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Course Rating and Handicapping

The Great Divide F

our years ago I wrote a column where I took a shot at estimating a Handi- cap Index for Tiger Woods. I came up with +8.3. Recently I read a story about Keegan Bradley where he indicated that he plays as a +7 when teeing it up against some of his college buddies. Think about the implica-

tions of a +7 or +8. Over the course of a 72-hole tourna- ment, that’s about 30 strokes better than a “scratch” golfer would score, and that’s on a pretty benign course. The more diffi cult the layout, the greater the scoring gap between a tour pro and a mere mortal scratch golfer. Aren’t you glad that the

scratch golfer is the center- piece of the Course Rating and Handicap System, and not the greatest players in the world? It wasn’t always that way. The fi rst USGA Course

Rating System was established in 1911, and it was based on the game of one of the pre- mier golfers of that time, U.S. Amateur champion Jerome Travers. In a nutshell, the sys- tem boiled down to estimat- ing the “expected” score that the national champion would record at a course. Resulting handicaps, therefore, stacked a golfer’s game against that of Mr. Travers. If a golfer could achieve a scratch handicap, he was theoretically the equal of one of the best players in the country. The NCGA has a relic of

this concept hanging up in one of its conference rooms.

By JIM COWAN Director of

Course Rating and Handicapping


It is a tattered poster from 1920 ranking the top players in all of Northern California by handicap. There are pre- cisely three golfers identifi ed with a game to match that of a national amateur champion (three scratch golfers), and they read like a who’s who of that era (see circle right): • 1919 San Francisco City and 1920 NCGA Amateur Champion Sam Conlan Jr. • 1908 Pacifi c Coast and 1918 California State Amateur Champion Douglas Grant • 1913 NCGA Amateur

and fi ve-time California State Amateur Champion Jack Neville Grant and Neville, of

course, went on to co-design Pebble Beach Golf Links. Contrast that with today. The last time I checked, more than 1,500 golfers in North- ern California maintained a Handicap Index of zero or better. And none of them can hold a candle to tour players (if they could, they wouldn’t need a handicap). Needless to say, a scratch golfer isn’t what it used to be in the overall pecking order. Throughout my course-

rating career I have witnessed this migration in the standard of a scratch golfer fi rsthand. When I fi rst rated in the ear- ly 80s, the scratch golfer still retained a connection with the U.S. men’s and women’s amateur championships, but not with the champion. In- stead, the scratch golfer was understood to possess a game at a level equal to the top 32 players in the fi eld (the upper half of those who advanced to match play). To prove that point, the USGA would rate the competition courses just prior to play for the condi- tions the fi eld was about to face. Meaning, that before

1920 ranking the top players in all of Northern California by handicap

the fi rst shot was struck, they had a rating in hand predict- ing the average score of the top 32 players. And for years, the ratings were spot on. Eventually the top 32

started scoring lower than the Course Rating System anticipated. So the standard for scratch was recalibrated to represent the average score of all 64 players who advanced to match play.

By the time the 1999 U.S.

Amateur was conducted at Pebble Beach and Spyglass, the standard had moved yet again to refl ect more of the fi eld. The NCGA assisted the USGA in rating both courses the day before play began and, remarkably, our ratings were what the target golfers (upper half of the fi eld) posted at Pebble Beach, and right on the button for Spyglass. (Incidentally, those ratings were 75.6 for Spyglass Hill and 76.5 for Pebble Beach. Both slope ratings maxed out at 155). That year (1999) rep-

resented the last that the system was able to predict these scores. Sure enough, in subsequent years the U.S. men’s and women’s fi elds out- performed the “day-before”

ratings by a widening margin. Any and all connection with the U.S. Amateur fi eld ended in 2005 with the conclusion that these players were simply far better than scratch. This isn’t necessarily a sad

thing, it just underscores the chasm in the playing ability between the “haves” and the “have-nots” in the modern game. Whereas 100 years ago a two-handicapper might have been able to give it a go against an elite player, today a two would be begging for more than six strokes a side from a Tour player. Roger Maltbie had a great line in his acceptance speech surrounding his recent induc- tion into the NCGA Hall of Fame. He recalled feeling like he was kind of hot stuff by making the cut in his fi rst two tournaments on the PGA Tour. Fellow Hall of Fame inductee Johnny Miller happened to win those two tournaments, beating Maltbie by a combined 45 strokes. “What I think is good, and what is, are two different things,” Maltbie remembers thinking after watching Miller in his prime. Amen. . .and remember, Maltbie is one of the “haves.”

SPRING 2013 / NCGA.ORG / 69

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