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.
The Wedge Guy: My top 5 practice tips
While there are many golfers who barely know where the practice (I don’t like calling it a “driving”) range is located, there are many who find it a place of adventure, discovery and fun. I’m in the latter group, which could be accented by the fact that I make my living in this industry. But then, I’ve always been a “ball beater,” since I was a kid, but now I approach my practice sessions with more purpose and excitement. There’s no question that practice is the key to improvement in anything, so today’s topic is on making practice as much fun as playing.
As long as I can remember, I’ve loved the range, and always embrace the challenge of learning new ways to make a golf ball do what I would like it to do. So, today I’m sharing my “top 5” tips for making practice fun and productive.
- Have a mission/goal/objective. Whether it is a practice range session or practice time on the course, make sure you have a clearly defined objective…how else will you know how you’re doing? It might be to work on iron trajectory, or finding out why you’ve developed a push with your driver. Could be to learn how to hit a little softer lob shot or a knockdown pitch. But practice with a purpose …always.
- Don’t just “do”…observe. There are two elements of learning something new. The first is to figure out what it is you need to change. Then you work toward that solution. If your practice session is to address that push with the driver, hit a few shots to start out, and rather than try to fix it, make those first few your “lab rats”. Focus on what your swing is doing. Do you feel anything different? Check your alignment carefully, and your ball position. After each shot, step away and process what you think you felt during the swing.
- Make it real. To just rake ball after ball in front of you and pound away is marginally valuable at best. To make practice productive, step away from your hitting station after each shot, rake another ball to the hitting area, then approach the shot as if it was a real one on the course. Pick a target line from behind the ball, meticulously step into your set-up position, take your grip, process your one swing thought and hit it. Then evaluate how you did, based on the shot result and how it felt.
- Challenge yourself. One of my favorite on-course practice games is to spend a few minutes around each green after I’ve played the hole, tossing three balls into various positions in an area off the green. I don’t let myself go to the next tee until I put all three within three feet of the hole. If I don’t, I toss them to another area and do it again. You can do the same thing on the range. Define a challenge and a limited number of shots to achieve it.
- Don’t get in a groove. I was privileged enough to watch Harvey Penick give Tom Kite a golf lesson one day, and was struck by the fact that he would not let Tom hit more than five to six shots in a row with the same club. Tom would hit a few 5-irons, and Mr. Penick would say, “hit the 8”, then “hit the driver.” He changed it up so that Tom would not just find a groove. That paved the way for real learning, Mr. Penick told me.
My “bonus” tip addresses the difference between practicing on the course and keeping a real score. Don’t do both. A practice session is just that. On-course practice is hugely beneficial, and it’s best done by yourself, and at a casual pace. Playing three or four holes in an hour or so, taking time to hit real shots into and around the greens, will do more for your scoring skills than the same amount of range time.
So there you have my five practice tips. I’m sure I could come up with more, but then we always have more time, right?
More from the Wedge Guy
- The Wedge Guy: Anyone can be a better wedge player by doing these simple things
- Wedge Guy: There’s no logic to iron fitting
- The Wedge Guy: Mind the gap
Vincenzi: Fortinet Championship First Round Leader picks
The PGA Tour begins its fall season with a trip to Wine Country as the world of golf patiently awaits the 2023 Ryder Cup which is just a few weeks away. Silverado is a course where plenty of players with varying skill sets can compete, but strong West Coast history tends to be a major factor.
In the past four editions of the Fortinet Championship, there have been six first-round leaders or co-leaders. Of the six, three have started their rounds in the morning wave, and three started in the afternoon. The leading scores have all been between 63 and 65.
As of now, the winds look to be very docile, with speeds of 4-7 MPH throughout the day. I don’t see either the AM or PM wave as having a major advantage.
2023 Fortinet Championship First-Round Leader Picks
Zac Blair +9000 (FanDuel)
First-Round Tee Time: 1.22 p.m PT
A big theme for me this week is targeting players who have had success at both Silverado and the West Coast in general. Blair finished 22nd here last year, and also finished 4th back in 2019. That year, he shot 66 in rounds two and three, showing his ability to go low on this track.
