PGA Championship

Valhalla Golf Club

Why the USGA dropped the ball on handicaps

By Jerry Tarde Photos by Dom Furore
January 15, 2016

Photo by Dom Furore

I pledge allegiance to the Golf Association of the United States of America, and to the public courses for which it stands, one game, unbifurcated, with handicap strokes for all. Or at least I always felt that way until the latest ruling from the USGA disqualified for handicap purposes any rounds recorded alone.

You now can't turn in a score if you play by yourself. Presumably you have to be watched to ensure you're not cheating. Isn't honesty the backbone of the game we all love?

I'm reminded of that charming USGA commercial from the 2000 U.S. Open showing a kid playing alone at dusk, making a hole-in-one, jumping up and down, then looking around to see if anybody saw it. Good thing an old greenkeeper on a cart was passing by, or it wouldn't have counted.

The governing body tweeted: "The USGA Handicap System is built on integrity, with peer review being crucial to confirming a player's potential scoring ability."

Sounds like hokum to me.

The Canadian Golf Federation agrees and tweeted back it wasn't going to adopt the USGA change: "Scores made while playing alone will continue to count for handicap purposes." Those Canadians understand how to appreciate every round.

Peer review? We know that's a sham. As one rules expert told me, "The only folks whose handicaps are peer-reviewed are the SOB sandbaggers who win tournaments. Their phony numbers tend to be reviewed after they've won."

Further scrutiny reveals golf's dirty little secret: The number of American golfers with handicaps hasn't budged in almost 30 years, and handicaps are an affectation of the rich. Based on about 25 million U.S. golfers, fewer than five million have a USGA Handicap Index. An educated guess is that 80 percent of private-club members and only 10-15 percent of public-course players have a handicap. These numbers are sketchy because the USGA admits it doesn't track them—a colossal failure. In most enterprises, somebody's Key Performance Indicators would be based on growing these numbers.

Why isn't the governing body more concerned about the decline in American golfers and using all its assets to promote the game? In the Internet age, handicaps should be free and easy, but the USGA is trying to protect state and regional golf associations that derive income almost entirely from handicapping services. It's like protecting railroads by banning air travel. The rules-makers should use their billion dollars in Fox TV money and mount a campaign to "get every golfer a handicap." They've dropped the ball.

The genius of handicapping is that it allows everybody, no matter their ability, to compete against each other in golf.

Almost no other sport has that gear. You can't play one-on-one with Steph Curry. You can't last a round with Luke Rockhold. You can't have a game with Novak Djokovic. But you can play matches all day long with Jordan Spieth.

Instead, the USGA is focused on disqualifying rounds played alone. And banning yippers who anchor their long putters—that's another rule going into effect this January after 40 years of acceptance. I think Oscar Wilde said, put enough lawyers in a room with the door closed, and eventually they'll turn the Rules of Golf into the U.S. Tax Code.

Let's start our own campaign. If the USGA doesn't want to give you a handicap, Golf Digest will. It won't be "official," but it's free and allows you to play rounds alone and anchor your putter. Just go to Serious players should join a USGA club and get an official handicap, but try ours while you're waiting to get serious.

This issue updates the World 100 Greatest Courses, but go to for the complete list of the best courses in every golf country in the world. It's an indispensable guide for the global golfer. A record 206 countries have courses ranked on the list.

We also track the countries without golf courses, this year 39 of them, from Iraq and Yemen as the most populous to the Holy See (Vatican) and Pitcairn Islands as the least.

I checked in for reaction with our contributing editor Tom Friedman, who also doubles as the foreign-affairs columnist for The New York Times.

"I am amazed at how many places I've played, including Beirut, Tehran, Israel, Russia, Egypt, Morocco and Cameroon," Friedman said. "While it's clear that the presence of a golf course doesn't guarantee stability—see Syria [with one course]—it's very obvious that the absence of sufficient links seems to be associated with failed states and civil war.

You wonder what came first: state failure or the failure to build a proper 18 where people could take out their aggravation on a golf ball rather than on each other!"