Golfnutter: Handicap Flaws?

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Welcome to Golfnutter’s Blog – a weekly commentary highlighting contemporary golfing issues, in Pattaya and beyond.  For more on matters golf, especially Pattaya golf, visit golfnutter.wordpress.com.

Many of Pattaya’s golfing venues may have experienced a strange occurrence over recent years – a marked increase in visitors from Australia occupying podium positions.

No, the number of Australian golfers visiting has not increased.  Yes, the winners include returning Aussies who, on previous trips, have not featured anywhere near as prominently.  These players are not just winning either.  In some cases they have obliterated the field with stableford scores well into the forties.  And they are doing it by playing the same old golf they have always played.  So, what has happened over recent times that could account for this?  And why should this be of concern to us?

If you don’t care about playing in an even field, where handicaps generally reflect ability, and you don’t give a toss about being competitive, don’t bother reading on.  Simply continue paying your competition entry fee and regard it as a donation to the next Aussie visitor that happens along, complete with their USGA-based handicap.

Conversely, if you are concerned you’re in good company.  Golf Australia (GA) is so concerned that they have decided to ditch their three-year experiment with the USGA Handicapping System.  They are about to change to a scheme that relies on assessment of same-day scores, as was previously the case.

From March this year, Australian handicapping started the change to what they refer to as a DSR and Slope dependant scheme, to be known as the GA Handicapping System.  DSR stands for Daily Scratch Rating.  Sound familiar?

Why the change and what is the relevance to Farang who play golf in Pattaya?

The relevance should be significant to golf venues that accept handicaps issued by GA.

Also of interest will be the fact that Pattaya Sports Club (PSC) venues use the same handicapping system that GA no longer wish to use.

What if the reasons GA found the USGA Handicapping System inappropriate, also applied to PSC venues?

GA adopted the USGA Handicapping System in April 2010.  It took barely six months before negative feedback from clubs reached significant levels.  Concerns grew such that after 12 months GA commenced a major review of the USGA Handicapping System and the effect it was having on Australian golf.  Amongst other things, the reviewers wanted to know why winning scores had markedly increased, and why higher handicappers were now dominating the winner’s podium in club competitions in every state.  Put another way, why did a return of 36 points – often a winning score in the past – now not get a mention, and why were lower-markers struggling to get a look-in?

So why does the USGA Handicap System work for USGA but not for GA?

According to advice GA received from USGA experts, the problems had little to do with Slope – a mechanism giving golfers portability of handicap from one course to another.  Rather, the problems were more to do with differences in golfing culture in the US compared to Australia.  It stands to reason the research and development invested into the USGA Handicap System had been designed to cater for cultural factors predominant in American golf.  When certain cultural factors differ, so too does the relevancy of the handicapping system, or so it appears.

As noted by USGA, the vast majority of golf played in the US is social golf, whereas in Australia the dominant form is competition golf played by medium to large fields.  Australian golf is mostly about players competing in their club events, primarily individual stableford, stroke or par competitions.  American golfers are far more likely to play a friendly (not part of a competition) four-ball better-ball match.  From a handicapper’s perspective, this difference has consequences.  Here are three big ones:

1. US players often do not putt out, as is normal in 4BBB Match.

2. US players’ clubs do not have oversight of their cards.  Players will access their handicap records directly through the internet and enter their own scores.

3. The US system is not set up to require players to return scores on the day of play.

These three points warrant further explanation.  The first point, concerning players not putting out, had the USGA regulate for Most Likely Score; a rule enabling players to submit a score for a hole when they don’t putt out.  This makes good sense in a golfing culture dominated by small fields, net events, involving four-ball better-ball where the player and his/her partner are competing against just one other team.  The contrast with competition golf, where the score of the individual is dependent upon him/her putting out, couldn’t be more marked.

Secondly, the act of players entering their own scores for handicapping, whilst acceptable in the US, is not acceptable in Australia.  GA, along with golf administrators in Europe and Great Britain & Ireland – world golf’s other two main handicapping authorities, accept scores for handicapping from competition cards only, or social cards that have been pre-nominated to count for handicapping.

The third point is arguably the biggest.  In the US, neither the handicapping system nor the players’ club have same-day access to all scores made at a course.  Furthermore, if a player has played away from their home club, they will not be returning the score to the visited club.  This prevents having same-day access to complete batches of scores needed to establish a daily course rating.  This is one reason why US handicapping administrators needed a predetermined method of assessing course difficulty, thus the USGA Course Rating System.