In 2022, Blair gained 3.8 strokes putting and in 2019, he gained 8.6. The 33-year-old seemingly has these greens figured out.
C.T. Pan +9000 (FanDuel)
First-Round Tee Time: 8.23 a.m PT
At the end of the 2023 season, C.T. Pan showed flashes of what made him a good player prior to his injury struggles early in the year. He finished 4th at the AT&T Byron Nelson in May, and 3rd at the RBC Canadian Open in June. He also finished 6th at Silverado back in 2021, gaining 4.5 strokes on approach and 6.6 strokes putting.
A few weeks off may have given Pan a chance to reset and focus on the upcoming fall swing, where I believe he’ll play some good golf.
Joel Dahmen +110000 (FanDuel)
First-Round Tee Time: 7:28 a.m PT
After becoming a well-known name in golf due to his affable presence in Netflix’ “Full Swing” documentary, Dahmen had what can only be considered a disappointment of a 2023 season. I believe he’s a better player than he showed last year and is a good candidate for a bounce back fall and 2024.
Dahmen finished in a tie for 10th at the Barracuda Championship in late July, and the course is similar in agronomy and location to what he’ll see this week in Napa. He has some strong history on the West Coast including top-ten finishes at Riviera (5th, 2020), Pebble Beach (6th, 2022), Sherwood (8th, 2020), TPC Summerlin (9th, 2019) and Torrey Pines (9th, 2019).
James Hahn +125000 (Caesars)
First-Round Tee Time: 1:55 p.m PT
James Hahn absolutely loves golf on the West Coast. He’s won at Riviera and has also shown some course form with a 9th place finish at Silverado back in 2020. That week, Hahn gained 4.7 strokes putting, demonstrating his comfort level on these POA putting surfaces.
He finished T6 at the Barracuda back in July, and there’s no doubt that a return to California will be welcome for the 41-year-old.
Peter Malnati +125000 (BetRivers)
First-Round Tee Time: 12.27 p.m PT
Peter Malnati excels at putting on the West Coast. He ranks 3rd in the field in Strokes Gained: Putting on POA and has shown in the past he’s capable of going extremely low on any given round due to his ability to catch a hot putter.
His course history isn’t spectacular, but he’s played well enough at Silverado. In his past seven trips to the course, he’s finished in the top-35 four times.
Harry Higgs +150000 (BetRivers)
First-Round Tee Time: 1.55 p.m PT
In what is seemingly becoming a theme in this week’s First-Round Leader column, Harry Higgs is a player that really fell out of form in 2023, but a reset and a trip to a course he’s had success at in the past may spark a resurgence.
Higgs finished 2nd at Silverado in 2020 and wasn’t in particularly great form then either. Success hasn’t come in abundance for the 31-year-old, but three of his top-10 finishes on Tour have come in this area of the country.
Higgs shot an impressive 62 here in round two in 2020, which would certainly be enough to capture the first-round lead this year.
Vincenzi’s Fortinet Championship betting preview: California native ready for breakthrough win in Napa
After a three-week break, the 2022-23 PGA TOUR season kicks off in Napa Valley at the Silverado Resort and Spa to play the Fortinet Championship.
Prior to 2021, the event was called the Safeway Open, but the tournament sponsor changed to Fortinet with contract that will last for three more seasons. Although the name has changed multiple times, Silverado’s North Course has been featured on the PGA TOUR since 1968.
The course is a par 72, measuring at 7,166 yards. Silverado features Poa annua greens that can be tricky, especially as the surface becomes bumpier in the afternoon. The tree-lined fairways aren’t easy to hit, but the rough shouldn’t be exceedingly penal. Shorter hitters are in play on this relatively short course, and accuracy will be at a premium.
There will be a re-routing at Silverado for this year’s Fortinet Championship. Ten holes will be played in a different order. Holes 1-7 and 18 will remain as in year’s past. The new finishing stretch – No. 14 (par 4), No. 15 (par 5), No. 16 (par 4), No. 17 (par 3) and No. 18 (par 5). The new 17th was previously the 11th, which is the signature hole on the course.
