Readers respondJanuary 24, 2016

Responses to our Editor's Letter on USGA changes to handicaps

Golf Digest Editor-in-Chief Jerry Tarde's column on changes to the handicap system in the February issue struck a chord with some. Below are two letters representing the perspective of state and regional golf associations:

Dear Mr. Tarde,

As the current president of the International Association of Golf Administrators, an organization comprised of state and regional golf associations (SRGAs), provincial golf associations and national organizations (additionally as the executive director of the Southern California Golf Association), I would like to share our collective disappointment with a number of your comments in your editor’s letter in the February edition of Golf Digest. In particular, we believe your characterization of elements of the USGA Handicap System along with the value of SRGAs was off the mark.

With respect to handicaps, you imply that a fraction of golfers have handicaps and this is due to the cost; a fee only designed to prop up the existence of SRGAs. Further, you conjecture that the majority of handicaps come through golfers associated with private clubs. Finally, you infer that the element of peer review is nonexistent.

  • Multiple surveys indicate that golfers do not get handicaps becaus they believe it is not applicable (relevant/necessary/important) to them (“I do not play in tournaments or I am not skilled enough to have a handicap”). These assertions are validated by the fact that you can currently get a USGA Handicap for next to nothing or even free through variety of entities, yet individuals are not flocking to secure a number.

    This tells us that we need to reevaluate how a handicap is perceived and reposition it in a way that it has value to a much greater audience. The IAGA is working with our strategic partners at the USGA to make the handicap more relevant; a high-priority for us. It may surprise you that almost all golf associations have a higher percentage of public golfers than private. While as a category, a higher percentage of private club golfers might carry handicaps in comparison to the public grouping, the majority of USGA Handicaps in this country are issued to public golfers.

  • You note that the handicap review system only kicks in when dealing with one who chooses to abuse the system. Honestly, this is an insult to the tens of thousands of women and men who volunteer countless hours on handicap committees at their clubs (private, public, without real estate and even internet) trying to ensure the system is being properly applied. These folks regularly check the scores of all the players in their clubs. No system is perfect, but these individuals work with their local SRGAs under the guidelines of the USGA to keep a level playing field. The same applies in Canada through the relationship of the provincial associations and Golf Canada (inaccurately referred to as the Canadian Golf Federation in your piece).

  • We also take exception to the notion that SRGAs are being artificially supported by the USGA and that our value lies solely in offering handicaps to interested golfers. We would acknowledge that like any member-based organization, we do have a heavy reliance on a dues structure to maintain our revenue stream. (It is worth noting that these associations have worked diligently to try to diversify their sources of income.) Just as magazines , whether print or digital, are dependent upon advertising to pay their bills, golf associations are dependent upon the modest dues influenced by handicapping to do all of the many things they do without fanfare to support and otherwise backstop the game and golf industry. Suffice it to say, however, if the issuance of USGA Handicaps was the only item in our value proposition, we would have been out of business a long time ago. SRGAs (and our provincial colleagues in Canada) are critical to the health of local and regional golf communities.

  • Again, surveys show that golfers who belong to clubs and maintain handicaps are more engaged, play more golf and spend more money. This is critical to the viability and sustainability of the game.

  • Clubs and the individuals who belong are our members and, similar to other aspects of their lives, are looking for greater experiences. SRGAs must be part of that equation and provide more value to the golfer, the clubs and the facilities.

  • Beyond traditional core activities such as oversight of the USGA Handicap and Course Rating System and championship level competitions, SRGAs provide a myriad of offerings and activities, including: opportunities for affordable and sometimes unique access to clubs and experiences; education on a wealth of subjects (extending beyond Rules of Golf and traditional subject matter to include items such as swing and fitness tip videos); competitions for a wider array of golfers including league offerings and team events; various forms of communications that include both print and digital (in California between the resident golf associations, our magazines are sent to over 300,000 homes; I would guess the California circulation of Golf Digest may not surpass that figure); through both the associations and their foundations, work with juniors that includes access programs, scholarships, education, mentoring, player development, vocational opportunities, caddie programs; advocacy efforts, which help promote the golf agenda in a proactive manner to ensure the health of the game; outreach into the community to aid groups like the First Tee, disabled veterans, high school and college golf programs.

  • Obviously, we cannot do this alone, as we draw from a variety of sources to help us deliver these products. It begins with dedicated group of volunteers working directly with us and extending to work at the club level. It continues in working with our allied partners, which includes the USGA, PGA, GCSAA, course owner groups, municipal golf systems, CMAA, among others.