This review, done in tandem with the USGA, resulted in GA committing to a handicapping system that would more accurately reflect a golfing culture dominated by individual competition play.  Any new system, they stated, should be cognisant of:

§ Being primarily tailored for competition golf – as opposed to four-ball match play – and afford each player – whether high or low marker – a reasonable prospect of placing well if that player plays reasonably better than their handicap.

§ A player’s handicap should be reflective of their better performances.  It should not increase substantially due to a temporary loss of form.

§ Handicaps should not be subject to the rapid increases nor the volatility experienced currently.

§ The calculation of handicap should take into account the degree of difficulty encountered on the day of play.

§ The calculation of a handicap should be sufficiently flexible to be consistently calculated, irrespective of the mix of handicaps held by players on a course on any given day.  Amongst other things, this relates to the fact that high markers, when visiting tough courses, need an increase in handicap to be competitive.  Thus the need for Slope – a method allowing equitable portability of handicap.

This then is the background to GA’s review of their handicapping system.  Last month, they announced the first tranche of changes as they transition from the USGA Handicapping System to the GA Handicapping System.

Handicap Calculation

Under the USGA system a handicap is the average of the 10 differentials (differential = gross score less the Course Rating) of a player’s most recent 20 scores, the product of which is multiplied by 0.96.  This differential system can be summarised as 10 of 20 x 0.96.  GA, however, wanted to factor in the following:

  • In general, players with higher handicaps are more inconsistent than players with lower handicaps.
  • With the 10 of 20 x 0.96 settings, a low-marker’s consistency would be favoured against a high-marker in a field of two.
  • If, however, the low-marker were to compete against twenty or more medium to high-markers, at least one if not more would enjoy their “day out” and could return scores of 45 stableford points – a score unachievable for the low-marker.
  • As pointed out, most golf in the US is played amongst small groups (four-ball better-ball match).  Australian golf typically involves larger fields where the focus is on individual scoring.  This necessitates a different handicap calculation setting to that used in the US.
  • As a result of the above, GA determined that the handicap calculation settings of 10 of 20 x 0.96 will be changed to 8 of 20 x 0.93.

Social Golf

The USGA Handicapping System recognises scores obtained from social golf.  GA prefers to use scores from competition golf only.  It will make the occasional exception, but only if the player’s home club permits.

Daily Scratch Rating (DSR)

Under the USGA system, Course Rating does not take into account unusual or extreme weather conditions encountered on the day, difficult pin placements, change in the speed and hardness of greens, nor the performance of other players.  Any time a player’s net score is higher than the Course Rating (or totals fewer than 36 points), they will be deemed to have played worse than their handicap – even though they may have won the daily event with a highly skilled performance in dreadful wind and rain.

Under the previous Australian CCR, or present CONGU systems, you would expect a score of, say, net 73 to reduce a handicap, because everyone else played worse, resulting in a CCR – now read DSR – of perhaps 75.  In effect, the score was better than handicap after allowing for course and weather, and should be treated accordingly.

The DSR System will establish:

  • The average net score for a field.
  • The average handicap of a field.
  • The field size.
  • The type of competition (Stableford, Par, or Stroke).
  • The gender of the competitors.
  • It will then recalculate a player’s handicap within 24 hours of the completion of the round.  This is in marked contrast to the fortnightly review of handicaps done currently.

Anchoring

  • The GA Handicapping System will prevent increases in handicap by any more than four strokes beyond their best GA Handicap from the previous 12-month rolling period.
  • The Anchor eliminates the capacity for extreme outward movements of handicaps within short spaces of time – as is currently the case.

Conclusion

This is indeed a comprehensive review conducted by Golf Australia.  They are to be applauded for their transparency and quick acknowledgement of what was going wrong.  The thoroughness of this review and the speed with which they have brought about the relevant changes is also to be commended.

It will be interesting to watch the reaction of other golf authorities who signed up to the USGA Handicapping System, especially those whose members play predominately competition golf as opposed to four-ball match play.  If these same authorities remain puzzled as to why those on the podium have winning scores and higher handicaps than previously, then wonder no more.

So don’t bar those lovely Aussie visitors from your comp just yet.  Their podium-winning efforts will become a degree or two harder.

Happy golfing!

Golfnutter