The field will consist of 155 players. Being the swing season, the field for this event is usually relatively weak. However, there are some intriguing names in the field including Justin Thomas, Webb Simpson, Sahith Theegala, Joel Dahmen, and Kevin Kisner.
- 2022: Max Homa (-22)
- 2021: Max Homa (-19)
- 2020: Stewart Cink (-21)
- 2019: Cameron Champ (-17)
- 2018: Kevin Tway (-14)
- 2017: Brendan Steele -15
- 2016: Brendan Steele -18
Let’s take a look at several key metrics for Silverado to determine which golfers boast top marks in each category over their last 24 rounds.
Strokes Gained: Approach
Historically, one of the North Course’s defenses will be tightly tucked pin placement, so effective shot-shaping and a higher ball flight may be an advantage this week. In order to find success, players need to hit the correct level of the sloping Poa Annua greens.
Strokes Gained: Approach past 24 rounds:
- Chez Reavie (+24.7)
- Sam Ryder (+20.0)
- Mark Hubbard (+17.8)
- Kevin Streelman (+18.3)
- Doug Ghim (+17.1)
Good Drives Gained
Hitting fairways in regulation at Silverado is more difficult than TOUR average, as players have done so in the past at a rate of only 52.2%. While the rough isn’t extremely long here, controlling spin out of the thick grass is much more difficult than doing so from the fairway. In order to find success, players need to hit the correct level of the sloping Poa annua greens.
In 2021, the top eight players on the leaderboard all had a positive week in “Good Drives Gained. The winner, Max Homa was +3.3 in the category and Mito Pereira, who finished third, was +8.3.
In 2022, 12 of the top 13 players on the leaderboard gained in the category including the winner Max Homa (+6.0) and runner up Danny Willet (5.0).
Good Drives Gained past 24 rounds:
- Doug Ghim (+24.4)
- Matt NeSmith (+23.8)
- Russell Knox (+20.6)
- Brice Garnett (+19.9)
- Ryan Armour (+19.8)
Par 4: 400-450
There are six par 4’s at Silverado that are between 400 and 450-yards. It will be important to target players who excel at playing these holes. With the par 5s being fairly short and reachable, the par 4 scoring may prove to be the bigger difference-maker.
Par 4: 400-450 past 24 rounds:
- Beau Hossler (+14.7)
- Max Homa (+12.4)
- Garrick Higgo (+8.5)
- Justin Suh (+8.3)
- Stephan Jaeger (+8.2)
Birdie or Better: Gained
With scores at Silverado potentially approaching the 20 under par range, making plenty of birdies will be a requirement in order to contend this week.
Birdie or Better: Gained in past 24 rounds:
- Nick Hardy (+15.3)
- Scott Piercy (+15.2)
- Ryan Gerard (+14.9)
- Max Homa (+14.0)
- Peter Kuest (+13.5)
Strokes Gained: Putting (Poa Annua)
Poa annua greens on the West Coast can be quite difficult for golfers to adjust to if they don’t have much experience on the surface.
Prior to the 2019 Safeway Open, Phil Mickelson talked about how the type of putting surface is a major factor:
“I think a lot of guys struggle with the Poa annua greens, which is a grass that I grew up playing, so I’m very comfortable on the greens. When you grow up and spend most of your time back east in Florida on the Bermuda, this is a very awkward surface to putt on. The color looks different — it’s hard to sometimes read. But when you’re used to it, I don’t know of much better surfaces than these right here.”
This week it is important to look for the golfers who historically excel on Poa annua.
Total Strokes Gained in category in past 24 rounds:
- Kevin Kisner (+27.7)
- Max Homa (+21.2)
- Peter Malnati (+20.5)
- Justin Suh (+18.5)
- Mackenzie Hughes (+16.0)
Below, I’ve reported overall model rankings using a combination of the five key statistical categories previously discussed.
These rankings are comprised of SG: APP (25%), Good Drives Gained: (25%), Birdie or Better (20%), Par 4: 400-450 (15%), SG: Putting (Poa annua) (15%).
