Comparing British Handicaps to USGA Handicaps
By Dean Knuth (Revised in April, 2007)
The R&A turned over control of handicapping in 1927 to CONGU (Council of National Golf Unions). They have not adopted the Slope System simply because the English GU refused to adopt it--Even after Ireland, Wales and Scotland had Slope rated most of their courses and wanted to go forward. Continental Europe got so frustrated with CONGU that they formed their own handicapping body (European Golf Association) and adopted Slope. The Ladies Golf Union now follows CONGU, but have Course and Slope Rated their courses according to the USGA System.
The biggest reason why Americans often can't compete against CONGU handicaps is because CONGU doesn't use the Slope System (even though many courses in Scotland and Wales have Slope Ratings). Without the Slope System to adjust player's differentials, UK golfers from difficult golf courses have a significant advantage over everyone-- Americans and UK golfers from average UK courses. But it gets much more complicated than that.
The SSS's (Standard Scratch Score--or, Course Ratings) in some areas of the UK—most notably England--may be under-rated. Without using a good obstacle course rating system, the courses in England get a more subjective rating. Also, for Links courses along the coast-line around the UK, the USGA Course Rating system does not always recognize the different challenge offered by links-type courses. This is because when I designed the USGA Course Rating system, I modeled it mostly on parkland-type courses that have a variety of all ten obstacles (See the Course Rating section of my popeofslope.com website). Using a simple example, many links courses have severe “Rough and Recoverability” and bunkers, but may not have a single tree, water hazard or out of bounds. The modeling formula may not be able to bring the SSS (Course Rating) up high enough from having high R&R and bunkers to compensate for zero ratings for the absent obstacles (trees, water and OB).
The CONGU Handicap System is mostly a “moving average” mathematical model where each score has a unique influence on the handicap calculation. It is an adaptation of a handicap system that originated in Australia decades ago. When a player plays in a designated tournament, his score is compared to the Competition Scratch Score for the day (CSS—See below). The categories will only be generalized here, but if a player does very well, his “Exact Handicap” (A number followed by a decimal) will go down equal to how many strokes he beat his handicap by times a decimal number like .1, .2, .3 or .4 depending on his handicap category (how good of a player he has been classed as). So, just to use a simple example—beats handicap by 3 shots, the exact handicap goes down .6. If the player scores in a buffer zone just above equaling his handicap, nothing changes. If the player scores worse than his buffer zone, he goes up a small amount—most often one-tenth of a shot.
Category Handicap Range Buffer Zone Reduction Per Shot Increase Per Round
The technical problems with the British system include:
1. It is based on T (tournament) scores only. An average golfer gets in only 3 to 5 scores a year. This makes the system very slow to respond to current ability. The time late in detecting changes in ability is often six months, which Dr. Fran Scheid found in a study years ago. It simply does not keep pace with current skill.
It can be argued that every score in the CONGU system contributes to the immediate handicap calculation and can therefore be considered to have an influence on every subsequent calculation. A CONGU player's handicap record might be impacted by scores going back 3 to 4 years. On the other hand in the USGA System the 21st oldest score has no bearing on the player's handicap. Thus effectively, a player's handicap is completely regenerated every 20 scores, although through the period there is a transition from one handicap to the next. For very active players, USGA Handicaps can vary relatively more quickly than with CONGU, however, I think that is a good thing. Basing the USGA Handicap on the better-half of a player's latest handicap differentials builds in a uniform “Bonus for Excellence” that allows changes in handicaps, but is always looking for the player's best performances during that time.
2. It uses ranges and step functions (buffer zones and varying the effect of a good score based on handicap level). Any step function system is inaccurate around the steps.
3. The amount of bonus for excellence varies by handicap level. By design, the CONGU system gives a higher bonus for excellence to lower handicap players to the point that higher handicap players have little Competition chance against lower handicap players in the UK. (And yet, it is still quite common in the UK to make players play at 3/4 handicaps, which makes the low handicappers shoe-ins to win). (Note: CONGU no longer supports the ¾ handicap allowance but this number has been around for more than a century in the UK and old procedures fade away very slowly.) Also, since Tournament scores are not singled out for comparison, as in the USGA system, and all scores in the CONGU system are Tournament scores, there is no special way of dealing with sandbaggers (known as bandits in the UK). CONGU clubs would do well, as in the USA to adopt the Knuth Tournament Point System to deal with sandbaggers. See the Knuth Tournament Point System on the www.popeofslope.com website. This procedure is in use by about 500 golf clubs in the USA. The other point to make is that the CONGU system is slow to respond to players who are declining, since they can only go up at a rate of .1 stroke per tournament round. With, say, 5 tournament rounds per year, it could take years for a declining player's handicap to catch up with his current ability.
