Changing the Game: Comparing Cross-Conference Scores in Collegiate Golf

TEEING UP THE RESEARCH QUESTION

When Jan Jedlička was first looking into attending college in the United States, he was initially disappointed that he didn’t get any offers from Division I schools.

“When I didn’t get offers from DI schools, I wasn’t sure if going to a smaller school would provide the opportunities that I was hoping to find,” Jan explains. Hailing from the Czech Republic, Jan decided to come to the States to play collegiate golf and study sports management. He ended up choosing Missouri Valley College for his undergraduate degree and was pleasantly surprised by his experience. “Luckily for me, a smaller school did provide those opportunities, both from an athletic and academic perspective.”

From this personal experience, Jan began to question the perceptions of Division I versus Division II and III schools for collegiate athletics, which in turn formed the research question for his honor’s contract project.

As part of the honor’s program at Missouri Valley College, Jan was expected to complete an honor’s contract, which requires students to take two additional contract honor’s courses in their major and perform additional research for an honor’s project. Jan decided to perform additional research in a contracted business statistics course. 

“Since high school I have been into math, numbers, and statistics, so I thought it would be a fun opportunity,” Jan explains. Once he and his professor began to talk through ideas on what data analysis project he could conduct, the questions around athletic conferences and divisions surfaced again. Jan wondered about the difference in scores between the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) golf teams and the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) teams. As a student athlete in the NAIA, Jan had his theories but wanted to see what story the data told. 

“I wanted to see if there was some sort of measurable improvement in the players in the NAIA and how that compares to similar progress in the NCAA,” Jan says of his initial research question. There was very little research comparing the caliber of players in the two conferences, and Jan saw the opportunity to uncover possible misperceptions around the expectations of conference players. 

DRIVING FOR A SURPRISING ANSWER

The first challenge Jan faced, however, was trying to collect all the data. While some websites and organizations do collect golf stats for collegiate players, most of the information wasn’t readily available to Jan. Instead, he had to get creative on manually collecting data and finding a way to get the best sampling of data. 

To get a well-rounded sample of data, Jan chose five institutions at random from the top 25 schools in the NCAA and the NAIA respectively. He then collected scores from those 10 institutions over the past 10 years (from 2008 to 2018). The data set soon became a challenge all on its own.

“I had five schools for each association, and each school has a five-person team,” Jan explains. “So I had 25 data points for each year to enter over the span of ten years. That resulted in 250 data points for each association with 500 overall data points.” 

Jan spent a large portion of time entering these 500 data points in his Excel sheets to be able to perform the proper data analysis on the scores. And what he found surprised him. 

“Overall I learned that the scores from the NCAA were better, so it seemed like the level of play was still higher,” Jan says. “On the other hand, I found that the NAIA scores were improving at a faster rate than the scores of the players in the NCAA.” 

Jan originally hypothesized that there would be a large variance in scores from the NCAA to the NAIA. While the overall scores in the NCAA were higher, the difference has slowly begun to lessen. He found that over the course of the last decade, the NAIA improved at a much faster pace than the NCAA. Jan even noticed the wide gap of variance between the best scoring players in the NAIA and the lowest scoring players in the NCAA. 

“Even within those associations, there is a big difference in scores from school to school and–even on the same team–from player to player,” Jan says. “In student athletes in general, there is a view that if you are a DI athlete you’re much better than a DII athlete. But I found that, at least for golfers, that doesn’t have to be true. The best NAIA golfers were actually statistically better than some of the fourth or fifth-ranking players in the NCAA.” 

SETTING A NEW PAR FOR THE COURSE 

All of this uncovered what Jan realized through his time playing golf and studying at Missouri Valley College: institutional divisions are not the best indicator of a player or student’s collegiate experience. Jan says that his hope is that his work could contribute to a larger conversation around breaking down the perceptions around institutional tiers. 

Jan says he hopes that from this project everyone involved in collegiate sports–from coaches, to players, to prospective student athletes–realizes that playing for a DII or DIII school can still afford incredible student athlete opportunities. 

Jan cites his own experience at Missouri Valley College, his courses in sports management and exercise science, his time in the college honor’s program, and his membership in Alpha Chi as “life-changing” for his work as a scholar and a future professional. 

“I hope that my work makes people realize going to a DII school to play sports is not somehow less worthy than going to a big DI school,” he says. “A smaller school can still give you just as many opportunities athletically but, more importantly, academically and professionally as well.” 

WHAT’S NEXT? 

Jan recently received his bachelor’s degree in Sports Management from Missouri Valley College with an Exercise Science minor. He plans to continue living in the States for the time being and has already been accepted to Goucher College in Maryland. There he plans to earn his Master’s of Education in Athletic Program Leadership and Administration while working as a graduate assistant with their golf program.