This is a terrific article by John Paul Newport who writes golf articles for the Saturday Wall Street Journal. I was unaware that different countries have different handicap systems. Interesting. Enjoy: Read more…
The handicap system used in the U.S. is more peculiarly American than I realized. Golfers who maintain handicaps here (fewer than half of the eight million to nine million who play frequently) are expected to post a numerical score every time they venture forth. This is true even for a casual best-ball match in which one team beats the other by, say, two holes with one to play. In Great Britain and Ireland, by contrast, clubs might only designate one round per month, the so-called monthly medal, as eligible for handicap consideration. Golfers there post on average only three to five handicap scores per year. In Australia, almost every round a golfer plays is part of a competition and all those scores are crunched for handicaps. It’s common for Australians to post 30 or more competition scores a year. In May, representatives from a half-dozen of golf’s governing bodies quietly convened at a hotel near London’s Heathrow Airport to discuss whether it might be possible to reconcile the jumble of competing systems world-wide. The most obvious advantage of a global handicap pact would be to make indexes more portable from one country to another. But even for those who don’t play golf abroad, the process could make a difference.”One thing we want to look at,” said Mike Davis, executive director of the U.S. Golf Association, “is whether our system encourages slow play.”For most people, the inner workings of their handicap system will always be a mystery, even though the result—freeing golfers of unequal skills to compete fairly against one each other—is easy to grasp, universally applauded and one of the game’s great glories. But each system affects play differently, in accordance with local customs and tradition.One advantage of the system used in Great Britain and Ireland is that using only occasional rounds for handicapping liberates golfers there to speed through the rest of their matches.”When you play at the weekend with your friends in a fourball, no cards are required to be returned,” said Richard Muckart, chairman of the Council of National Golf Unions, or CONGU, which runs the program. “When a player is out of the hole or a hole has been won, everyone picks up and moves on to the next.” That’s not just the theory in Great Britain, it’s the practice.The USGA handicap system allows players to pick up, too. For handicap reporting purposes, “equitable stroke control” provisions limit the number of strokes players may record for any hole, depending on their skill level. During match play rounds in particular, a player can pick up once he’s out of a hole and record his “most likely score,” defined by the USGA as “the number of strokes already taken plus, in the player’s best judgment, the number of strokes the player would take to complete the hole from that position more than half the time.””The problem is that not even 5% of players actually know this,” said Steven Edmondson, the USGA’s managing director for handicapping and course rating. Culturally, Americans are simply more inclined to finish out every hole.
“The question U.S. golfers always ask after a round is ‘What did you score?'” noted Davis of the USGA. “In the U.K. and Europe, they ask, ‘Who won the match?’ Neither is right or wrong, that’s just how things have been decade after decade.” But it’s possible over time that changes to handicap rules could change attitudes and, at least marginally, help speed up play.The downside of the British system, of course, is that handicaps are based on fewer reported scores and thus are slower to reflect a player’s changing ability. Another aspect of golf culture in Europe, the U.K and Australia that promotes faster play is the widespread use of the Stableford format. In continental Europe, more than 90% of handicap rounds are played using Stableford, in which points are awarded for net eagles, birdies, pars and bogeys but not for net bogey or worse. So if a scratch player doesn’t hole his fifth shot on a par four, he pockets his ball and moves on, because he can’t earn points on that hole. (Unlike in the modified Stableford format, no points are deducted.)In Great Britain and Ireland, Stableford accounts for roughly 40% of handicap rounds, and is growing. In Australia, 68% of competitions use Stableford and 10% use an even faster format called Par, in which a tally is kept of the number of holes played over net par, under net par or net par. Handicap software converts all scores into a common index.It’s unlikely that any future global handicap system will radically change the way handicaps are computed in the U.S., if only because the USGA system is already the basis for two thirds of the world’s handicaps, and thus will probably be the framework for whatever comes. In any case, a new common system is years away. Some of the participants at the May meeting in London haven’t even had time yet to report back to their boards. “We’re still in the very early stages,” said Davis, “but everybody around the room agreed that it would be in the interest of golf, if we could figure out how to do it.” The first step might be to better coordinate course ratings, so that handicaps established on courses of differing difficulty can be made comparable. Most of the world already uses the USGA’s course rating and Slope standards, but CONGU relies mainly on its own system and Australia does not yet use Slope, although it will by the end of 2013. From there, with course ratings more consistent, mathematics could probably do the rest.
—Write to John Paul at firstname.lastname@example.org