For Better Or For Worse

Why don't our buddies - Uncle Snoopy and Woodstock - ever seem to play to their Course Handicaps on a given day? Most of the time they struggle and play worse than their handicaps, but every so often they both raise their games a few notches and play better than their handicaps. And sometimes Uncle Snoopy enjoys a great round and hits every drive down the middle of the fairway like in the drawing, while Woodstock struggles to keep his ball out of the tall grass in the rough as his score mounts.

If you think Uncle Snoopy and Woodstock's inability to play to their handicaps consistently differs from most golfers, think again. Why? The USGA Handicap System is based upon the potential ability of a player rather than the average of all his scores. The USGA's Handicap Research Team tells us that the average player is expected to play to his Course Handicap or better only about 25 percent of the time, average three strokes higher than his handicap, and have his best score in 20 be only two strokes better than his handicap.

A few words and a little arithmetic may explain. A player's Handicap Index reflects his potential because it is based upon his best scores posted for a given number of rounds, ideally the best 10 of his last 20 rounds. Since his worst scores are tossed out, his handicap reflects his best days.

The arithmetic comes in when your club calculates a Handicap differential for each score you post. The differential is the difference between a player's adjusted gross score and the USGA Course Rating of the course on which the score was made, multiplied by 113, and then the total is divided by the USGA Slope Rating from the tees played rounded off to one decimal place. For example, Uncle Snoopy posts an 80 on a course with a Course Rating of 68.7 and a Slope of 105, so his Handicap Differential is 12.2. The next step entails averaging his best Handicap Differentials, which your golf club or association then will multiply by a 96-percent "bonus for excellence" factor that slightly favors the lower-handicapped player. The final step is to delete all numbers after the first decimal digit, with no rounding off to the nearest tenth.

Uncle Snoopy carries a USGA Handicap Index of 11.6, which translates into a Course Handicap of 14 when he played from the middle tees one day at Pumpkin Patch Golf Club. Pumpkin Patch's Course Rating is 72.1, with a Slope Rating of 135, so a little addition (72.1 + 14) leads you to think that Uncle Snoopy will consistently shoot around 86. In reality, his score average is normally three more than that, or an 89. Believe it or not, the USGA Handicap Research Team has determined that his best score in 20 is normally only two strokes better than his handicap, or an 84; the probability of his recording an 83 twice in 20 rounds is only one in 50.

A good way to think of the range of scores upon which your handicap is based is the old bell curve that schoolteachers always refer to when discussing the range of scores on an exam. The scores of most players, when plotted out, are distributed on a bell curve from the high to low end of the scale. Thus, when you drop out the worst half of your scores, the remaining 10 scores on the upper part of the bell curve reflect your potential ability.

Since the USGA Handicap System is designed to promote fairness during competitions, what happens if a player's scores contradict these trends and he consistently plays better than his handicap when some crystal or trophies are at stake? The USGA has a formula-we'll spare you all the complicated arithmetic-that is outlined in the USGA Handicap System under "Reduction of a USGA Handicap Index Based on Exceptional Tournament Scores." A player's USGA Handicap Index will be automatically reduced when he records at least two tournament scores in a calendar year or in his latest 20 rounds that are a minimum of three strokes better than his USGA Handicap Index.

The bottom line is you've got your USGA Handicap Index for better or for worse. Don't worry if you never seem to play to it on a given day. All golfers are in the same boat because Handicaps are based on a player's potential ability rather than the average of his scores.

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