The Enduring Beauty of Golf’s Handicap System (and how it can be improved)

    Golf stands alone as a recreational sport that allows players of vastly different abilities to have meaningful, even intense competition.

    If you play tennis on weekends, you can’t imagine taking on Roger Federer or Serena Williams or even your local club champion. 

    However, a weekend player with a 22 handicap can take on his club champion with a 0 handicap and possibly even defeat him or her because the United States Golf Association (USGA) developed golf’s handicap system in 1911. 

    The USGA utilizes an arithmetic formula designed to accurately measure how many strokes over (and, in the case of the best players) or under par a golfer requires to complete a round of golf.  The USGA utilizes the ten best scores a golfer posts in his previous twenty rounds.  Of course, no two courses are exactly alike.  That’s why every course is given an individual ranking and slope for every different set of tees a course provides.

    The problem with the handicap system is it can exacerbate golf’s slow play problem.  In match play format, you have golfers continuing to play until they have holed out even if the outcome of the hole has already been decided. 

    The USGA reviews the handicap system and makes recommendations on how the system can be improved.

    Some suggestions currently making their way around conference tables include:

    Establishing a “Net Double Bogey” Limit.  This would allow a player to pick up once they have played more than two strokes over their handicap on an individual hole.  In other words, if an 18 handicap player is laying 8 on a par 5, he would pick up and not try to hole his four-footer for a 9.  Proponents argue it will be speed up play and lead to greater enjoyment of the game.  The USGA currently utilizes the Equitable Stroke Control system.  This system is more complicated, and some argue no more accurate than a net double bogey limit.

    Establish a Global handicap system.  Currently, the USGA and the R&A and other governing bodies have different handicap systems.  Establishing a uniform handicap model for players from all countries would benefit American players going abroad and golf enthusiasts who come to the United States.

    Allow Match Play participants to pick up when they have lost the hole.  The USGA did change the rules to “allow” players to pick up on a hole when they have lost it, but they do not mandate it.  A player can take a net double bogey and move on to the next hole, speeding up play for the rest of us.

    Require attested scores for in-doubt handicaps.  The integrity of the handicap systems depends on the honesty of individual golfers to record their true scores when inputting their round into the USGA database.  Requiring a player to post the name of someone to attest to their score on-line could benefit the handicap system and make it more difficult for players to inflate their scores. 

    Sandbagging has been around since 1911, the year the USGA established handicaps, and they will continue to be around in the future.  Ultimately, weekend players can police their own game by choosing who to play with — if you know a guy has blown up their handicap, don’t invite him into your competitive weekend matches.

    Golf is an unbelievable game for so many reasons.  As a golfer ages, the son a father used to give strokes to may end up spotting his father strokes as they advance through the years.  The handicap system can mirror the circle of life, and a few common sense solutions can make it even better.

    Click here to learn more about how to calculate your golf handicap.