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Letter from St. Andrews: It Doesn't Add Up

A critical look at the wacky British handicap system

By: George Peper

Editor's Note: This article appeared in the May/June 2005 issue of LINKS.

When George Bernard Shaw said Britain and America were two nations separated by a common language he was just scratching the surface. The height of transatlantic lunacy is evidenced not in spoken words but printed numbers, specifically in our conflicting systems of measurement.    

Time: The Brits have a perverse love of the 24-hour clock. I can only assume this has something to do with their unfortunate northern location. In the dead of winter, when the sky begins to go black in mid-afternoon, it’s vaguely comforting to think of the hour as 15:30 instead of 3:30. 

Date Notation: Christmas Day in the U.S. is written 12/25. In the U.K. it’s 25/12. (Truth be told, their way is more logical—but I can’t seem to catch on, as evidenced by my burgeoning collection of hilariously pre- and post-dated checks.)

Weight: We Americans measure weight in pounds—the Brits measure the cost of things in pounds (all too many of them) and they can’t seem to decide how to measure weight—in pounds, kilograms, or stone. Before I arrived here I weighed 185—now I don’t know whether I weigh 185, 84, or 13.2.    

Motoring: The idiocy is not that they drive on the left side, or that their stop lights change from red to yellow before going green (although, I’d love that explained). No, the real question is why they enforce speed limits through an Orwellian network of roadside cameras—and why my Honda hatchback is proving to be one of the most photogenic cars in Great Britain.

Petrol: Standard unleaded gas is dispensed not in gallons but liters. In one sense, that’s a blessing as it makes it damnably difficult for an American to calculate how much he’s shelling out. For the schadenfreude of you all, however, I’ve done the math and the answer (using an exchange rate of $1.90/pound sterling) is $5.25 per gallon. And that’s for the cheap stuff—to fill a 20-gallon Jaguar with premium, figure on close to $125.  So please don’t whine to me about your rising gas prices.

Electricity: I’ve never been too smart about watts and amps and such. I can barely put the batteries in a flashlight. All I knew when I got here was that those nifty little three-pronged adapter plugs had always done the trick with my computer. Then I tried one on a standing lamp and nearly blew up the house. American TVs don’t work here, either—seems there’s something about lines of resolution that can’t be resolved.     

But the truth is, I can live with and even embrace all this British eccentricity. Indeed, in my brief experience there is only one system of measurement here that defies explanation and prohibits endorsement by any clear-thinking human. I’m referring of course to “the golf handicap scheme.”          

It’s administered by something called CONGU which, if it didn’t stand for Council Of National Golf Unions, would be short for Conniptions Guaranteed.    

A few months back, I decided to conduct a little experiment, computing my handicap simultaneously according to the CONGU system and the USGA method. The result: I have two handicaps that are seven strokes apart. Let me explain—or at least try.

In the USGA system golfers are expected to post a score for every round they play. The course rating is subtracted from the score to get a differential. The ten lowest of the 20 most recent differentials are averaged, and then (for a mysterious reason the USGA has never quite explained) that average is multiplied by 96 percent to get a decimal number known as the Handicap Index. (When I arrived in St. Andrews 18 months ago I had a USGA Handicap Index of 6.5.)

These days, I am very fortunate to play most of my golf on the Old Course. Of my most recent 20 rounds, a dozen were played on the Old, with the remainder scattered across the New and Jubilee Courses at St. Andrews and nearby Kingsbarns. Now the Old Course, while exceedingly famous, is not particularly difficult. It’s a par 72 of 6,609 yards with a rating of 71.2. In the winter, however, you can knock a stroke or two off that rating. Many of the tees are moved up and the ground is so hard that, on a windless day, even a player of moderate power can drive a par four or two. And last winter you could take advantage of the Hallowed Ground Under Repair rule and help your cause by at leeast one more stroke: More than  90 of the course’s vaunted bunkers were under reconstruction in readiness for the British Open, so when you hit into the Cottage or Cartgate or Strath or Principal’s Nose or Hell, instead of wading sadly into the abyss, you simply plucked the ball out, no penalty.

Sure there’s the winter wind, granted the greens can be bumpy, and yes all full shots from the fairway must be played off Astroturf mats (to protect the Old Lady from divot scars) but in time you get used to all that—at least I managed to. Besides, the Old Course and I just seem to have some chemistry. So it was no surprise that nine of the 10 rounds used to compute my handicap came from the Old. The result was an index of 4.3.

I could never return to America with that handicap—neither my ego nor my wallet could stand the pounding. Happily, though, I don’t have to, because these days my handicap is determined by CONGU.    

Now, in the CONGU scheme, handicaps are established only in competitions, and those competitions don’t occur very often—in the typical club, just once a month. (This is largely because the Brits love match play and hate slow play—no one has the patience to crawl behind a four-ball of golfers grinding out scores.)

So there are the monthly medals. Only three scores are needed to establish a handicap which is the average of the three differentials (the scores made minus the course ratings). It’s actually a bit more complicated—involving something called a Competition Scratch Score—but the main point is that it takes just three scores. Also, there’s no “slope system” as the USGA has, to allow you more or fewer strokes for harder or easier courses—if you’re a 12, you’re a 12 from the tips at Carnoustie and a 12 from the fronts at Pittypat Heath.    

Now, because it’s all but impossible to commandeer a block of starting times on the Old Course, the monthly medals in St. Andrews are played on the New Course, which in my view is about four strokes harder than the Old. It’s the same length but its par is 71 and its course rating is 71.9.    I like the New, but not nearly as much as I like the Old. That’s point number one.

Point number two is that I’m a congenital choker. In my first medal, shaking with terror for most of the round, I shot 88. The next month I did battle with a couple of gorse bushes and came in with 85, and the third time I managed a 79. The average of those three is 84. After subtracting the Competition Scratch Score ratings for the three days (which averaged 73) I would have a CONGU handicap of 11. (If I were to try returning to America with that handicap, I’d risk being arraigned on charges of felonious sandbagging.)    

But that 11 isn’t my actual handicap—it’s just the handicap from my experiment, the handicap I would have if I had appeared here from Mars and tried to establish one from scratch using CONGU.  The reality is, I was allowed—indeed, required—to start out with my imported 6.5 and go from there. But after those three undistinguished scores, my handicap “index” went up only two tenths of a stroke, to 6.7, over the course of three months. That’s the way it works here—you can go up only a tenth of a stroke each month. (You can go down in handicap only one to four tenths of a stroke, depending on how high your handicap is.) What’s more, there’s something called a buffer zone—ranging from one stroke for the lowest handicappers up to five strokes for the highest—and if your score falls within that zone you don’t move at all. It can thus take years to see your handicap budge as much as one stroke.  

So the bottom line is, my handicap has gone down 2.2 USGA strokes while simultaneously going up .2 CONGU strokes. Which system do I like? Neither.    

Mercifully, there’s another handicap system in play over here—administered by “The Thursday Club,” a group of 20 guys from the St. Andrews Golf Club who play once a week throughout the winter months. Everyone starts the season with his CONGU handicap, but if in any week you score 36 Stableford points or better (in other words, play to your handicap or better), your handicap goes down one stroke for the rest of the season, with no possibility of going back up. If you win the weekly competition with 36 or more points, you’re docked two strokes. And in rare instances—a victory with 40 points or more—your handicap can go down three.  

In the course of the year, just about everyone wins at least once while also bettering his handicap a few times. As a result, by mid-March all the 15 handicappers are down to ten, all the tens are down to five, all the fives to scratch or even plus figures. At this point, the system is at peak performance: No one has a chance—which means everyone does.

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