Congratulations to me! I am every bit as bad, and every bit as average as I thought I was! It has been a summer of having my lunch handed to me on the golf course. I wanted to believe it wasn’t all my fault. I wanted to be able to say that the way the USGA handicap system is set up, that I was destined to fail more often than not. What I found out is that failure, in my eyes and in the eyes of the USGA are two different things.
Every first and 15th day of the month, like probably millions of other golfers, I get my updated USGA handicap index emailed to me. These emails leave me shaking my head. How can I have so many rounds over par mixed in with my few great rounds a month that are under par and still end up with a handicap equating to a +3.5?
“Handicaps are there to show a golfer’s potential of shooting the course rating,” says Mary Kate Kemp, USGA Director of Handicaps and Course Rating Administrator. “It is not about your average, most people get that wrong.”
You can add me to that group of people. It seems to me that if par for a course is 72, and my stroke average for that course is 70.8, my handicap should be +1.2. I have posted 30 rounds this summer from that Tom Weiskopf gem. But I also have 30 rounds from another course that I play where the par is 71 and my stroke average is 71.9. Fair is fair, those rounds should be averaged in and my handicap must be +1.2 -0.9 for a total of +.3. I’m no math or philosophy genius but that is pure number logic right there, I don’t care who you are.
According to the USGA if a golfer posts 20 rounds in a month, the 10 highest scores are tossed and the lowest 10 are used with the slope rating of the courses to determine a player’s chances of shooting “scratch” golf. And here is yet another thing I was wrong about. Scratch golf, according to the USGA, is shooting a course’s “rating.” Par ain’t got nothing to do with it, son!
Golf courses are rated based on the length of the holes and on the number of obstacles like bunkers, ponds, trees, and everything else that is in between the tee boxes and the greens of the individual holes. The hole rated as the No. 1-handicap hole of the course may not actually be the most difficult hole on the course per se, it is more about where the people rating the course determine that the lesser skilled players would have a better chance of getting into or blocked by one of the obstacles, and or would end up having to hit an exponentially more difficult approach shot into the green based on how much more accurately a “scratch” golfer might hit a shorter club like a wedge into a green while the higher handicapper could be farther out and have as much as a five-iron in, and on that hole a stroke needs to be given to make up that difference.
Huh? Hey don’t go re-reading that previous paragraph, I’m not even sure I said it right. But how many times have we all looked at a score card and saw a hole rated a certain way and said to the guy sitting next to us in the cart with half a hot dog stuffed in his mouth, “I wonder why they have No. 1 rated as harder than No. 16?” It’s because people way smarter than us determined it should be that way.
This brings me back to me being such a tremendous loser. I look at my 20 or so rounds a month and see that I generally only shoot five or so rounds a month where I can cover the 3.5 shots I have to give back to the course to shoot the rating. So roughly 75 percent of the time my handicap is an albatross around my neck that I cannot shake. Let the self-loathing begin. There you go, breath it in.
Not so fast says Kemp and the USGA website, “You may only play to your handicap one out of five rounds or so,” she says. The USGA actually goes as far as to tell you not to be discouraged if you can only do it 20-25 percent of the time.
Where this gives me fits, and what I think is unfair, is when these handicaps are used in head-to-head matches. One such event this summer was when I was matched up against a 13 handicap in a match play affair. Before we teed off I was given our score card with 17 dots listed on the holes of the score card. It looked like a Dalmatian dog.
A quick examination of our scores posted showed that he had posted a score as low as 78 and one as high as 90 recently. My score range was a low of 64 and a high of 81. On either end of the spectrum the odds of me winning seemed quite bad.
I mentioned that to a fellow I know who is a strong five handicap, but prefers to carry a 10.5 for tournament purposes like these, and he bristled, “Yeah but the better player always has a better chance of not having an off day and being able to play to his handicap!”
“Really,” I said? “He shot 78 on this course last week in qualifying, if he chokes out an 85 I may still have to shoot four under to tie.” Four-under par would be one of the 25 percent of my rounds rounds the USGA bases my handicap on. For those of you keeping score at home, that means 75 percent of the time I don’t shoot that well.
Before you all berate me with deserved insults and threaten me with certain pain and misery, yes I understand that my competitor only has a 25 percent chance of shooting his handicap as well. My point was that my stroke average compared to my handicap was much more difficult to obtain than his was for him. It didn’t help that our match was over-hyped all over the club, starting with the young gun assistant pros who were taking side action.
