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Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Rant About Golfers and Numbers

Most of us have some difficulties when it comes to numbers. These problems can be as simple as adding two numbers in your head, or as complex as the interpretation of several interrelated statistics. And this can present a real problem for the average golfer.

What I'm p*ssed off about is how much incorrect data is thrown out in golf infomercials and during TV broadcasts. The problem is that much of this incorrect information makes a product look better than it really is. I'm not saying that the advertisers are intentionally trying to mislead us. But before we spend lots of money on their products, shouldn't we question why knowledgeable companies can't even present their own figures accurately?

Let me give you an idea of what I mean. I don't mean to pick on the Medicus people, it's just that I saw one of their ads today and it finally caused me to write this post. They certainly aren't the only ones guilty of the things I mention here.

The ad in question was for the Medicus Dual-Hinge™ Driver. At one point in the ad, 4 casual players are gathered to hit drives. Each hits 5 balls -- a total of 20 balls -- and only 4 end up in the fairway. The players then spend a few minutes working with the Medicus before trying again. This time they hit 12 balls in the fairway. So far, so good.

Now the ad emphatically proclaims a 300% increase in accuracy... and this is 100% INCORRECT!

For those of you who struggle with numbers, here's a basic lesson in percentages. Heck, first let me give you a basic lesson in common sense, which actually helps you understand numbers. I'll make this a simple yes or no question:
Let's say you tried to hit some balls into the fairway and you got 1 ball -- just 1 -- in the fairway. Now you go back out and try again... and again you only get 1 ball in the fairway. Yes or no -- did you improve?
Clearly the answer is no, you didn't improve. In percentages, you had a 0% improvement.

Now go back to the ad. Our players put 4 balls in the fairway the first time. When they go out the second time, the first 4 balls they hit in the fairway represent no improvement at all. The second 4 balls -- which brings the total in the fairway to 8 -- is a 100% improvement. (Think of it this way: The first 4 balls matched their initial effort  -- so that's not an improvement -- and then hit 4 extra balls in the fairway, which is 100% more than they did the first time.) And so the final 4 balls -- bringing the total to 12 -- therefore makes it a 200% improvement. That 300% figure is totally wrong!

Why is this a big deal? Because it makes the improvement sound more impressive than it is. The group really did make a sizable improvement, although I'd be interested to know if they could repeat that performance with another 20 balls or whether this was just one of the better results they got during their testing.

And I think that's a fair question. If you go to their website and check out the Medicus Science page, you'll find this statement:
"Three quarters of the test group gained additional swing speed, with a full third of the overall group realizing a dramatic increase. Joanne Gruskin increased her average swing speed from 53.4 to 63 mph."
I have no reason to doubt that this information is correct, and I don't want to give you the impression that I do. What I question is how the numbers are presented. Gruskin's speed improvement truly is dramatic -- almost an 18% increase -- but the golfer whose numbers they chose to highlight swung at a speed 15-25mph slower than most amateurs. It makes sense that the most dramatic increases will be made by the players with the slowest initial swing speeds.

But most buyers won't consider that, will they? It's not human nature. Rather, they'll see the possibility of an 18% increase, which may be a misleading expectation if they start with a decent swing speed.

My point is that Medicus is a reputable company. If they're presenting their numbers in a way that might be construed as slightly misleading, how many other companies do the same? And when some of those numbers are blatantly wrong, as with that 300% figure, it's more important than ever for golfers to scrutinize the vast array of numbers presented to them on a daily basis.

The old Latin phrase "caveat emptor" -- you may know it better as "let the buyer beware" -- is more important than ever.

Ok, I guess I've got that out of my system now... no, wait, there's one more thing. I'm really tired of seeing balls "horseshoe" around a hole and hearing the announcers call it a 360. When the ball lips out and comes back at you, that's a 180.

But will they ever get that one right? Don't count on it.

2 comments:

  1. Mike, are you becoming a conspiracy theorist? Anyway to quote Mark Twain, "There's lies, damned lies and statistics". Or my other favourite from Vic Reeves (British Comedian) "88% of all statistics are made up on the spot". Your rant is very familiar. "The Wedge Guy" on oobgolf is always attacking the industry about their stats - especially performance improvement figures. Pretty refreshing considering his history (according to his blog) is one of a club designer.

    Really it is the marketing and sales people that come up with this manipulation of the facts ("spin" as it's known in these parts). My brother has this maxim - never trust a salesperson because the clue is in the name - they want to sell you something.

    My personal ad-man favourite is "these irons will have you hitting the ball 10 yards further than your old clubs". Of course they will if they give you a 5-iron that is labelled as a 6-iron.

    Anyway. I don't doubt that there have been some technological advances in golf but ultimately we're still hitting a bit of rubber with a slab of steel and I don't think there have been any major updates on that front in the last 100 years.

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  2. Nope, JB, not a conspiracy theorist... yet. ;-)

    I'm just bummed out that we keep making the same stupid mistakes with numbers over and over. It's not just the spin that salespeople give the numbers. That 300% error and the 360 error are just silly mistakes that make us sound like idiots.

    And I agree wholeheartedly with you about "technological breakthroughs" in the game. Most people don't realize how much a few degrees and a half-inch of shaft can alter a club. When I started playing golf back in the '80s, my favorite club was my 5-wood -- a 21° club. Nowadays, a 21° club is a 7-wood and its shaft is one-half to a full inch longer. That means today's 7-wood hits the ball almost as far as the 4-wood of the '80s.

    Two years ago I wrote a post called "Could Bobby Jones Have 'Cut It' Against Today's Pros?":

    http://www.ruthlessgolf.com/2009/09/could-bobby-jones-have-cut-it-against.html

    and in it I documented a club Jones built in the early 1920s that he could hit as far as 340 yards. The design sounds like a modern deep-faced driver and he built it from persimmon. The ball was a standard ball of the times.

    Apparently technology hasn't helped us as much as fitness training has. ;-)

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