Handicapping doesn’t work

To err is human; to really fuck-up you need a computer.

I’ve been involved in golf administration as a volunteer and professional for almost 40 years now. I was first on a golf club main committee at 19, which was absolute lunacy. But be fair who were the greater lunatics? Me, for allowing myself to be talked into it or those who voted for me expecting that someone with so little life experience would have anything cogent to offer!

I was initially involved with handicapping in the early 80s, before the current system came in at the start of 1984. My first experience of the Council of National Golf Unions Unified Handicapping System was in its first iteration, helping my late father do manual handicap records during his brief career as a Club Secretary (he hated it). It rapidly became clear that the complexity of the scheme, even then, meant it would be difficult to run without systems back-up, and so the run to the modern position began. Systems back-up introduced systems companies to the mix, which meant money. Big money.

Handicapping was once upon a time quite simple. It was still flawed, but understandable. Let’s leave aside those of 5 and below for the moment. For everyone else if you played a shot or 2 below your handicap you went down 1; 3 shots below, down 2; 4 shots below down 3 and so on. If you didn’t match the number, no change. At the end of the year there was a handicap review, and any appropriate adjustments could be made.

Everyone can see the flaw there. Completely dependent on the understanding of the players involved and the skill with which the review was done. Room for personal agendas, to maintain artificially high handicaps for key players involved in club teams. You can imagine the things that were said. And of course it happened, but not a lot and for me not surprisingly since our game actually is built on traditional values of fairness and rectitude.

However, because there were instances (mostly of incompetence) where handicaps for clubs were clearly neither right nor properly administered we had to have a one size fits all system. I’m sure you’ve all noticed how effective regulation of any industry has been in protecting end-users from incompetence or outright illegality.

Now here’s where the first error was made. The UK scheme was predicated on a mistake. That all golfers play competitive golf. Which is, of course, complete bollocks. The vast majority of golfers the world over would be what are now defined as “social” golfers who go out and bash it round with the same set of pals week in, week out. They actually don’t need a handicap for competitions. In fact, most of these little groups tend to ignore what’s on the notice board and come up with handicaps for their own uses. At my last club there’s a guy off 16 who plays off 3 in his roll up, they’re so fed up with giving him money.

But you know what? The Scheme actually worked. Kinda. The guys playing competitively were getting regular amendments to their handicap, whilst the majority who didn’t just knurdled along in the same old way, unaffected by the whole thing.

It would be naïve to pretend there weren’t still problems. Every area of the country had its team of bandits, roaming the ever-increasing number of open team events playing off false handicaps never tested in individual competitions. So what did golf do? Did the industry turn around and say “you lot are a bunch of fecking cheats and you can stick your entry fee cheque where the sun doesn’t shine”?

Nope. We’re all too nice and golfers play fair, right? The authorities decided they had to act. CONGU now had money, big money, of its own from the licensing charges it was able to make of the systems companies. There was muscle now, and no need to actually consult with the day to day practitioners about how to proceed. So they didn’t and we acquired the disaster of the active/inactive handicap.

To combat handicap massaging everyone now had to put in a minimum of 3 cards under competition conditions to confirm their handicap. Do that and you were “active”; if you didn’t you were “inactive”. And to really embarrass everyone any person without those 3 scores had a little “i” next to their name on the handicap list.

I don’t know how many golfers were lost from club membership because of that sodding little “i”. Whilst it was operative I was having between 10 and 15 conversations at each annual renewal with people who were leaving because “if my handicaps invalid what’s the point”; because that’s how it was interpreted. Talk about kicking yourself in the balls.

And just to put the cherry on the cake, at the same time in came Supplementary Scores, which could stand for handicap purposes in place of playing in a competition. So the very handicap cheats we were trying to suppress could now, up to 10 times a year, announce “I’m doing a Supplementary today” go out with their pals, shoot a net 78 and GO UP MORE. Here you go you cheating fecker, have another shot.

Both these ideas remain in place, albeit with active/inactive toned down to competitive/social.

No one can understand how the Competition Scratch Score for a given event is calculated because of the complexity of the calculations. 9-hole qualifiers leave people cold for the same reason, although that is a genuinely great idea. The Scheme handbook is becoming bigger and bigger – rules, appendices, decisions. It’s all a mess.

I was listening to a radio interview with the CEO of Iron Man, the ultra triathlon events where folk swim, cycle and run for what seems like days. He was talking about the massive upturn in interest, sponsors and competitors both professional and, most importantly, amateur – guys and girls wanting to get up and train at 4am every day. Why do they do it he asked, rhetorically – because it’s bloody hard, that’s why.

Which really struck me. Because there is a sport glorying in how tough it is, and as a consequence succeeding. Whilst in contrast golf is ignoring the challenge and trying to make everything easier and easier, from equipment all the way to handicapping. And the sport is in decline, quite possibly also as a consequence. Coincidence?

Handicapping should be a mechanism to reward those who challenge themselves to be better, whilst in fact through higher maxima and ever-increasing levels of handicap allowances in all forms of golf it actually rewards those who retain as high a handicap as they can. Which when handicaps have become a representation of average performance rather than best performance is a recipe for disaster.

So where now? We await with bated breath (not) the full details of a new World Handicapping System. A not very tacit acknowledgement that handicapping in the UK has utterly failed. At one level the idea of a globally portable handicap subject to the same criteria in every handicapping authority area sounds like a good idea. In reality exactly how many golfers from Buenos Aires, Baltimore or Berlin do you have turning up in the Open Mixed Foursomes? Quite.

And are the day to day, hands-on practitioners involved in the creation of the new system? Well, there was a tweet the other day from Mark Broadie, the excellent golf statistician, saying he was off to a handicapping meeting at USGA Golf House. I questioned how many club administrators were going to be there; no reply. I think because the answer would be the same as always. None.

For over 20 years I have been a fierce and very public critic of the handicapping system. In all that time the only contact from CONGU was a letter of refutation (unsuccessful) from a member of the Council, writing in a strictly personal capacity, trying to rubbish points I made when I first questioned the active/inactive concept in an industry publication. You would have thought that at some point in the last 2 decades there would have been a call – “right you noisy, know-all pillock – tells us what you would do so we can laugh at you for a change”

Oh yes, the 5 and belows. Back in the day (pre-84) we had to return scores to the County authority. To retain our handicap it had to be matched 3 times in 9 or 4 times in 12. Similarly to be reduced. In other words, x scores in y rounds.

Which is exactly where we’re going with the new scheme. 45 years later.

What goes around comes around.



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