April 17, 2008

What is a 10-handicapper?

Tiger said a 10 couldn't break 100 on a U.S. Open course. But how good is a 10, and how can you get a number of your own?

When the Golf Digest U.S. Open Challenge is played at Torrey Pines on the eve of the U.S. Open, we'll see a test that is perfect in scale. A 10-handicapper trying to break 100 at Torrey, in front of a gallery, national TV audience and three celebrities playing alongside him, would experience a challenge in any case. But with the course in murderously difficult condition, it will be the golf equivalent of climbing Mount Everest without oxygen. His quest will demonstrate how ridiculously hard a U.S. Open course really is, in a language we can understand. Unlike players at other skill levels, a 10-handicapper tends to follow a consistent form and can readily be profiled. Here are some glimpses into what's behind a 10 -- what type of player you can expect, and how he stacks up against everyone else.

WHAT IS A HANDICAP, AND WHY HAVE ONE?

A handicap is a measure of a golfer's potential ability compared to an expert amateur's ability. Getting a handicap will help make your matches fair by eliminating the guesswork in the allocation of strokes for players of varying abilities. Posting your results consistently will also help you track your scoring trends.

HOW IS YOUR NUMBER COMPUTED?

A player actually has two numbers: the Handicap Index and the Course Handicap.The Handicap Index is arrived at by plugging in raw scores and computing them using a formula involving, among other things, the USGA Course Rating and Slope Rating of the course where the round was played.

The Course Rating is a numerical depiction of how difficult a course is for a 0-handicap (scratch) player. The USGA defines the male 0-handicapper as someone who drives the ball at least 250 yards and can reach a 470-yard hole in two shots.

A Course Rating is determined by the cumulative length of holes, and the difficulty of obvious obstacles such as sand and water. When a 10-handicapper describes a course as "a tough test," he generally is referring to a layout with a Course Rating of 72.0 or higher. On a course with a 72.0 rating, a 10-handicapper will score, on average, 82 to 88.

Slope Rating, which the USGA instituted in 1984, is an analysis of the relative difficulty of a course for a bogey golfer when compared to the scratch golfer. Instead of placing an emphasis on the sheer length of a course and obvious obstacles, Slope considers factors that affect the bogey golfer more dramatically than the scratch player. They include topographical features such as hitting to elevated greens; the width of the fairways, trees, water and bunkers that more frequently come into play for the weaker player; the size and contours of greens; and so on. Though a scratch player might consider these factors just a nuisance, they can be significant for the bogey golfer.

Poorer players' scores rise exponentially when playing courses with a high Slope Rating, so they need their Course Handicap adjusted upward accordingly. Though a 0-handicapper playing a difficult course might not need a handicap adjustment, a 10-handicapper might need a couple of extra strokes (or more) to be competitive.

For the Handicap Index, the low 10 of the last 20 results are selected, and the rest are thrown out.

Why not use all 20? Because handicaps are intended to define the golfer's potential. If all 20 scores were considered, the scores shot on bad days would make any player's handicap inordinately high and give a huge advantage if he were to have a good day. This is particularly true among high-handicappers, whose erratic play produces many high scores that would inflate the handicap.

The average of the low 10 numbers is adjusted and is expressed to the nearest decimal point. The 10-handicapper generally carries an Index between 9.5 and 10.4.

The Course Handicap is the whole number the golfer plays with in weekend matches or formal competition. You get that number by matching your Handicap Index against a chart tacked on a wall at the course you're playing (right).

Two key points: Players are expected to make the best score they can at every hole in every round, regardless of where the round is played, and players should post every acceptable round for peer review.

The USGA stipulates that golfers are required to post scores whenever they play at least seven holes. If seven to 12 holes are played, that score is posted as a nine-hole round. If 13 or more holes are played, the score should be posted as an 18-hole round. If you've completed only 13 holes of an 18-hole round, you can still post an 18-hole score. In the case of a 10-handicapper, you would write in pars for unfinished holes with handicaps 11-18, and bogeys on holes where the handicap is 1-10.

If a player doesn't finish a hole or is conceded a stroke, you record the "most likely score," which is the number of strokes taken plus, in your best judgment, the number of strokes that would be needed to complete the hole from that position more than half the time.

WHAT'S THE COURSE RATING AND SLOPE RATING FOR TORREY PINES' SOUTH COURSE?

