Explaining The Short Course Handicap

Four beginners gather at the No. 1 tee of their city's developmental "short" course. They've been playing for about a month and are beginning to feel comfortable enough to enjoy some of the game's competitive aspects. Just before the first player hits that first tee shot, one of them asks a question: "What is everybody's handicap?"

The fact that each can answer with a bona fide number, and not some imaginary assessment of their ability, marks an important step for the USGA Handicap System. In the next few months, players at about 2000 developmental courses around the country can obtain short-course handicaps. With this new set of procedures, the USGA erases a long-standing gap in the handicap system that did not allow for handicaps at courses less than 3,000 yards.

Short course construction has boomed in the United States in the recent years and shows few signs of slowing. Many players beginning the game take their first steps on these layouts, often through organizations receiving grants from the USGA's "For the Good of the Game" program. Others are affiliated with the First Tee - a program the USGA has backed with millions of dollars in contributions - which has the goal of establishing short courses and learning centers in major metropolitan areas around the U.S.

State, regional, and local associations will administer short course rating and handicap procedures, just as with standard-length layouts. Many associations will spend the summer rating these courses preparing for the short course's formal introduction on Jan. 1.

Short courses have been known by many names, but were never covered under the USGA Handicap System. Par-3 layouts, some "executive" and practice courses of less than nine holes fell outside the handicap system's mathematical boundaries. The computations of the rating system concentrate on courses greater than 3,000 yards for 18 holes. That meant beginners could not receive a handicap until they joined the mainstream.

The short course system also solves the problem of how to address facilities not having a configuration of nine or 18 holes, another requirement of the handicap system. The short course procedure allows using any combination of holes.

As with the USGA Handicap System for standard length course ratings, the game's best players provided the yardstick to calculate the formulas for short course ratings. The USGA studied how U.S. Amateur and Women's Amateur competitors played the shortest holes during stroke-play qualifying rounds. This study translated the USGA's standard-length rating knowledge to combinations of individual holes as short as a few dozen yards.

The short course handicap cannot be applied to other layouts. That means the four players gathering on the No. 1 tee have an accurate sense of their ability for only that facility. By the time they progress to visiting other courses, they should have graduated to standard-length layouts and receive a handicap index that can be applied anywhere. In the meantime, they'll have the footing to mark their own development from their earliest steps in the game.