How the World Handicap System Really Works on America’s Handicaps
By Dean Knuth
I love the USGA. I was a charter member of the USGA Handicap Research Team. I gave up a great career in the U. S. Navy in 1981 to join USGA Staff as their first Director of Handicapping. I created both the USGA Course Rating System in 1976 and later the Slope Rating System to make handicaps more reliable and portable. Over the next 16 years established Slope throughout America and many other countries of the world. My handle became “The Pope of Slope.” Most Recently, I was General Chairman of the 2017 U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship for the USGA.
I offer this preamble to underscore the fact that I have no grudge against the USGA. I strongly support its work in handicapping. I think that the introduction of the Course Rating and Slope Rating System globally as part of the World Handicap System is a good thing.
That said, I am very concerned with details of the new World Handicap System.
In an effort to create a process that every golf association in the world can accept (One Size Fits All concept), the USGA has downgraded the handicap system in the United States. What was a straightforward and precise process has been transformed into one that is more complicated and less precise. American golfers will immediately feel its changes. I believe that the introduction of what I’ll call “par handicaps,” is the most significant mistake.
What is a par handicap? A par handicap results when par is part of the calculation that creates a Playing Handicap or Course Handicap. As you know, par was not a factor in the American system of handicap calculation, nor need it have been. One’s handicap index was adjusted not by par but by course rating to create a playing handicap, or what we continue to call a Course Handicap. A course’s rating, not its par, is what’s important. Two courses with par 72s, I don’t have to tell you, can vary greatly in difficulty.
Why was par added to the handicap calculation then? Because it’s already part of handicap systems in some other countries. Determining the playing handicap (Course Handicap) by means of a par-based adjustment originated in Sweden and Australia where golf is played by Stableford points, and the points, not scores, are posted for handicap purposes. Because points are used, this formula added a step beyond the American calculation (Handicap Index times Slope Rating divided by 113). In Stableford-based systems, a final step is added: add Course Rating minus par to make it easier for those players to compare their performance to par scores.
In these countries this is how par, (which is much less precise in measuring difficulty than course rating), becomes part of the formula. Then comes rounding off, which introduces other errors, not only in the round-off but often in “over-spreading” of the resulting handicaps. Overspreading is another kind of approximation that happens when a par-based handicap is adjusted for different tees and courses. In short, an approximation is approximated again, making it less reliable mathematically. This is especially problematic in calculating handicaps for competition between men and women, because women’s Course Ratings are based on women scratch golfers and men are based on men’s scratch. Also, when the par for the course they play is different, a new adjustment for difference in par has to be applied (New Section 6-2b) adding that to the player with the higher par.
The adjustment for the difference in Course Rating when competing from different tees (previously called Section 3-5 in the handicap manual) has gone away --which is unfortunate because the difference in Course Rating is the only exact way to make score comparisons-- and now is supposedly “built-in” to the new par-based formula.
But what’s really built in is a wider margin of error. What does the Course Rating minus Par adjustment really represent? It is the error of Par as a “descriptor” of playing difficulty. Course Rating is universally accepted as the most accurate measure of relative difficulty for the Scratch golfer and the Course Rating minus Par is the magnitude of the Par’s error measured against that accurate value. So, the par handicap is the true handicap measured against the most accurate value corrected for the error inherent in the least accurate value—par.
I believe that the USGA has rolled these par handicaps out too quickly across America. Especially given that there were objections to this part of the WHS from some regional and state golf associations and handicap researchers. Another major warning flag was the fact that Great Britain and Ireland, under the umbrella of the Council of National Golf Unions (CONGU) opted-out of the Par Handicap feature. But USGA was intent on jumping right into the change on January 1 declaring that it would only impact American golfers by less than a stroke and it would be easier for golfers to equate their scores to par.
Many golfers will have no idea about these errors because all of the golf associations are issuing “Course Handicap Tables” which masks the details of the calculation and blends them with the Slope Rating corrections for portability.
What golfers will know is that, in most cases, their course handicap has been reduced if their normal tees have a Course Rating under par. Using the best 8 of 20 scores (against the old 96% of 10 of 20) already tends to lower handicaps and also because at the average golf course, the Course Rating is a lower number than par. If their Course Rating is over par, then their handicaps will be going up. An example of the latter is the popular for women Gold Tees at Fairbanks Ranch Country Club in San Diego area which has a Women’s Course Rating of 76.4 and a par of 72. Most ladies there will see their playing handicaps go up FIVE shots. The introduction of par and the subsequent approximations add another half-shot error because of the Course Rating minus Par adjustment, usually in the direction of lower handicap.
