is not in a silly mood."

Yes, but notice he has to fight hard to not act silly; there were times even in this interview with Annika that he asked her a question, then mugged for the camera, causing her, as it has other interview subjects, to stop her answer while he managed to turn the attention to himself.

He's a talented guy, but I wish he'd reign in himself a bit. I think his interview with Sergio was the best, for Garcia was at ease the entire time, perhaps a first for Sergio!

dave said...

I am increasingly convinced that a key aspect to many elite sports is exact repitition of a complex muscle movement -- like a golf swing, baseball pitch, tennis serve, olympic dive, etc, etc.

And there seems to be variance btw racial groups on this skill with east asians and northern europeans seeming to have greater ability at the upper end of the bell curve.

This is separate from strength and explosive power. It's precision muscle movement that is repeated as close as possible to exactly the same each time.

The more repeatable a swing or pitch is ... the better you can control and correct for errors.

If you have large amounts of random error in your golf swing, it's much harder to fix any problems.

East asians seem well-suited to golf and baseball, for example. For the men, the lack of overall and upper body muscle mass puts east asians at a disadvantage to white men. But for women there isn't the same muscle mass gap. Whereas blacks seem to lack the precision necessary for golf, despite having the power.

In baseball, east asians are hurt again by their lack of power, but clearly otherwise are very well suited to the sport.

The top Japanese superstars are able to succeed in the US, but there seem to be many, many Japanese players who just come up short on the power side to make it in MLB.

Anonymous said...

Annika was clearly bulked up when I saw her on the tele last. Serena/Venus-esque.

Anonymous said...

"and if men "competed" in women's sports there would be no more women's sports. "


Anonymous said...

"Traditional sports emphasizes male characteristics. "

which makes it all the more confusing why independent and strong women would blindly follow in men's footsteps.

Londoner said...

Women insist on equal pay in tennis. i don't have a problem with that, but they have to earn it, i.e. enter the same draw as the men and play male opponents. tennis is a non-contact sport. so they are not in danger of being injured by their male opponents - hey, they already do compete against men in doubles tournaments. The golfers do it. So what are the tennis players afraid of (other than the fact that the 500th ranked man could probably beat the no. 1 woman easily, of course)?

Tschafer said...

My dad was an enlisted man in WWII. Was very impressed by some of his officers, deeply disliked some others. I always got the impression that the quality of Army officers was pretty inconsistent in WWII, with some excellent officers, and a few utterly dyfunctional. Maybe the Navy, because it was somewhat smaller, could institute better quality control. Diffcult to say, but it is interesting that we had that "run" of Naval officers in the presidency...

Williamson said...

Women should be paid equally in tennis if their gate draw and endorsement value is equal to the men, since professional sports is only a profession because people pay to see it and buy stuff that pros endorse. Not on whether they are equal to men physically. I'm pretty sure David Lee Roth could beat up Pat Benatar, but music isn't a boxing match.

At any rate, the Navy had some pretty inept officers in WWII. The guy who played Dr.Marcus Welby caused a shipwreck as I recall. L. Ron Hubbard was notoriously inept as his evaluations, widely available on the internet, show. And I had a great-uncle who held the now-disused rank of Commandore who was responsible for a purchasing debacle that got him court martialed for corruption. He wasn't dishonest, only so monumentally stupid that they assumed it had to be an inside job. It wasn't, and he was acquitted. Rather than admit they'd made him a senior officer, a special office was created for him and he was given harmless makework until he retired at full pension.