Math whiz became Pope of Slope
Knuth used his brain power to revamp handicap system
By T.R. Reinman
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
May 4, 1999
It's hard to say exactly when this all started. Not that it really matters, since the USGA Slope System is here to stay for the foreseeable future. But, maybe it was when Dean Knuth scored the maximum 800 on his math SAT test while at Eau Claire (Wis.) Memorial High.
Or when, as a Masters candidate at the Naval Post-Graduate School in Monterey, he played Pebble Beach one day and realized his home course handicap wasn't nearly enough help.
Or when the USGA realized the handicapping system it had been using for decades wasn't giving enough people enough help and, realizing it needed some help itself, invited Knuth to join its Handicap Research Team in 1979.
What Knuth came up with was a new way to rate courses and players. It was called the Slope System.
Since the early 1970s, course length was the main factor in rating courses. Simply put, if a course was rated 70, an expert player was expected to play it in 70, but there was no really accurate expectation for a bogey player. If a course of 6,600 yards called, say, Open Flats, was rated at 70, it didn't necessarily mean it played the same as a 6,600-yard course called Panther Mountain, which was rated at 75.
"If these two clubs had a series of matches," says Knuth, "the Panther Mountain guys would send the Pigeon Express limousine to bring in the team from Open Flats."
Under the old rules, handicaps sometimes didn't travel too well. What was needed was "portability."
The Handicap Research Team found that two courses with the same rating could be as many as 12 strokes harder or easier for the average player. That the average male player was a 17 handicap, the average female was 31. And that the "bogey" golfer, defined as one whose handicap is between 18 and 22, who can hit a 200-yard drive but can't reach a hole longer than a 370 yards in two shots -- averages 21 shots over the course rating on the average course.
So Knuth's team added handfuls of variables to the course rating system, among them topography, bunkering, recoverability, water hazards and more. This way it was able to rate courses not just primarily by length, but by their relative difficulty for all levels of players.
With a formula to rate a course in place, the Handicap Research Team needed one to a rate players, to establish his "index." (See accompanying box.)
"You have to have two dimensions," said Knuth. "You have to know how difficult the course is for the bogey golfer and how difficult for the expert golfer. You connect those two points to get the slope, which is how fast the scores go up as the handicaps go up."
Together, the course rating and index form the Slope System, which was adopted first by the Colorado Golf Association in 1983 and last by the Southern California Golf Association in 1990.
And the guy who figured it out, with a little help from his friends, was Dean Knuth, who lives in Bonita and works in Scripps Ranch.
Locally he's known as a commuter. And the manager at Inter-National Research Institute, which writes high-tech military software. Worldwide he's known as The Pope of Slope, a name he picked up in Argentina when he was traveling the golf world trying to explain his new system in the early '80s.
Knuth, who graduated from the Naval Academy in 1970, was based in San Diego for the first five of his 11 years in the Navy. Sometime after he returned to the East Coast -- he was with the USGA in New Jersey from 1981-97 -- he decided he was going to live in San Diego by the time he was 50. And he made the move, although he was three weeks late.
He's a member at Rancho Santa Fe Farms, where he's the handicap chairman. Which means two things: Knuth doesn't mind driving to work or play and there are no sandbaggers at The Farms.
© Copyright 1999 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.