Luck vs. skill in golf

One of my econ professors from Northwestern, Jeff Ely (Econ 380-1 Winter quarter 2003 – I have no idea how I remembered the course number but I do), has a pretty fun blog that I highly recommend if you’re into that kind of thing. Strangely enough, this post from earlier today is very much in the spirit of what I’ve been thinking about recently.

Now there is certainly some role for luck in golf, and it’s actually potentially able to be calculated: it would be “lucky” for a tournament winner if his competitors finished with worse scores than they would have been expected to finish with (taking into account weather/injury, etc.) entering the tournament.

However, on an individual level I cannot see there being a great deal of luck over the course of an entire tournament. Luck would involve shots ending up in better position than would be expected given the velocity/spin/trajectory which the golfer put on the ball. Examples of this would be getting a perfect lie when hitting it into the rough, hitting the pin instead of racing past the hole, or bouncing the ball over a bunker.

Luck is certainly not the residual of some estimate of overall skill. Over the course of a tournament, some players are going to outperform their ability while others will underperform – that’s just what happens over a 72 hole sample of golf. But assuming no flukey balls or silly penalties for not realizing you’re in a bunker, it’s pretty likely that the guy who wins the tournament actually played the best golf over the course of the tournament.

So is drawing a favorable sampling distribution luck? I don’t think so – you get the outcome you deserve given your own personal contributions over that time period. To bring this back to baseball, I’d say that a Yuniesky Betancourt line drive up the middle for a single is not luck – it’s just a low-probability outcome of him showing considerable skill. If the shortstop makes a diving stop and throws him out on the same ball that’s in fact bad luck for Betancourt, despite the very low ex-ante probability of him getting a hit in the first place.

I’ll certainly take a look through that paper at some point, but just at first glance I think I have to agree with my trusted professor (and not just because he gave me an A).