Players who always play from the same tees at their club will see another inconsistency. If, for example, the Course Rating is 70.5 and Par is 71, the calculation of Course Rating Minus Par (.5) means, based on the way the tables are created, that half the players will have a Course Handicap one lower than they had before the new system and half will not! Further, when playing from different tees, the number of strokes assigned will change, wildly in cases. As we all know, one stroke often determines handicap-event outcomes.
The United States isn’t a predominantly Stableford playing country. We play a lot of match play, where handicaps have a huge impact. By adopting all of the new WHS elements, we have adopted a World system that is not as accurate as what we have enjoyed. The new WHS alters a 40-year-old course-rating-based handicap system in favor of a “net par,” which is, the USGA argues, easier for golfers to grasp. Steve Edmondson, the current USGA Senior Handicap Director stated: “We can’t get clubs to apply section 3-5 today because it is simply unintuitive.” John Bodenhamer, added: “Golfers have indeed found it difficult to disconnect par from the equation.” Mr. Bodenhamer is the USGA’s Senior Manager of Championships. He was the senior representative for the USGA at the World Handicap System committee.
THE PAR PITFALL
The unreliability of par has not changed. The definition of par in the outgoing USGA Handicap System manual is the same as the definition 40 years ago: “Par is a score that a scratch golfer would be expected to make for a typical hole. Par means expert play under ordinary conditions, allowing two strokes on the putting green. Par is not a significant factor in either the USGA Handicap System or the USGA Course Rating System.” For men a par 3 is up to 260 yards. 240 to 490 is a par 4 and 450 to 710 is a par 5. Women’s par is 3 up to 220 yards, 200-420 is a 4 and 370 to 600 is a 5—an amazing range in hole length, especially for pars 4 and 5. Golf course architect Tom Doak urged us, in a recent issue of Met Golfer, to “Abandon Par, what is it good for?” Variations in length, in obstacles, in penalty areas, make one course drastically harder than another even when they have the same par, he says. And he’s right. Further, it will be difficult for the regional and state golf associations to adjudicate par at clubs.
There are other aspects of the WHS:
—DIFFERENCE IN COURSE RATING IS OUT. The idea of replacing the misunderstood section 3-5 is good, if we could do it reliably which the new system doesn’t. The problem is that where the pars of the two tees are different, the same correction must be applied to account for the par difference. Since players will be told the 3-5 correction is built-in there is a bigger danger that the Par difference will not be corrected as is now required. The usual result will be unfair to women competing against men, or senior men who compete from more forward tees.
—PROVIDING HANDICAP UPDATES DAILY. I worry about the ability of club Handicap Committees to now keep up with the daily rises and falls of their membership’s handicaps. My home club as an example prints course handicaps of all members for all the tees every two weeks and puts them in a binder at the first tee. That will be tough to do on a daily basis. Also, selecting which handicap cut-offs to use for tournaments becomes more of an issue.
--WEATHER CORRECTION. Allowing for unusual weather and course conditions in recording of scores now is done automatically. If done accurately, and of that I am not certain. What happens when the weather is great in the morning, but bad in the afternoon?
The problem is, these refinements will contribute to a less precise system because of the introduction of par, the lynchpin of the WHS. We see this in the Maximum Hole Score procedure (net double bogey). We will see this in the composition of Course Handicap Tables. And you will see this every day at your club or course.
In more detail, here is how handicap processing will change for the worse because of WHS:
1. Variance from tee to tee. Gone will be the days where a Course Handicap changes slightly from all sets of tees at a course. Instead, the difference between the Course Rating and par will be factored into the tables and change them. If the Course Rating is above par, the difference will be added. Where once a Course Handicap was a 12 from the back and middle tees, and an 11 from the front, look for larger variations. —sometimes, very large—by 18 shots or more. Golfers moving to the longer tees will think that is a logical change. Golfers playing shorter tees won’t be happy.
