Finding fault with handicapping
The Editor’s Letter I wrote in the February 2016 edition of Golf Digest received many positive responses from golfers who opposed the USGA’s decision to declare rounds played alone as ineligible for handicap purposes. That is, you now can’t turn in your solo scores because there’s no “peer review” to ensure that you haven’t cheated. The column went on to criticize the USGA for not sufficiently promoting handicapping as a means of growing engagement with golfers. The number of players with handicaps has not changed in almost 30 years, and those with handicaps are predominantly private-club players. I argued that the Internet should be a tool to make handicapping free, but the USGA mistakenly protects the status quo because handicapping is viewed as the chief revenue source for state and regional golf associations. The USGA has scooped up $1 billion from its new Fox TV deal, so there’s plenty of money to go around.
The column also received some strong criticism. Laurence Dougharty, who blogs about handicapping, wrote that the Golf Digest free handicap "is of little value" and my promotion of it is not for public service, but to increase visits to our website and “harvest email addresses." Dougharty finds fault with the GD system because it doesn’t use the USGA formula, Slope Rating and Equitable Stroke Control, but admits that "the two handicap systems yield approximately the same result.”
Golf Digest contributing editor Dean Knuth, who oversaw the USGA handicap system from 1975-2002 and later developed the Golf Digest alternative system, writes: "The GD Handicap wasn’t meant to be as good as a USGA Handicap, but it is a reasonable estimate for those who don’t have one. There is a factor that I built in that assumes that Slope Ratings go up as the Course Ratings do, which is usually the case, so the GD version is somewhat portable, even if it is only a reasonable estimate. He is correct that it is not a universal system, but if a player wants an indicator of ability and is not going to join a golf club, then this gives him a reasonable estimate without using any element of the USGA Handicap System.”
I also received critical email from two respected golf administrators who viewed my column as faulty in not understanding the role of state and regional golf associations. Kevin Heaney, president of the International Association of Golf Administrators and executive director of the Southern California Golf Association, writes that “multiple surveys” show golfers don’t want handicaps; my disregard of peer review doesn’t take into account the hard work of volunteers who scrutinize scoring, and there are many more services the associations perform beyond handicapping. See here for Mr. Heaney’s explanation.
Jamie Conkling, executive director of the Virginia State Golf Association, makes similar points and explains that only 37 percent of the VSGA revenue comes from membership fees that include handicapping services; it's not “almost entirely” as I had written. His full letter is here.
Any disparagement of state and regional golf associations was unintended by me. I’m a supporter of these associations and appreciate the hundreds of volunteers who work at them. But I also believe that getting every golfer a free handicap would grow the game and strengthen, not weaken, both SRGAs and the USGA.