Six steps to a much better handicap system

December 11, 2015

The USGA Handicapping system is a marvel. It allows players of disparate skills to compete, and, if everyone is honest, to compete fairly. (Big “if,” we know.)

But the system produces painful side effects. It reinforces the American obsession with stroke play. It causes people to play for a medal score even when they’re playing matches. It discourages other, sometimes faster, formats by not counting those scores. Taken together, it contributes to slow play and frustration: If every player has to count every last stroke “for handicap purposes” even a match play round is a dreary marathon and the sport is far less fun than it might be.

So it was a huge disappointment when the USGA recently announced changes to the system (something it only does every four years or so) and did little to address these issues. The most talked-about and debated change—banning of unaccompanied rounds for handicaps—induced a yawn here. OK, so you don’t take my scores, which are perfectly accurate, because someone else is padding his. Does that really help? It’s re-painting the Titanic’s deck chairs—forget about rearranging them.

We hear the association is close to greater changes. We hope so. Here’s what it should look like:

1. Get with the rest of the world. For years the USGA has discussed with the R&A and other golf associations the desirability of a common worldwide handicap system. Makes sense, since Americans more and more often play overseas and tons of overseas golfers visit our clubs and resorts. There have been dozens, if not hundreds, of meetings about this. It’s time to act.

2. Adopt the Net Double Bogey limit. A stumbling block to such an agreement is the U.S. resistance to a simple, “maximum net double bogey” standard for recording scores (the USGA prefers a more complicated Equitable Stroke Control, which, which several experts on handicapping tell us, is no more accurate). No score beyond a net double bogey counts for handicap calculation. If you’re about to make a double, might as well pick it up. There’s no need to putt out your 9 “for my handicap.” Take a breather. Enjoy the outdoors. And keep the game moving. It’s a stance mathematician Dean Knuth, the architect of the Slope System, has long advocated. And he’s right.

3. Encourage Stableford scoring. In Europe and Australia, this net-double-bogey limit includes the use of the Stableford points scoring: One point for net bogey, two points for par, three points for birdie, zero for anything higher than bogey. It’s enjoyable because it rewards good play without letting an abysmal hole destroy your round. The European Golf Association and Australia have built handicap systems based on Stableford points. If, for example, you average 20 points (out of a maximum 36) your handicap will be about 16. At the very least the USGA could encourage “points” play at its clubs. For kids, who play other sports for positive points, Stableford makes complete sense. It is, Knuth says, “Fast and fun.” One expert on slow play agreed that it can help there, too. (For the record, we are not advocating the revised Stableford format used by the old International professional tournament. That penalized golfers for high scores; fine for pros, defeats the purpose for amateurs.) And if Stableford sounds stodgy, call it Points Scoring.

4. Proclaim the match or medal mandate. The USGA holds great sway with dedicated golfers—the ones who maintain handicaps (2.3 million in the U.S.) It can say: If you play match play, play match play! Recent changes almost got there. They say golfers may pick up and estimate their score on a hole they don’t finish during a match. But they still give the golfer the option to play the hole out, even when, for the purposes of the match, he or she is a non-factor. It’s a time-consuming habit that makes for bad match players. (If you’re worried about your score, is the match your first priority?) How about this? The USGA says, “In match play, pick up when you’re out of hole,” period. If you’re not sure what to record, ask your playing companion—or take net double bogey.

5. If it’s really necessary, ask us to attest scores. If the USGA and its mathematicians really believe there’s a big problem with padding handicaps via false, “unaccompanied” scores, then Internet scores should be addressed, too, right? We hate to think it’s necessary, but if it is, why not say that any score include an attester’s name? “I’m posting an 85 today. Will you attest?” is a simple conversation. Suspect handicaps could then be easily checked if necessary. But know that this is where peer review meets peer pressure. You say you shot 86; I think it’s more like 83. Am I really going to argue?

6. Take Handicapping out of the rules orbit. It’s no coincidence that handicapping and rules changes come on the same cycle, every four years. But why? It means adjustments to the system come too infrequently. Moreover, they encourage the Association to treat handicapping as another set of rules—they’ve acknowledged this-- right down to, in these latest changes, directing golfers to place an X before any number where they don’t finish a hole and estimate the score. Really?!! Must we use a No. 2 pencil as well?

Ultimately, handicap efficacy depends on golfers’ sense of integrity and fair play. But these changes might remove the, um, handicaps to the ultimate goal: A fast and fun game.