The Southern California Golf Association recently measured the South, under U.S. Open yardage, and a USGA Course Rating of 79.7, with a Slope of 153 was assigned. If a player with a 10.0 Handicap Index were to play at Torrey, the Course Handicap would be 14. To further appreciate how difficult Torrey will be, consider that the highest Course Rating in America is the 80.0 assigned to The Pines course at The International in Bolton, Mass. (from the "Tiger" tees, it's 8,325 yards). The highest Slope Rating is the 155 given to The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island from the back tees. (Other courses have a Slope of 155, but Kiawah has a higher Course Rating: 76.9.)

WHAT IF I MAKE A HUGE NUMBER DURING A ROUND?

Like every golfer, a 10-handicapper knows the feeling of cruising along nicely for several holes before inexplicably hitting two balls out-of-bounds on a par 5 and making a 10. For handicap purposes the double-digit score can't be allowed to stand because it would indicate an 18-hole performance that wasn't nearly as bad as it appeared.

With Equitable Stroke Control (ESC), every golfer is assigned a maximum score allowable on a hole. The limit depends on the player's Course Handicap (not the Handicap Index). As the table below shows, a 10-handicapper could take no score higher than 7 on any hole, regardless of its par. why does the handicap system slightly favor better players?

When the score for a round is computed, it produces a "differential" that is multiplied by .96. So a player who shoots 110 will have his raw number trimmed more than the 10-handicapper who shoots 84. "We call this the 'bonus for excellence,' " says Kevin O'Connor, the USGA's senior director of handicapping. "We feel there should be an incentive to improve and a reward for becoming more proficient." The bonus for excellence might not be substantial, but it gives the 10-handicapper an edge when competing against 20-handicappers -- and is a detriment when going against a 4-handicapper.

WHAT DOES A 10-HANDICAPPER USUALLY SHOOT?

Don't count on 10s shooting 10 strokes over par on demand. Because the high 10 results of the last 20 are thrown out, there's only a 50-percent chance they'll shoot near it. With that, a 10-handicapper playing a course with a reasonably difficult 72.0 Course Rating will, on a good day, shoot within three strokes of 84. Expect some variance, but not much -- research has shown that players shoot lower than their handicaps only once every five rounds, and they beat their handicap by three strokes once every 20 rounds. The odds of someone beating a handicap by eight strokes are 1,138-to-1.

Even without seeing 10-handicappers play, you can make some assessments about their game. They almost surely drive the ball at least 200 yards; if they were any shorter, they couldn't reach the par 4s in two and wouldn't make as many pars as they do. Most 10s usually get out of sand in one try. They possess some course-management skills; they are more apt than a high-handicapper to choose enough club to get over a pond in front of the green. They also are decent putters, especially from long range -- because they don't hit their iron shots close to the hole, they lag their approach putts close enough to save a lot of pars. Most 10s got there in part from experience, and their extensive exposure to the game has given them a passable knowledge of the rules.

The lower the player's handicap, the tighter the score dispersion. A scratch player on a course of average difficulty will typically shoot 69 to 79. Conversely, a 25-handicapper will typically shoot 95 to 110, a difference of 15 strokes. The 10 tends to be about in the middle in score deviation.

HOW GOOD IS A 10-HANDICAPPER COMPARED TO OTHER GOLFERS?

Men with an Index of 10.0 or better are in the upper 25 percent of all golfers. Players with a 10.0 comprise 4.6 percent of the golf population. The national average Handicap Index for men is 14.7, approximately one stroke lower than it was in 1990, when the USGA began tracking Golf Handicap and Information Network (GHIN) trends. Although golf courses in general are longer and more difficult, a 10-handicapper is better because of improved instruction and advances in equipment.

HOW MANY STROKES WOULD A 10- HANDICAPPER NEED TO HAVE A CHANCE AGAINST TIGER WOODS?

Consider that on the PGA Tour from August 2006 through January 2007, the low 10 of Tiger's 20 scores produced a Handicap Index of plus-7.8. In a real-world setting, Tiger probably would be even better than that because the courses he played in that time were more difficult than for member play, especially Medinah for the PGA Championship. So their Course Ratings and Slopes were conservative.

If a match between Tiger and a 10-handicapper were played at Torrey Pines, Tiger would have a Course Handicap of plus-9. A player with a 10.0 Index would have a Course Handicap of 14 and would get 23 strokes. And it probably wouldn't be enough, not only because most amateurs tend to score higher in competition, but because Tiger is more likely to play closer to his handicap under any circumstances.

