Get the feeling sometimes that weather forecasters are conspiring to keep us off the golf course?
Larry David thinks so.
David, the man who created the iconic Seinfeld TV series, put forth a conspiracy theory about this topic on his show Curb Your Enthusiasm: The local weatherman intentionally predicts rain so he can have the golf course to himself.
While that is stretching it a bit, there is a dark secret, a documented phenomenon, in weather forecasting. Its devastating impact on participation in outdoor activities such as golf is terrifying.
It is the dastardly “wet bias.”
Well known within the forecasting fraternity for years, it was publicly outed in Nate Silver’s 2012 book The Signal and The Noise.
“This phenomenon is commonly known as a ‘wet bias’, where weather forecasters will err toward predicting more rain than there really is. After all, we all take notice when forecasters say there won’t be rain and it ends up raining but when they predict rain and it ends up not raining, we’ll shrug it off and count ourselves lucky. The worst part is the performance of local TV meteorologists. These guys consistently over-predict rain so much that it’s difficult to place much confidence in their forecasts at all.”
Since 1998, Jeff Hutcheson has been a gregarious and peripatetic mainstay of CTV’s Canada AM crew. He’s a longtime avid golfer and while he can regularly be seen describing the national forecast to viewers across the country on weekday mornings, he is quick to point out he is not a meteorologist at all, much less a member of Silver’s despised “local TV” species. He’s a “presenter,” so don’t shoot the messenger, he pleads.
Unlike the fictional weatherman on Curb Your Enthusiasm (“I assure you I have never intentionally predicted rain so I could have the course to myself,” he says), Hutcheson wants to see full tee sheets, especially on tourism-dependent Prince Edward Island where he now lives.
“One of the major problems is that people don’t realize that each little area can be its own eco-system,” he says. “For example, in P.E.I., if it’s raining in Charlottetown, it might be sunny in Cavendish [about 40 kilometres away] where they are thinking about going to golf, but they won’t go because they think it’s raining there, too. You can’t look at the regional forecast and believe that applies to every place within that region.” Hutcheson says most forecasts (prominently including those “local TV” talking heads) are necessarily generalized because of time constraints and people should visit the Environment Canada web site for more detailed information. (Canada AM gets its meteorological data from Environment Canada.)
Chris Scott, who most definitely is a meteorologist, agrees with Hutcheson. Scott, chief meteorologist for The Weather Network, fudges a bit when asked about the existence of the infamous wet bias, but understands the frustrations of golfers and golf courses when it comes to weather forecasts.
He wants us to understand there are frustrations among his colleagues as well. “The science of weather is as complex as any science out there, but we all ‘live’ the weather. We don’t ‘live’ nuclear physics. In general, people won’t make the effort to dig down for the specific details. They want a yes or no answer. Will it rain or won’t it? The weather is full of probabilities, chances, risk. As forecasters, we have to do a better job of communicating to the public.”
To that end, Scott has met with representatives from the National Golf Course Owners Association (NGCOA) Canada. “We are always evaluating the way we present the weather and trying to educate the public on how to better identify what the forecast is for their specific location. We want to be as helpful and reliable as we possibly can be.”
Many in the golf industry see this from a totally different perspective.
“We keep asking local radio stations to present the weather in a more positive way,” says Mary-Pat Quilty, Director of Golf at Settlers’ Ghost Golf Club, located in one of Canada’s most popular tourist regions just outside Barrie, Ont. “If there’s a 30-per-cent chance it will rain, there’s a 70-per-cent chance it won’t, but all people hear is the word ‘rain.’” The reliability of five-day forecasts is questionable (and empirical data concurs), she says, but a negative forecast early in the week translates into a spotty tee sheet and significant loss of prime-time revenue on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. “The impact of that forecast, not just on golf courses, but on every tourism-based business, is enormous,” Quilty says. Especially during our all-too-brief Canadian golf season.
“Radar Rob” concurs with Quilty. In real life, he is Rob Howell, General Manager of the Metcalfe Golf Club near Ottawa. His alter ego (@RadarRob1 on Twitter) was borne out of his belief he could more accurately predict the weather than local forecasters. Perusing local radar, he soon proved his point and customers were calling the course for his opinion over that of the “official” prognosticators. YouTube videos and even a challenge to the local forecasters that involved the loser playing golf in some fancy underwear followed. (You can read about it here.)
