Unless you're Tiger Woods, your golf handicap may actually be holding you back. Indeed, although the U.S. Golf Association's handicap system is designed to put players of different skill on equal footing, a new analysis shows that the rules favor the better player. Lawrence L. Kupper and colleagues at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill used theoretical statistics and reams of score data to reveal the bias, which gives better golfers a 60 to 70 percent chance of winning. Their study will appear in the February 2001 issue of Chance, a publication of the American Statistical Association.

"We're not the first to suspect or to claim that the current USGA system is biased in favor of the better of two golfers," Kupper, an avid golfer himself, notes, "but we are the first to look closely at the variability in a golfer's scores and to analytically consider its impact on the handicap system." The researchers reviewed scores from 190 golfers, confirming that poor players are far more inconsistent. "The USGA system uses only the lowest 10 of a golfer's last 20 adjusted scores for handicap purposes," Kupper says. "This means that the poorer golfer gets a handicap that is less representative of how he typically plays than does the better golfer. So if my handicap is six and yours is 18, I could give you 12 strokes and still win roughly two out of three matches." To make tournaments more fair, the researchers suggest players of roughly similar ability be grouped first in "flights".