Handicapping, Slope systems designed for game's enjoyment
By Kit Bradshaw
Dean Knuth, often called the "Pope of Slope" for his creation of the Slope System while senior director of handicapping for the United States Golf Association, led the discussion on "USGA Handicap System and Course Rating System" during Sunday's all-day educational session.
Knuth explained that today's handicap system has evolved from the 1680s, when the Scots transferred the handicapping term from horse race betting to golf terminology.
Knuth said that in 1875 "the handicap for a tournament was determined by public vote, much like a town meeting. Imagine if today, you were entered into a tournament, and the night before you and the other players met to determine the handicaps. You wanted a 13 handicap and there was a big uproar in the meeting while everyone discussed what your handicap should be."
In the United States, there were several formulas for handicapping developed over the years. At one point, it was the best 10 of 25 scores, then 80 percent of the best 25 scores, and now it is 96 percent of the best 10 of 20 rounds played.
"With this system, the player is expected to average three strokes over their handicap. Golfers only play to their handicap 25 percent of the time, and even fewer times play below their handicap, so as golf professionals you need to remind your golfers about this, and also to make a big deal about it when they do play below their handicap."
According to Knuth, the handicap system is designed to be based less on potential than on actuality. Because it is based on the 10 best rounds of 20, it is designed to change downward more quickly than to move upward. In other words, better play, resulting in 10 better scores reflect a lower handicap more quickly than when scores begin to move up, since it is still the 10 best scores used.
Many low-handicap players might contact the USGA, either by phone or the Web site, and say that they don't feel they have a chance to win in a club tournament because the handicap system benefits the high-handicap players, Knuth said. "But in reality, the handicap system works in just the opposite way."
"The purpose of the handicap is to make the game of golf more enjoyable by enabling golfers of differing abilities to compete on an equitable basis," said Knuth. "But built into the system is a 'Bonus for Excellence,' which means that a player who is more proficient should play better, and the handicap system recognizes this. So, in every six-stroke difference in handicap there is a one stroke advantage for the better player. Once we explain this to golfers -- both higher and lower handicap players -- they feel that this is a fairly equitable system. They understand that the golfer who works harder, who plays better as a result should have a better opportunity to play well in a match."
Knuth also said that this system can be inequitable if certain factors appear.
"The advantage can be upset if there is sandbagging, and also by the varying abilities of the players," he said. "For instance, a player I would call Steady Eddie is usually your older player who plays well and consistently. There are rarely great differences in his scores, so the best 10 of 20 are going to be extremely close. On the other hand, the player I would call Wild Willie is that great driver, who doesn't know where the ball is going, but who hits the ball out of sight. He isn't good around the greens, but give him a wide open course, and he might do well. His scores fluctuate wildly, so his best 10 scores will give him a lower handicap than his actual performance."
Knowing the characteristics of the players at an individual club may help the golf professionals team people well for tournaments, especially team events.
"A good pairing comes from those with different handicaps, and the ideal pairing to win comes from players who have an eight shot difference between them and their partners. This is something to keep in mind when pairing players for a team event."
The sessions also discussed the ways to handicap for tournaments, for those playing from different tees and the procedures for adjusting scores. Part of the session was devoted to the slope system, and the details of how the USGA rates courses.