A FACTOR TO CONSIDER WHEN CHOOSING A PARTNER IS THE 'ANTI-HANDICAP.'

Two players can carry the same 10.0 Handicap Index but have a wide divergence in the 10 results of the last 20 that are thrown out. By examining the throw-out results, you can discern what the 10-handicapper is apt to shoot on a so-so day or a poor one. It can be a crucial consideration, because these less-than-stellar days occur half the time. If the 10-handicapper's throw-out scores are relatively close to the counting scores, the player is regarded as a "good 10." The 10-handicapper whose throw-out scores are in the 90s obviously is less dependable.

WITH WHAT TYPE OF PLAYER DOES THE 10-HANDICAPPER TEAM BEST?

In stroke play, it's smart for partners to have as wide a separation in handicaps as possible -- higher handicappers have more potential to help the team because they're getting more strokes. This is why the USGA recommends that in multiple-ball competitions (best ball out of the foursome being most typical in club events), golfers should play at only 90 percent of their Course Handicaps (the 18-handicapper has to play as a 16). If the spread between players is greater than eight strokes, the USGA recommends cutting by an additional 10 percent.

In four-ball match play, 10-handicappers will have maximum success with a player whose game is different than their own.

If you're a Steady Eddie, a short but straight hitter with a good touch around the greens whose round-to-round scores are fairly consistent, you should team with a Wild Willie -- a long but wild hitter who is apt to make a couple of net birdies and eagles to complement a spate of triple bogeys. This sort of blending gives the team a solid base, with potential to make their opponents howl.

Less scientific is the observation of Charlie Epps, director of the golf academy at the Houstonian Golf & Country Club near Houston and a veteran club pro who has overseen dozens of member-guest tournaments.

"The most dangerous team in match play is the low single-digit-handicapper and a guy between 8 and 10," says Epps. "There is no hole the 10 can't make par on, and when you give him seven or eight strokes, he'll just kill you. The 10-handicapper usually has a little experience and performs pretty well in the clutch. Plus, the 10-handicapper tends to elevate his game in the presence of a terrific player. Scratch players can make high-handicappers feel a little inferior, and nervous."

WHERE DOES THE 10-HANDICAPPER RECEIVE HANDICAP STROKES?

In four-ball match play, you play off the lowest player's ball. If the best player in the group has a 5-handicap, he plays at scratch, and the others deduct five strokes from their handicap. A player with a Course Handicap of 10 gets strokes on handicap holes 1 through 5, as noted on the scorecard.

AN ONGOING PUZZLE FOR MANY PLAYERS IS WHY THE PAR-3 HOLES RECEIVE THE HIGHEST HANDICAP DESIGNATION ON THE SCORECARD.

It seems silly that a par 3 over water to a small, well-bunkered green would be the No. 15 handicap hole, and a long but straightaway par 4 is the No. 3 handicap hole. The answer is that on a par 4 or par 5, the player has to hit the ball multiple times to reach the green, and each of those strokes increase the chances of encountering disaster. The par 3 might be difficult, but the player is usually on the green or near it after one shot. Giving strokes there wouldn't be fair for the low-handicapper.

WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A SAND-BAGGER AND A PLAYER WITH A VANITY HANDICAP?

In terms of honesty, let's say a 10-handicapper is above reproach, trying on every shot, counting them all and posting all scores. The unsavory players who do not are called sandbaggers. They deliberately play poorly when there's nothing at stake or post scores higher than what they shot so their handicap will provide more strokes when a tournament or big-money match comes along. If a player's tournament scores are consistently several strokes lower than for casual play, there's a problem.

Not quite as exasperating (except to partners in team matches) is the player who carries a vanity handicap. These "reverse sandbaggers" tend to post scores lower than what they would have shot. They do it by giving themselves a lot of missable putts, or simply posting scores lower than what they shot. Invariably they play poorly in tournaments -- and apologize profusely for it.

HOW CAN YOU ESTABLISH A USGA HANDICAP INDEX?

You can do it by joining a men's or women's association at any golf course that subscribes to USGA handicapping procedures, including being licensed by the USGA, and has at least 10 members. The other way is to join or start a "Type 2 golf club without real estate," meaning one without a formal home course. You can find out the formal steps to take by visiting the handicapping section of the USGA's website at usga.org.