Inside Track

A Duffer’s Data Deluge

A Duffer’s Data Deluge

By Eric P. Harding

I recently took up golf. I’ve never been much for sports; my favorite part of T-ball was the trip to Dairy Queen afterward. But I decided to lean into the middle-age suburban stereotype, and I got a set of clubs for a recent birthday.

Golf, it turns out, combines a few of my favorite things: competition, nature, and gear. Yes, golf equipment, that cottage industry that offers up the grateful answer to many a befuddled Father’s Day query—a special thank you to my family for my putting mat; my days of four-putting are soon to be behind me, I’m sure—how I love obsessing over the possibility of new toys. Specialty clubs, accessories, even tees—I suddenly had research to do on everything associated with the game of golf … never mind the fact that I had never swung a club before.

After a few trips to the driving range during which I didn’t completely embarrass myself, I scheduled a tee time with some friends for the following weekend. Real golf on a real course! I realized that I’d need some golf balls for the outing. So naturally, I went to the internet to research the best ball to buy.

I found a site that looked promising. It took about two dozen of the top balls from major manufacturers and direct-to-­consumer internet darlings alike and put them through the wringer: robot-struck flight tests with a driver, seven-iron, and wedge, with data on distance, dispersion, and spin rate. And the graphs. Ye gods, the graphs! This site had all the data you could ask for. I dove in.

And quickly found myself in over my head.

I was looking for One Ball to Rule Them All; what I found instead was a loose association between price and performance—and even that broke down between clubs. The more I tried to parse the spin rate of the wedge of BigBall Soft vs. DTC Extra Hot—vs. the dispersion with the driver—the more confused I got. The ball that crushed the distance test with the driver came up in the middle of the pack on the seven-iron dispersion graph. I was lost … and what’s more, I didn’t know which golf ball to buy.

It turned out that more data wasn’t the answer for me here. I’d have to just pick a ball and go with it.

In the end, I bought some orange balls. Because I like the color orange. As a bonus, they’re easy to find in the rough.

This issue’s features deal with data—how and when to use it, and how to know when not to.

In “Eat Your Numbers,” author Nate Worrell applies his rigorous actuarial background to the sometimes confusing world of nutrition science. He posits that actuaries—with their data-first approach to problems—are in a unique position to help find signal amid the noise. This lighthearted but substantive “five-course meal” of a feature will have you believing that actuaries could have a role to play in our dietary decision-making processes.

Rx: Big Data?” stipulates that Big Data and its insights have in many cases led to improved decision-making. But is more data always the answer? To what extent should we rely on sophisticated data analysis to make decisions—and specifically in a health context, when is data the answer, and when do we need a more qualitative approach?

Elsewhere in this issue, Contingencies is pleased to note the return of author Dan Skwire, with a review of Casey Cep’s Furious Hours. A gripping tale of Harper Lee’s unwritten novel, Cep turns writer’s block into high true-crime drama—and Skwire teases out the actuarial angle for our readers.

Thank you, as always, for reading. If you need me, I’ll be working on my short game.

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