Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Case for Eliminating Decision 3-5/2 from the USGA Handicap System

Decision 3-5/2 of the USGA Handicap System 2012-2015 states a competition that does not adjust handicaps in accordance with Section 3-5 waives a Rule of Golf.   It is not clear which rule is being waived.  Nor is it clear any penalty would be assessed for conducting a competition that did not follow Section 3-5.  A rule without sanctions is not a rule, but general guidance.  The case for changing or eliminating Decision 3-5/2 is made below. 

Here is how the decision reads presently at

3-5/2 – Golf Club Chooses Not to Follow Section 3-5 of the USGA Handicap System
Q:  May golf clubs choose not to follow Section 3-5 of "The USGA Handicap System" manual if the club's groups are competing from different tees?

A:  No. Not applying Section 3-5 of The "USGA Handicap System" when players are competing from different tees would be waiving a Rule of Golf, and the Committee in charge of a competition does not have the authority to waive a Rule of Golf.

Note, the USGA no longer states which Rule of Golf is waived when Section 3-5 is not followed.  In the printed edition of the Handicap System, the reader was referred to “Rules of Golf,” Decision 6-2/1.  That decision is shown below:

6-2/1 Meaning of "Handicap"
Q. Under a handicapping system where the player has to adjust his handicap in accordance with the rating for the course he is playing, a player's handicap before adjustment is 4.8. After applying the appropriate adjustment for the course and the tees to be used for that competition, the player's handicap is 6. Which is his "handicap" for the purposes of Rule 6-2?
A. 6. In a stroke-play competition the player must ensure that the handicap for the course that he is to play and the tees to be used is recorded on his score card when it is returned to the Committee.

First, how does a player have a 4.8 handicap?  Handicaps are integers.[1]  It is probable the USGA meant a player had an Index of 4.8 and not a handicap of 4.8.  The probable intent of this decision was to ensure the player calculated his handicap correctly based on the Slope Rating of the course to be played—i.e., the player could not meet the requirement of Rule 6-2 by recording his correct Index, but an incorrect Course Handicap.  Second, how does ignoring Section 3-5 violate this rule?   If a player does not record his handicap on his scorecard or reports a handicap higher than to which he is entitled, he is disqualified under Rule 6-2.  But if the players from the tees with the higher course rating fail to add additional strokes to their handicap, there would not be a violation of Rule 6-2.  More importantly, it does not appear to be the player’s responsibility to make the Section 3-5 adjustment.  That is the duty of the Committee as inferred from Decision 6-2b/0.5 of the Rules of Golf:

6-2b/0.5 Meaning of "Handicap" When Full Handicap Not Used

Q.  It is the condition of a stroke-play competition (e.g., four-ball) that players will not receive their full handicap allowances. Under Rule 6-2b, what is the player responsible for recording on his score card?
A.  He must record his full handicap. It is the Committee's responsibility to apply the condition of competition to adjust his handicap.

Since the Committee assigned the tournament handicaps with no Section 3-5 adjustment, no players are at fault and no penalty can be assigned.

Scott Hovde of the USGA attempted to defend Decision 3-5/2 when he wrote:[2]

“The key here is that if a competition is played under the Rules of Golf, the committee cannot waive a Rule of Golf (they do have the option to not play under the Rules of Golf).  There are no specific penalty strokes assessed when a committee decides to waive a Rule of Golf…no different than if they told competitors to play OB as a lateral hazard or allow for grounding clubs in a hazard.  It is when the players are then forced to not play by the Rules of Golf (in this case, potentially an incorrect handicap, which may result in a DQ per Decision 6-2b/3.5) that is the issue.  Basically the committee (club) is knowingly putting players in a position that, if playing by the Rules of Golf, would be in conflict with the Rules of Golf.”

Hovde is arguing that 1) a Committee states no Sec. 3-5 adjustment will be made, 2) the player enters his handicap accordingly, and 3) the Committee disqualifies the player for following the Committee’s instructions.  This would be both bizarre and highly unlikely.    

The USGA took a different path when it was asked if a match at full handicap was equitable (See Decision 9-4a/1 of The USGA Handicap System).  The answer was no.  Decision 3-5/2 should reflect the same reasoning (i.e., comment on the equity and not the legality of ignoring Section 3-5) or better yet be eliminated.[3]  

Decision 3-5/2 was added in 2006.  That means ignoring Section 3-5 before 2006 was not waiving a Rule of Golf.  I suspect nothing in the Rules of Golf was changed in 2006 that necessitated Decision 3/5-2.  More probably, an advocate of Section 3-5 pushed for the current language in an attempt to promote wider acceptance of the adjustment.  But as Dean Knuth wrote, Rules of Golf should not be used as a hammer within the Handicap System.[4]  The USGA should educate and not mandate Committees on how to run an equitable tournament—i.e., when Sec. 3-5 should be employed and when it should be avoided.  Moreover, since compliance to Section 3-5 is close to universal, Decision 3-5/2 serves no useful purpose and could be eliminated without consequence.

[1] The CONGU Unified Handicapping System does have an “Exact Handicap” which is expressed to the nearest tenth.  A player in the CONGU System, however, does not adjust his handicap in accordance with the rating for the course and is therefore unaffected by Decision 6-2/1.
[2] E-mail to author, April 8, 2015.
[3] Section 9-4 of the Handicap System does say players must (emphasis added) apply the difference in USGA Course Ratings from the tees played.”   It would be more consistent with the rest of Section 9-4 to say players should apply the difference.  The USGA overuses the term “must.” Section 3-5 states the adjustment must be added to the higher-rated tee players’ Course Handicap. Later in the Section 3 Decisions, it is stated the Committee could subtract the adjustment from the handicaps of the players competing from the lower-rated set of tees.  The use of “must” implies necessity which is lacking in this case.
[4] Letter to the USGA from Dean Knuth, former director of Handicapping at the USGA, January 18, 2001 as presented at