This blog has documented many cases where a misunderstanding
of the USGA Handicap Manual has led to inequitable results. The latest
example comes from a tournament at a club in Southern California. The tournament consisted of four different
stroke play competitions of nine holes each: 1) Fourball, 2) Total score of
partners, 3) Scramble, and 4) Pinehurst.
The Tournament Committee imposed a limit of 8 strokes
between the handicaps of the partners. The
handicap of the higher handicapped player was reduced until the 8stroke limit
was reached. This, however, is not what
the USGA recommends:[1]
It is recommended that the
Committee considers it a condition of fourball stroke play competitions that
the Course
Handicap (after allowance) of the members of a side may not differ by
more than eight strokes. A side with a large difference has an advantage over a
side with a small Course
Handicap difference. If a difference of more than eight strokes cannot
be avoided, it is suggested that an additional 10 percent reduction be applied
to the Course
Handicap of each member of the advantaged side.[2]
Moreover, this recommendation is
only for fourball stroke play. Its application
to the other forms of competition, as was done in this tournament, is an
egregious error. To see the size of the
error, assume Player A has an Index of 3.5 and Player B has an Index of 14.8. The Table below presents the handicaps that
were used in the Tournaments and those that would have been used if USGA
guidelines had been followed. The USGA handicap calculations are shown in the
Appendix.
Tournament and USGA Handicaps
Competition

Player
A (3.5 Index)

Player
B (14.8 Index)


Tournament

USGA

Tournament

USGA


Four Ball

4

4

11

13

Total Score

4

4

12

16

Scramble

1

1

2

2

Pinehurst

2

2

5

6

In Fourball, Player B would play as a 7handicap under USGA
guidelines instead of a 6handicap in the 9hole competition. The competition
used a modified Stableford scoring so that a net par was worth 2 points and a
net birdie would be worth 4 points.[3] It is likely the loss due to the Tournament
handicap is in the 1 to 2 point range. (Note: The difference in Tournament
handicaps after the allowance is 7strokes and not the 8strokes as recommended
by the USGA.)
In the Total Score event, Player B would play as an
8handicap rather than as a 6handicap that was assigned by the Committee. The loss due to the Tournament handicap is probably
in the 2 to 4 point range. If Player B
bogeyed each hole where he had an additional stroke, he would gain 2
points. If he made par on the two holes
he would add 8 points instead of 4 for a net gain of 4 points.
The Scramble competition would not be affected since both
the Tournament and USGA handicaps are the same.
Similarly, the handicaps are equal in a ninehole Pinehurst
competition. The Tournament Pinehurst handicap
of 3.5 is rounded to 4.0, the same as the USGA handicap.
The number of points lost by this team due to the Tournament
Committee’s handicaps is in the range of 3 to 6 points. Would this have affected the outcome? Probably, since no team that had its handicap
reduced by the 8stroke rule came in the money.
The bigger problem, however, is the Tournament Committee that failed to
follow USGA guidelines. Players have an
expectation a tournament will be run fairly.
In this case, that expectation was not met.
Appendix
USGA Handicaps
FourBall – Player A’s course handicap is 4. His
handicap after the 90 percent allowance is still 4 (4x.9= 3.6 rounded up to 4.0).
Reducing his handicap by an additional
10 percent still leaves the player at a 4handicap (4  .1 x 4 = 3.6 rounded to 4.0). Player B’s course handicap is 16. His handicap after the allowance is 14. After an additional 10 percent reduction, his
handicap is 13 (14  .1 x 14 = 12.6 which is rounded to 13).
Total Score of
Partners – The USGA recommends players be assigned their full handicap. Player A would be a 4handicap and Player B a
16handicap.
Scramble – The
USGA recommends the team handicap should be 35 percent of Player A’s handicap
and 15 percent of Player B’s handicap.
Player A would have a 1handicap (.35 x 4 = 1.4 rounded to 1). Player B would have a 2handicap (.15 x 16
=2.4 rounded to 2.0).
Pinehurst –The
USGA recommends the team handicap should be 60 percent of Player A’s handicap
and 40 percent of Player B’s handicap. Player A’s handicap would have a
2handicap (.6 x 4 = 2.4 rounded to 2).
Player B would have a 6handicap (16 x .4 = 6.4 rounded to 6).
[1]
The eight stroke limit stems from research done by Francis Scheid published in Golf Digest in June 1971. Scheid never studied actual tournaments, but
used scorecards from his home club to simulate matches. In 1971 there was no Slope System and the
bonus for excellence was .85 rather than .96 as it is today. Nevertheless, the 8stroke limit has been imposed in
many fourball events even though it has never been proven to lead to increased
equity in studies of actual competitions.
[2] USGA Handicap System, Sec. 9.4bii. The USGA does not recommend the 8stroke
limit for Fourball match play. The
USGA’s reasoning does not seem consistent.
If a large difference in handicap leads to low scores in Fourball
stroke play, it would seem that a large difference in handicap would also lead
to low scores in Fourball match play—i.e., the team with a large difference
would always have an advantage. The USGA
has never explained why the 8stroke limit should only apply to Fourball
stroke play.
[3]
Modified Stableford scoring adds an element of serendipity in deciding the
winner. Under modified Stableford
scoring, two players with the same handicap and gross score can have different
point totals in the Fourball competition.
It is not clear if the Tournament Committee purposefully wanted to add
an element of chance to the scoring or simply made a mistake in selecting the
modified Stableford scoring system.