“Radar Rob began to track the weatherman’s forecast against his forecast, the actual conditions and revenue,” Howell wrote in an article in Golf Business magazine. “The results were staggering. Over a five-day period in May  where we only received 1 mm of rain, our revenue dropped by over 50 per cent on the three days the forecast was incorrect.” Howell’s, er, Radar Rob’s predictions for those same five days were almost spot on.
In the spring of 2014, Howell writes, “Ottawa went through a stretch of the worst weather forecasting I have ever seen. For example, on Friday, May 9, in Ottawa, it was 26 degrees and sunny. However, the forecast was for showers and thundershowers. That day, Metcalfe had 34 paid green fees; other courses in the city reported four, eight and even zero paid rounds.”
NGCOA Canada hears Quilty and Howell and their weather-sensitive peers in the golf industry loud and clear. Their new Weather Position Statement has four major objectives:
- To minimize the detrimental effect of weather forecasts on golf rounds played.
- To encourage weather forecasting agencies and media to provide golf-specific forecasts within their general weather forecasts.
- To support NGCOA Canada golf courses with credible consultation that assists their communications with local media and golfers.
- To increase golfer awareness of the true realities of weather impact on their golf.
To that end, the NGCOA has some recommendations for media reporting on the weather. These include:
- Probability of precipitation should be expressed as a positive percentage rather than negative, i.e., “70-per-cent chance of no rain” instead of “30-per-cent chance of rain”.
- Precipitation should be expressed with start and stop times; i.e., “the chance of rain will be until 10 a.m., no rain forecasted for the rest of the day.”
- Intensity of precipitation should be related to golfer impact; i.e., “chance of light rain shouldn’t interfere with your golf game.”
- Coverage of precipitation should be related to golfer impact; i.e., “isolated showers should miss most golf courses.”
- All visual media should display more positive graphics icons; i.e., partly sunny with over 50-per-cent chance of no rain should display large sun, small cloud, no rain drops.
- Golf forecasts should be restricted to 24-hour lead time, to maintain high accuracy.
- Web and mobile distribution should be geo-positioned to provide very localized one-kilometre grids for golf forecasts, generating unique weather for every golf course.
- All forecasts should be updated no less frequently than hourly.
In the final analysis, predicting the weather is a complicated and inexact science. Despite all their education and experience, forecasters remain at the mercy of a capricious, cruel and, often, unpredictable master. They are also at the mercy of an impatient and less than understanding audience. Golfers may not want to hear this, but a large part of the onus is on us to do our homework, not just look at the “probability of precipitation” percentage or some cartoonish icon.
Some thoughts from
Here are some tips from Craig Loughry, Golf Canada’s Director of Course Rating and Handicapping, a true all-season golfer
- Think local to where you are playing, not where you live. Many golfers drive 40 to 50 kilometres to play and the weather can certainly be different.
- If the forecast says there’s an 80-per-cent chance of rain, check the amount of precipitation expected. If it’s one to five millimetres, real golfers shouldn’t care. That’s a light shower, a softening of the greens, thank you!
- Dress appropriately. New high-tech gear allows you to enjoy golf in cold, heat, or rain. For example, this year adidas has introduced a three-layer concept to cover most eventualities: a “climachill” shirt with woven titanium fibres that draw heat away from the body for ventilation and evaporation of sweat for cooling comfort and small aluminum dots on the back of the neck create an instant cooling sensation against skin; a “climaheat” pullover with fabric that insulates heat generated by the golfer’s body and traps it within the hollow fibres to deliver sustained warmth, without restricting movement; and a “climaproof” jacket designed to withstand the roughest elements without sacrificing flexibility, comfort and range of motion during play.
- Check radar and look at the pattern of flow.
- Check hour-by-hour forecasts.
There are some great apps, says Loughry, like Weather Underground and MyRadar. If you’re going “old school” on your desktop, he suggests Environment Canada.
The Weather Network has also come out with a couple of helpful additions: their start-stop precipitation app and videos on their web site www.theweathernetwork.com in which meteorologists explain how to better interpret the weather probabilities in your specific area.