Golf, due to it’s handicapping system is one of the only sports that you can compete with another player of very different ability, and this is due to one thing, the handicap.  What other sport could a 20 year old with 5 years experience and good natural ability play against a 65 year old who has never played any sport and has only just taken up the game?

The handicap system has developed over many years into what it is now, a basic system with some complexities that many golfers don’t understand, but it does work, and your handicap is recognised at any club in the country, the theory is that even if you was a member at two very different courses (e.g. West Mids & Widney) you only have one handicap.

The system is going to change a lot in 2020, when we will be switching over the WHS, the World Handicapping System, where all the current handicap systems (CONGU which is ours, Europe, US, Australia, Argentina and South Africa) will all be changed to one handicap system meaning that your handicap will be administered exactly the same, anywhere in the world.

For now, I will set out a few basics, of our current system, that most regular experienced players, will probably be aware of, but for those who have little understanding and don’t really want to ask, here is a few pointers.  Please bear in mind that the CONGU manual is at least 100 pages long and I am trying to keep this to less than 2, so it is readable in 5 minutes.

Your handicap is calculated from an initial 3 cards, the best card is taken (not an average), and any holes with more than two over par (3 for ladies) shall be reduced to that number.  The total then has the SSS (Standard Scratch Score) for the course played deducted, and the nett figure is the starting handicap and can be anything up to a maximum of 54.

Once you have your handicap you are required to play in at least 3 competitions a year, to keep it as a competition handicap, otherwise it becomes non competition, and it may not be acceptable in some competitions, ie Majors or Opens etc.

The standard scratch score (SSS) is the rating for the course and the basis for your handicap to be related to (not the Par of the course), each set of tees has its own rating.  Think of the difference between playing off the Blue tees at West Mids (total yardage 6819 yards) and the yellows at Widney (5190 yards).  The two courses vary by 1629 yards, but the SSS is 6 shots higher at West Mids.  This means that to play to your handicap, you have 6 extra shots at West Mids.  Therefore a score to play exactly to your handicap is nett 73, or in a Stableford event, 37 points off the Blues (the SSS is 73, one shot lower than Par of 74), whereas to play to your handicap at Widney off the yellows, you would need to score a nett of 66, or 41 Stableford points (due to the Par being 71).  Therefore, take the situation to the extreme and imagine a scratch player, he is expected to play to 0, no handicap shots.  He would be expected to shoot a gross 73 (37 points) at West Mids, or a gross 66 (41 points) at Widney from the yellows.  This is why it is not unusual to see a score of 46 points at Widney, it is only 5 below handicap, yet at West Mids this rarely happens.

So now we know the expectation of every golfer, so what happens when we don’t play to our handicap.  First of all we need to explain categories and buffer zones.

Category 1: 0 (or better) to 5
Category 2: 6 to 12
Category 3: 13 to 20
Category 4: 21 to 28
Category 5: 29 to 36
After this we have club & disability handicaps which go up to 54.

When we have a competition, the tees of the day tell us the starting point for the handicap calculation, the SSS.  This is then adjusted based on the scores returned for the day and can go up or down, normally only by 1 shot but possibly 2, this is then called the Competition scratch score (CSS).  If your score is below the CSS, then you will but cut by a tenth of your category, so a player issued an initial handicap of 25 is category 4, so would be reduced 0.4 for each shot below the CSS.

So a quick example, the player plays in his first competition, a medal at West Mids off the whites, the course is playing average and the CSS stays at 72.  The player returns a gross 94, less 25 = nett 69.  This is 3 below CSS so he gets reduced by (3 x 0.4) 1.2.  His exact handicap is now 23.8, a handicap of 0.5 gets rounded up to the next number, 0.4 rounded down, so he now plays off 24.  You always refer to your handicap as a whole number, never the exact, this is only for us to calculate any changes.  You also always play off your whole handicap (playing handicap).

If you are over your handicap, you will go up by 0.1 every time you play over your handicap, regardless of category.  However, you do get a bit of leeway, this is your buffer zone and again relates to your category.  If you are category 3 then you have 3 shots to play with before you get increased, so the player off 25 in the above example could shoot a 100 and not get an increase.  100 – 25 = 75 which is 3 over the CSS, but in buffer.  However if he had scored a 101, he would have gone up 0.1.

The stroke index of the course is used in alternatives methods of scoring to Strokeplay.  Forms such as Stableford, bogey or Matchplay issue your handicap shots, not as a whole number at the end of the game but at each hole throughout the game.  This is done via the Stroke Index (SI), and the common misconception is that the SI is a rating of difficulty of each hole from 1-18, it isn’t, it is a fixed means of issuing shots throughout the round.  We do try to take the difficulty into account when arranging the SI, but it is more important that the shots are allocated in in a uniform manner with shots not being used up too early in the round, or leaving them too late, or putting them all together.  Often people say to me that the 8th shouldn’t be index 1, it really doesn’t matter, the only person it would matter to is someone playing off 1, because that is the only hole that he would get a shot on, or a match where only one shot is being given.

That is the handicap system in a nutshell, there are variations and exceptions to the system such as SPA (Stableford Points Adjustment), ESR (Exceptional Score Reductions), Reductions only comps, Annual Review, Non Qualifiers, CSS in more detail than explained, handicaps better than scratch (plus) where the player has to add on handicap shots, (imagine that!), as well as all of the various scoring methods that we will save for another day.

I hope this helps, if you have any questions please send me an email to mark@wmgc.co.uk


Mark Harrhy


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