I asked Ms. Kemp if she thought that a 13 should be able to compete with a +3.5. “Those two players are apples and oranges, really,” she said. “The skillset of a +3.5 should make it very difficult for the 13 to be competitive.
Ouch. Maybe I do stink after all. I was defeated in the match. His stroke average was about 12 shots worse than mine, but I was giving him 17 shots. There had been some talk in the earlier rounds that his handicap was notoriously “iffy,” and that when he was forced to play the tougher of the two courses at our club that those scores were always posted but not necessarily the ones from the easier course where the match was played. Either way, the difference between stroke averages would have been a more fair way to play him. I think somewhere some bright eyed mathematician needs to be able to figure out a way to weight that difference more fairly. That brings me to my next thumping.
Three years ago I played another guy in an intense head-to-head, straight-up battle that went down to the last hole. Yes, he beat me then too. But when I saw that I was going to play him this summer I was really looking forward to another great match. Then I saw the score card. He explained that he had not been posting many scores lately but that he had played in quite a few four ball tournaments and things like that. His handicap was four. So this player, who could beat me straight up on any given day, was getting seven and a half shots from me.
“You can get a handicap with as little as five posted scores,” Ms. Kemp explained, “in that instance they take your one best score and base it in the formula with the slope and the course rating.”
“There’s no question that a bigger sample of scores is more accurate though,” she added.
The course where we played has a lot of the pop holes early, and I was forced to play from behind all day and could never overcome the lead he was staked to. It was a bitter defeat. It was most bitter because I know this guy is a good player, and he’s not one to purposefully manipulate his handicap. He posted a few scores of rusty golf earlier in the spring and he posted a few as he went, but his sample was way too small to be fair.
So what about the players out there who do dishonor the whole system and keep an artificially high handicap? A great example of this was when a frequent four ball partner of mine and I played our first four ball matches as new members of a club in the annual member/member round robin tournament. We never had a chance. The joke was on us. Apparently if everyone cheats it just levels the playing field.
My partner was the same cat I mentioned before who plays to a five but now carries a 10.5. That weekend we were never close to beating anyone. There were players in the field who I had battled with for 30 years in junior golf, high school golf and college golf. These were good players. I found myself standing in the fairways with them with wedges in our hands and me giving them pops, three times in nine holes!
This brings up another aspect to the handicap system that I think is really unfair. On any given day a four handicap can beat a scratch player straight up. On any given day that four handicap player could beat a +3.5 player straight up. The chances of them both playing their best at the same time is ¼ x ¼ or 1/16. So why do they play with all of the strokes all of the time?
The difference between better players on any given day could be one more made 30-foot putt, one less wayward tee shot, one more great up and down, or anything like that. It is why over the course of four rounds Rory and Tiger generally end up beating everyone. They usually do things fractionally better than other top players, and those fractions add up.
My now former four ball partner joined the crowd and manipulated his handicap up to 10.5. I saw that he and his new partner won the member/member this summer. Hey, congratulations!
“The system is based on integrity,” Ms. Kemp adds, “but each course needs a peer review and handicap committee that can step in and police the guys that are breaking the rules.”
In a country where the number of rounds are down significantly and in an industry in decline I can’t see a club pro wanting to scare off another regular player like the guy who played in my club’s Ryder Cup matches a couple weeks ago with a less than accurate handicap. He came in with a 19 handicap and reeled off six straight pars to earn his first point for his team. Once again eyebrows were raised and feathers were ruffled, but since there was no action by a peer handicap committee, we all have ourselves to blame. By the way he reeled off those six straight pars against me and my partner in the morning four ball matches. He made par to close us out on the seventh hole of our nine-hole match. He was getting two pops on the hole.
I guess the point I am trying to make is that I don’t play well under pressure. Wait that’s not what I meant to say. What I am saying is that I wish they could make a system that was based more on averages rather than on potential. It’s interesting that they say the system is based on potential because when I tried to post a 64 this summer the machine wouldn’t let me. It spit out a message saying the score was too low! Well, maybe the machine has seen me putt.
To further prove that I don’t know what I am talking about I do have 10 or so really great head-to-head matches each summer with a buddy of mine who carries about an eight to a 10 handicap. He too posts 120 rounds or so a year. It’s uncanny how often we can play each other and have it come down to the last few holes. So maybe the system is perfect as it is.