I apologize for the length of this piece but we wanted to react to what we felt was a misrepresentation of some of the items noted. I would conclude by expressing an interest to have a few colleagues join me in a dialogue with you and an editorial board to further discuss this topic. The golfing public should gain proper insight into the expanding and evolving roles of the SRGAs.

Thank you,

Kevin Heaney President, IAGA

Dear Mr. Tarde,

I’ve just read your Editor’s Letter in the February 2016 issue of Golf Digest and am quite disappointed with your comments regarding the role of state and regional golf associations (SRGAs) and the USGA and I’m certain I am not alone.

In doing research, I notice you are a member of a few clubs which belong to three different golf associations (MGA, CSGA and VGA), and you’ve been involved in the golf business for decades. With that being said, I am fascinated with your misunderstanding of who does what and for what reasons.

Firstly, the USGA does not sell handicap indexes as you suggest. The SRGAs provide handicap indexes to members of member clubs as one benefit of membership. The SRGAs do not pay the USGA for handicap indexes. SRGAs charge an individual fee to members of member clubs for all of the services provided by the association, including a handicap index. Many SRGAs pay GHIN (a USGA service) a fee for the use of its software to post scores and conduct tournaments. Please note, there are other software providers that SRGAs may use – and do use - that provide similar software programs but they, too, pay a fee for the use of that software. You mention less than five million golfers have a handicap index. This is true. Why? Simply because the majority of golfers don’t want a handicap index. If they wanted a handicap they can certainly find one somewhere on the net, maybe even the one GD tries to promote. Furthermore, you make an “educated” guess that approximately 80% of private club members have a handicap and only 10%-15% of public-course golfers have an index. I’m very interested to know how you arrive at your "educated" guess. The VSGA, for instance, includes a membership of more than 60,000 golfers and of those, approximately 60% are private club members and 40% belong to clubs that are open to the public.

Secondly, you state that SRGAs derive almost of their income from handicapping services. This, too, is incorrect. The VSGA, for example, derives 37% of its total revenues from membership fees (which include a handicap index, just one benefit among many). The remaining 67% is comprised of championship golf entry fees for men and women; a One-Day schedule for the less skilled golfer (more than 100 events per year and nearly 7,500 entries); a golf card which funds our college scholarship program (more than $2 million granted since inception); the VSGA Junior Golf Circuit (conducted more than 75 events in 2015 for nearly 700 junior boys and girls playing more than 2,000 rounds – 9-holes, 18-holes, 36-holes and championships); advertising revenue (print and digital); miscellaneous.

All SRGAs are non-profit associations and our mission is to promote golf throughout Virginia. We do so in myriad ways. We support public and private golf courses, their members and allied organizations, including the Middle Atlantic PGA Section, the Virginia Golf Course Superintendents Association, the Virginia Chapter of the National Golf Course Owners Association and the Club Managers Association. We drive business to our member clubs by: conducting qualifiers, championships and One-Day events; through our VSGA-VIP Golf Card; conducting Rules of Golf workshops and Handicap seminars; and conducting committee meetings and board meetings to name several ways we support our member clubs. We belong to the Virginia Agribusiness Council and are founding members of the Virginia Golf Council both of which keeps us abreast of legislative issues that may affect the golf industry and our member clubs. We support the Turf Grass program at Virginia Tech with funding for scholarships every year. We support First Tee programs in different ways. We have been involved with two economic impact studies since 2007 and supported a Best Management Practices Guide for superintendents. Suffice it to say, we have not been in existence since 1904, solely, to provide handicap indexes for members of private clubs.

I’d also like to mention that not only are your remarks misleading but they are quite demeaning to all of the volunteers who give back to the game they love. They spend countless hours on their own dime helping promote golf in Virginia and around the country. The time spent with the VSGA is not just to provide a handicap index to more than 60,000 members but it’s time spent to rate golf courses, officiate at tournaments, help out with the kids at junior events, and to try to set strategies to help support more than 300 member clubs which we view as important small businesses. Many of these volunteers probably subscribe to Golf Digest.

I would hope you will print this letter as a rebuttal to your comments you made in the last issue of Golf Digest. If you so choose, I’d also like to chat with you to clear up any misunderstanding and confusion. I have found that if I am going to argue a point of view, I've got a better chance of getting my point across with facts and not conjecture. If interested, I can be reached at the number below.



JAMIE CONKLING | Executive Director Virginia State Golf Association