Sunday, 3 October 2010

Handicapping golf

My visit to the home of the English Golf Union prompted me to think about the handicapping system, and to find out some of the background detail. If you know all about it, and think it’s a fantastic system, look away now: this post is not for you.

The immediate prompt was the new unified handicapping system; a lot of effort and money has gone into this system, which links all clubs’ handicap systems to a central database and to each other with the added discipline of each golfer wanting an active handicap having to play three qualifying rounds a year. The reason seems to be to make it harder for golfers to enter open competitions with the wrong handicap. Compared with the number of rounds played each year across the UK, I wonder how often that happens? And in a world where clubs are losing 7% members a year on average and where fewer golfers want to belong to a golf club it seems stupid to put so much money and effort into a process that is irrelevant to most golf. And which creates a barrier – the active handicap – for people new to organised golf to become involved. Looking back a few years, with this sort of hassle, I’m not sure I ever would have bothered to take an active part in a golf club. A good thing, some might say, but not surely the way to build up active participation in golf.

Perhaps the key is whether you view golf as a sport where competition is everything, or a game where enjoyment is the main purpose. They overlap of course but the emphasis is different. I think it is both and they must co-exist. I worry that the thrust of CONGU and the EGU is the former and this smacks of raising the drawbridge to keep people out.
Anyway: it prompted me to look up information on how the system works, and some links follow for people who are interested. Not surprisingly, the various bodies think they do a good job and Congu, the council of national golf unions who run the handicapping system for the British Isles, publish analysis (“myths and misconceptions”) to show the system works well. For example:
- It is fair to have full handicap differences in singles matchplay;
- High handicappers don’t win more things than low handicappers.

The British Isles system differs from the US and Europe; competitions use playing handicaps. In very simple terms, playing handicaps are calculated by using results from each qualifying round, based on the difference between the actual score and the competition scratch score (CSS). The CSS is calculated by taking the standard scratch score (SSS) – what you’d expect a scratch golfer to score in normal conditions – and adjusting it by how well all players in the competition have done; this is to take account of different weather conditions.

This is how the standard scratch score is calculated. Our SSS went up from 67 to 68 when we were re-rated this year, primarily because of the effect of wind making the course more difficult than its length and hazards would suggest. An introduction to the CSS calculations are here - CONGU no longer makes the details of it's formulas available on line; you have to buy the manual from them.

The US system differs in two respects: they use an average of the best scores to calculate a handicap and using the “slope” system they adjust the difference not only according to the course on the day, but also according to how much harder the course is for an 18+ handicapper than a scratch golfer.

The European system uses a combination; they use (in most case) the UK method of calculating handicaps but adjusted by the slope system.

The UK system weights the best scores (handicaps only go up 0.1 for bad scores), the US averages more. The effect is that in the UK golfers are not expected to match their handicap on every round; a category 1 player would tend to average two shots above the CSS and a category 4 about five or six more (see “myths” above), and that on average a UK handicap would tend to be lower than a US one.

It’s all pretty complicated; however, I’m going to assume that it’s roughly OK because I started the 2010 season at 17.0 and ended it last week still at 17.0.

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