4. Low handicappers can stay low too easily under the CONGU system. It is hard to get the handicap to go up when a player's game is off. The R & A was plagued by too many mediocre amateur entries in their amateur championships because of this problem and adopted a worldwide ranking system in 2007 in determining acceptance of entries, instead of basing entries on handicaps. There now is a good change to the CONGU system requiring 3 or more scores in the previous 12 months to be played outside of their own club and this is helping to make CONGU handicaps more universally comparable.
5. Scotland has used the USGA Course Rating System to evaluate the Scratch (SSS) rating for its courses. However, the CONGU course rating system in England is poor at best. The Competition Scratch Score system that Peter Wilson developed (former president of the EGU, a very bright man and a great friend of mine) is an interesting concept, but it is one-dimensional, and makes it inadequate and typically under-rates courses using only whole numbers (from back in the days when club secretaries did not have computers and calculations had to be made easy). There is NO portability in the CONGU handicap system. A 5 and a 15 at one course do not equate to the same handicaps at another course. For example, an average player at Carnoustie, the most difficult course in Scotland will develop a higher handicap than if he played an easy “open flats” course. (It is interesting that the CSS, raises the SSS on bad weather days, but basing course rating for a day on how all the players score self-perpetuates a system that can't be compared with the USGA Handicap System. Also, the CONGU system is inaccurate to the point that more than one golf club playing the same golf course on the same day can come up with different CSS's because of sampling error).
The CSS calculation determines whether the field of players on the day have found conditions more difficult for whatever reason (and course difficulty is one of the factors), so the SSS is increased by a number depending on the variation from expected. Some have argued that CSS causes the two systems to produce similar handicaps and how the CONGU system gets to Slope by a different (retrospective) approach. I don't agree with this argument because a one dimensional table (CSS) cannot accurately predict for all levels of players, from best to worst, what their expected scores should be. What I found in my research over a twenty-year period is that bad weather affects higher handicap players much more than lower handicap players. For example, players of 5 handicap and less might have 5 stroke higher scores on windy days, but the 20 handicap players would have scores more than ten strokes higher. To use a table to add one number, instead of a slope line (percentage increase times handicap) pushes too much data into one number to be accurate, or to be comparable to the USGA's two-dimensional system.
6. I do like their ESC (Equitable Stroke Control system--Capping of extremely high hole scores) procedure. Both CONGU and the European GA adopted net double bogey as a hole score cut off, in the name of Stableford. When you are at net bogey, you might as well pick-up (except in a stroke play competition, of course), because you can't do better than net double bogey. (Note: All of continental Europe adopted the Stableford counting form of ESC. CONGU has not). Scores are posted as Stableford points, then Slope is applied. (Note: I have thought for years that “Net Double Bogey” is a superior Equitable Stroke Control System to the current USGA System. Allowing a maximum hole score of double bogey, plus any handicap strokes that the player gets on that hole is much more fair than a fixed number such as a maximum of a 7 (10-19 handicaps) on both a par 3 and a par 5 used by the USGA (I was head of USGA Handicapping staff when that system was adopted, but that is another story).
There can be no conversion factor that will make USGA Handicaps and CONGU handicaps comparable. The two systems are far too disparate to make that possible.
BTW, when an American plays golf in the UK, he is to use his Course Handicap from his home course---Except, where a Course Handicap table is posted. So many Americans complained about not having Course Handicap tables at St. Andrews that those courses now have big tables posted (A few other courses have them as well, including Carnoustie). I am proud of a photo of me standing in front of the Slope table at the first tee at the Old Course taken in July (2004). This was the first year the signs were put out. An American rating team Slope rated the Links Trust courses and it was followed-up by a Scottish Golf Union team.
Over the years I have had many communications with people who want a simple way to compare British handicaps to American handicaps. Some studies have shown a similarity to handicaps in specific ranges. In fact, this could be the case in many average players who play at average courses. However, this would not be true when comparing Long-wild or short-straight players who developed their handicaps at difficult or very easy course. My good friend George Peper, and American living in St. Andrews devoted a chapter in his book about how his USGA Handicap and his CONGU handicap have absolutely no similarity and are five or more strokes apart.
For those of you who want to be able to compare USGA and CONGU handicaps, I hope that this article explains the complexity in this problem and why it there is not any simple factor that can be applied to make them comparable across a range of playing ability.
As a postscript, it might interest you to know that an early remedial form of the concept of the Slope System was introduced by the Irish Golf Union before WWII. The Irish produced a table based on the length of a golf course. It allowed golfers to add additional strokes to their handicaps when they went to play a very long away course. There were subjective parts to the system and it did not last, but someone was ahead of their time in realizing that the portability problem was real in golf. Taking a handicap from one golf course to another course is a real issue and that is what the USGA Slope System was designed to solve.