2. The spreading effect. The range in playing handicaps (Course Handicaps) between courses suddenly will become much wider, on the order of 18 shot differences between shorter courses and longer courses. This is a greater range than actual scores justify in some cases because of “over-spreading” from the system change. Based on a large sample size for courses in Southern California, I found that a man with a 14.1 Handicap Index currently has a range of Course Handicaps from 12 to 18 with an average course handicap of 15. The average Slope Rating is 121. However, under WHS due to Par Handicaps, his range varies wildly from -1 to 22 with an average course handicap of 11.6, effectively giving him more than three shots less in the process. WHS produces an unacceptably large handicap variation for the same ability player. The WHS adjustment has reversed the effects of applying Slope to the players Index, masking what Slope was designed to do-- to make handicaps portable used by the player in competition.
3. The scratch golfer anomaly. Scratch golfers are no longer 0 handicaps everywhere. Scratch golfers who were used to being scratch (0) at any course and any set of tees now will be playing anywhere from a plus 12 to a 6 handicap, an 18-shot range.
4. The forward tee issue. Senior golfers competing from more forward tees against golfers from the regular tees often will be receiving fewer strokes than is equitable. As we get older, the USGA’s “Tee it Forward” initiative will mean our course handicap which often is one above our Handicap Index whereas on average from my study will be 2 strokes below it, playing against the same par. This will be a disincentive for players to move to the shorter tees Comparing the Red and yellow tees the 14.0 currently is the same, but by the WHS it will be 6 shots lower, on average. Par being so inaccurate, the variation in Course Handicap increases. This results in unrealistic handicaps that will appear to bear little relevance to player scores. Handicaps become significantly lower as tees become shorter. With clubs keeping the same par across all tees no seniors will want to Tee it Forward. Younger players and beginners will be encouraged to move to longer tees as their course handicaps will be much higher than Slope would dictate.
5. Par v. par disadvantage. Playing against a player who has a different par than yours becomes an entirely new training effort to explain that the difference in par now has to be added to the player’s course handicap from the higher par tees.
6. Women v. men unfairness. Women will find many times that they don’t get enough strokes to compete fairly. That is especially true when the women’s par is higher than men’s par which happens frequently. The correction for difference in Course Rating going to the player competing from the higher rated tees unfortunately is going away and the Course Rating minus Par adjustment doesn’t work in many cases because of the overspreading problem combined with the men’s and women’s course rating systems.
6. Team play. In team play, women have it even worse. Women’s team-play handicap allowances have always been 10% higher than men to provide equity for their less varying hole scores. Now they are losing that 10%. Women, who have for 40 years had team-play handicap allowances of 95% of handicap due to their lower hole-score variability, now will get 85% of their handicaps, the same as men.
7. Weaker tournament score monitoring. Exceptional tournament score procedure is eliminated, replaced by “caps” on handicaps. For 40 years the USGA has had an Exceptional Tournament Score procedure that reduced golfers’ handicaps when they had two or more exceptional scores in a one-year period. (Usually beating the handicap twice by more than three strokes). It worked well yet, it is being replaced by an automatic reduction that gives no weight to tournament scores. An exceptional score of even casual rounds now will kick-in called a “Cap” system used overseas, with a soft cap limiting a handicap increase of more than 3 over the low handicap of the past 12 months and a hard cap that prevents a handicap increase or more than 5 within a year. To the disappointment of myself and other handicap experts, the WHS will no longer care more about competition scores than other rounds. Instead, whenever a golfer records any differential of at least 7.0 strokes lower than his or her Handicap Index for ANY round of golf, an automatic 1.0 stroke reduction will be applied (2.0 reduction for any round ten shots below). Most statisticians dislike “step-functions” that are less accurate than formulas and this one makes no sense to me. Someone now can beat their handicap twice by 6 strokes in a big multi-day tournament and the Cap doesn’t kick-in. In my opinion, it now will be important for clubs to adopt the Knuth Tournament Point System (in addition to the more than 1,000 clubs already using it. (See www.popeofslope.com ).
8. Fewer rounds in the calculation. The change from 96% of the best 10 differentials of the last 20 to best 8 of the last 20 tends to lower the handicaps of higher handicappers.
