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Golf World, January 26, 2001
B Y    D E A N K N U T H

Gimme a Break

Former handicapping czar says USGA stance on posting scores with illegal drivers is inconsistent and shortsighted

NOW that I've been away from the Ivory Palace of the USGA for more than three years, I've rediscovered the fun of the casual round and how different it is from a "stipulated round" in a national championship. I've played with all sorts of good people who are bad golfers, but they all come back to play again because of a good shot they remember from an otherwise mediocre round. If I tell them a certain driver might give them added length but can't be used to post scores because the USGA considers the club nonconforming--well, they'd be astonished at the USGA's attitude. More often than not, I see lots of rules violations including play with nonconforming drivers-and posting these scores is the norm, not the exception.

Personally, I would love to get back some of the distance I've lost in the past 10 years. I get more of a thrill from watching a long drive than any other part of my game. Whether my score would improve is debatable, as I still have to get the ball onto the green and into the hole. But even if it lowers my handicap by a few tenths of a stroke, so what? If someone's game does measurably improve from using a nonconforming driver, the beauty of the handicap system is that the handicap index will go down at that measurable rate.

I don't have a nonconforming driver, but if I did, I suppose I would use it 14 times out of about 90 shots. Most of those 14 shots depend on my erratic swing, so I estimate that my score won't average more than a stroke better per round. Of course, other variables (weather, course conditions, frequency of practice and play) affect my score more than a stroke, but because I post every one of those scores under every condition, it ultimately makes what driver I use rather inconsequential to my handicap.

In fact, there are more substantial errors already present in the Handicap System through Equitable Stroke Control. While ESC works well for the single digit handicapper, it penalizes double-digit handicappers who have limits of 7s and 8s on their cards. That's too much on par threes, but not enough on par fives. So more errors can come from ESC limits than the effect of any driver, conforming or nonconforming.

If these arguments aren't enough to sway you into accepting my "post all scores" point of view, consider this: The ban on scores from players using nonconforming equipment provides a huge loophole in handicapping. A golfer can buy a nonconforming driver, then begin practicing, taking lessons and playing much more (but not posting his scores). Then he enters a tournament with his handicap index based on his latest 20 "postable" scores, which are months old and nowhere near reflective of his improved game. He enters the tournament using a conforming driver, and still easily plays better than his handicap. That's not fair, but it's OK under the current rule.

Let's not tie the USGA handicap system to a strict interpretation of the Rules of Golf. Certainly, average golfers take great license occasionally with a strict interpretation of the rules (mulligans, winter rules, illegal drops, picking up, etc.), but by the USGA's interpretation, they do not generally violate "the principles of the Rules of Golf." That language, as now written in the Handicap System Manual, lets golfers post scores despite common infractions, and this same attitude of forgiveness should cover the use of nonconforming equipment.

The handicap system works best when more scores are entered, not fewer. I devoted 20 years of my fife to improving the USGA handicap system. I hate to see any USGA decisions put recreational golfers into a position that takes USGA handicaps away from them. Instead, the USGA should devote more attention to including more golfers in its system. Having rules is great, but they should not be used as a hammer in its handicap system.

Dean Knuth was USGA Senior Director of Handicapping from 1981-97.

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