Monday, March 8, 2021

Handicap Allowances: The Curious Case of Individual Stroke Play

The World Handicap System (WHS) has made recommendations on handicap allowances for various types of tournaments (Rules of Handicapping, Appendix C).  The most curious is the 95% allowance for individual stroke play.  Before the WHS, all major handicapping organizations (United State Golf Association, Golf Australia, and the Congress of National Golf Unions) recommended stroke play tournaments be played at full curse handicap (i.e., 100%). 

Why the change?  Were there peer reviewed studies indicating the 95% allowance was necessary to ensure equity?  It is doubtful the 95% allowance was based on empirical evidence.  More likely, the 95% allowance simply assumed high-handicap players tend to have larger variances in their scores than low-handicap players.  Therefore, high-handicap players have a better chance of finishing both first (and last) in a tournament.   Under the guise of creating a level playing field and as a sop to the low-handicap lobby, the 95% allowance was adopted.

The WHS did restrict this 95% allowance to medium size net events of at least 30 players.  For events with fewer players, competitors would receive their full handicap.  It is not the number of players that should be the controlling factor, however, but the distribution of handicaps among competitors.  If the distribution is tight, then the 95% allowance would be hard to justify.  The WHS probably assumed a large field implies a wide dispersion so it decided to go with size.

But the measurement of field size can be confusing to those who do not understand the reasoning behind the 95% allowance.  A case in point is a tournament with a field size of 50 divided into five flights. The Tournament Committee announced the 95% allowance would be imposed.   The Committee could argue the tournament has more than 30 players and thus the 95% allowance is justified. That would be specious reasoning. The 95% allowance has no effect on its intended purpose of benefitting the low-handicap player.   No one in the first flight (handicaps of 10 and under) will get a reduced handicap.  Moreover, taking one-stroke away from those in the fifth flight is of no consequence in determining the winner in the first flight. 

Implementing the 95 allowance produces other problems. A flight could have players with 10- and 11-handicaps. Both players will play as 10-handicaps under the 95% allowance.  Is this fair?  The Tournament Committee in this case also lets a player choose the tees he wants to play.   There are instances where a player could be assigned the same handicap from two different sets of tees.[1]  This would not be equitable.  The 95% allowance means all players with handicap of 11-30 will all receive a 1-stroke deduction.  This handicap range includes most of the players competing in the lower flights.  If everyone in a flight receives the same deduction, what is the purpose?

Unless the WHS has strong evidence in support of the 95% allocation, it should have stayed with the 100% allocation that has stood the test of time.







[1]  The table below is an example of a player with a 12 handicap from the white tee and 10-handicap from the green/white tees.  If he chooses the white tee, he will play to an 11-habndicap.  From the green/white combination tees he will play as a 10-handicap, compete on a course that is 325 yards shorter, and be unaffected by the 95% allocation.  Tournament Committees should try to avoid situations where a player can “game” the system in tee selection.