9. Net Double Bogey replaces Equitable Stroke Control (ESC). The use of Net Double Bogey as the maximum hole score is better than the procedure that it replaces, but also has serious flaws. However, applying it manually is not complex (where players get shots varies from each set of tees as their par handicap changes) and will lead to players guessing or not applying it at all). Add to this the inaccuracy of the par allocation and club’s allocation of [stroke index] could well mean any increase in accuracy is lost. The effect on handicap. This argument also applies to net par for holes not played.
10. Less relevant stroke allocation. The recommendation for the ranking of the stroke holes (known as Handicap Stroke Index) has changed. Match play no longer is factored in, which is odd as match play is a very popular format in America. It is replaced by ranking the holes by stroke play to make the WHS work better. Specifically, holes will be ranked according to their raw difficulty versus par, with the top-rated holes spread throughout each nine. This means, essentially, that we Americans should start playing Stableford because otherwise the ranking of holes won’t be accurate for match play. The whole issue of Stroke Indexing is surrounded in myth and misconception. In my experience on the majority of courses there are 3 or 4 holes that stand out as the “most difficult” (as defined by the average score of the field over a period) and 3 or 4 that are the easiest. The remaining 10 or 12 are separated, closely bunched and may well change from year to year. Further difficulty depends on the handicap. A Par 5 offers a birdie opportunity for a scratch but a bogey threat for a 20 handicap. Further, the club will determine Stroke Index as it sees fit (just as they will Par, especially where “false Pars” are allocated to maintain the same Par across all tees. The USGA and Allied Golf Associations will issue “guidelines” but will not do anything if, in order to maintain the same Par across all tees, a club deliberately ignores them. It is of course in the interest of the new handicap system to let clubs allocate “false pars” as then the clubs / players do not have to apply the difference in Par correction.
11. Factoring weather in. A new feature considers weather and course conditions. The automated Playing Conditions Calculation (PCC) will analyze daily scores to determine if conditions of play differed significantly from “normal” to an extent that scoring was impacted. If so, all differentials for the day will be uniformly adjusted upwards or downwards. The calculation is performed each evening just before handicaps are updated, providing yet another incentive to post a score by midnight on the day of play. If a golfer delays posting, the score will inherit any PCC adjustment, but it will not have been a part of the process that led to the decision to adjust. I believe that this formula is another Golf Australia product. I wonder how it will work when golfers play calm conditions in the morning and afternoon golfers play in a stiff breeze?
12. The rush to act. Before Slope was rolled-out in the USA there was significant testing with Northern California Golfers. In 1982, the state of Colorado agreed to be the first state to implement. Slope didn’t go into effect until well after solid data was analyzed and golfer feedback was available. Couldn’t the USGA have done the same with WHS? It never even made a detailed announcement of the new elements until less than two months before the national roll-out. Yes, a survey was sent in advance asking golfers opinions of WHS, but it lacked details of how WHS would work. Yet the USGA and other associations declared that WHS had overwhelming support. "We have solicited the opinions of golfers and golf club administrators all around the world via an online survey, to which we received over 52,000 responses. We have also conducted focus group sessions in five markets throughout Europe, the USA and South America. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive; for example, 76% surveyed are supportive, 22% undecided at this stage and only 2% opposed." It would have been better to have provided the details of the WHS in the survey and actually tested its impact when changing from the current system to the new one.
It is my judgment that the USGA should have opted out of the Course Rating minus Par modification. I made that appeal to the USGA, but was told that it was an improvement, just as were some regional golf associations and other researchers who made the same request. (By the way, many of the countries around the world, minus Australia and Continental Europe, are delaying implementation with a grace period until up to November 2020.)
I have followed the rise of the World Handicap System for the past five years. I really started to pay attention to it when my successor as the head of handicapping on the USGA staff, unceremoniously was sacked for “non-cooperation” after he went to Australia and objected to their plans to change the world’s handicap system with major elements from their Chairman who had pushed this par-based system for worldwide adoption. As it turns out, the new WHS is almost entirely the product of these two regions—Australia and Central Europe— led by the handicap committees of Sweden and Australia. These areas not only play Stableford, but also post Stableford points for handicapping instead of posting scores. I assume that they must have been some tough negotiators, because they clearly won the debate.
One can argue that the new system levels the playing field when American golfers compete against golfers from other countries. But honestly, how often does that happen?
Enough to justify degrading the U.S. Handicap System? I think not.