- Max Homa (+750)
- Doug Ghim (+5000)
- Andrew Putnam (+4000)
- Chez Reavie (+4500)
- Kevin Streelman (+5500)
- Mark Hubbard (+5000)
- Sam Ryder (+7000)
- Brendon Todd (+3500)
- Akshay Bhatia (+6000)
- Cameron Davis (+2200)
2023 Fortinet Championship Picks
Sahith Theegala +2000 (DraftKings):
Sahith Theegala is yet to break out for his maiden PGA Tour victory but is a great candidate for a player who can have a strong fall and take advantage of some weaker fields. The 26-year-old ended his season on a positive note, finishing 13th at the FedEx St. Jude and 15th at the BMW Championship.
I’ve long believed that Theegala’s first win would come on the West Coast. He grew up in California and was a three-time All-American at Pepperdine University, where he became the fifth player to win the Jack Nicklaus Award, Haskins Award and Ben Hogan award all in the same year (2020). Sahith made his PGA Tour debut at Silverado in 2020, where he finished in a tie for 14th. Last year, he finished 6th at the Fortinet Championship.
Theegala is very comfortable playing in California. That is perhaps most noticeable on the putting surface where he gains an average of +0.44 strokes on the field per event on POA, which is more than four times what he gains on Bermudagrass or Bentgrass. The POA greens at Silverado can get especially difficult late in the day, which is a reason why players with a background on them have had so much success at the course. In the past seven years of the event, five winners have come from California.
Theegala is pricey this week and is as close to the top of the odds board as I can remember him being, but that’s the nature of the PGA Tour fall season. It’s hard to find a spot on the schedule that Sahith will have a better chance at winning than this one.
Justin Suh +5000 (PointsBet):
Consistency has been an issue early in the career of Justin Suh, but he’s shown flashes in 2023 of what made him such a highly regarded prospect to begin with. After a few top-10 finishes at the PLAYERS Championship and the Honda Classic, Suh ended the season on a bit of a sour note, failing to finish better than 34th in his last five starts of the season.
Despite the struggles, I’m optimistic about Suh as we begin the fall swing. The 26-year-old made the trip to Crans-Montana, Valais, Switzerland to play in the Omega European Masters, and finished 24th in a decent field. More encouraging than the finish was how Suh hit the ball. He gained 5.24 strokes on approach and hit plenty of fairways.
The 2018 Pac-12 Player of the Year grew up on California golf courses. Suh was a highly decorated amateur golfer with plenty of wins on the West Coast prior to attending USC, where he was one of the best players in the country.
When he’s on, Suh is one of the best putters on Tour, and he should comfortable playing in his home state in search of his first PGA Tour victory.
Akshay Bhatia +5500 (DraftKings):
Akshay Bhatia is still just 21 years old and one of the most tantalizing prospects in the world of golf. The smooth-swinging lefty was able to obtain his first PGA Tour victory at the Barracuda Championship at Tahoe Mountain Club in Truckee, California just a few months ago. The course is just a few hours ride from Silverado and the conditions and course should be very similar.
Bhatia will have no issue making birdies in bunches at Silverado, and the rough shouldn’t be exceedingly penal if he gets loose with his driver.
Bhatia made his debut at Silverado in 2020 at just 18 years old and managed to finish 9th. Since then, he’s gained a great deal of confidence and has refined his game as a professional.
Akshay got engaged this week. He can celebrate with a victory this week at the Fortinet.
Sam Ryder +8000 (FanDuel):
Statistically, Sam Ryder jumps off the page this week. In his past four measured starts, he’s gained 4.2, 5.4, 5.2 and 5.7 strokes on approach and is completely dialed in with his irons. Despite the numbers, he hasn’t managed to crack the top-30 on the leaderboard in that stretch but this is a field that is much weaker than he faced at the end of last season.
In addition to the recent stats, Ryder played some good golf on the West Coast last year. Most notably, he finished 4th at Torrey Pines in a loaded field and also finished 20th at both the Waste Managment Phoenix Open and the Genesis Invitational.
If Ryder continues with his hot approach play, he should be able to contend at Silverado this week.
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