|photo by byronv2 on flickr
Once upon a time the United States Golf Association held a secret magic formula. Taking a person's last twenty scores and, after trimming down any catastrophe holes, throwing out the bad outlier rounds, and factoring in the difficulty of the courses played, the formula would spit out a number that, better than any other single metric, reflects that person's current ability to play golf. Far from a scoring average, it's a more nuanced data point that manages to reflect the hard reality of What's Going On on the course lately, while also providing some approximation of your so-called potential--a prickly concept to try and measure mathematically if ever there was. Yet somehow golf handicapping actually works.
USGA didn't invent handicapping, but over here it's been the gatekeeper for about as long as there's been golf handicapping in America. They have to be given credit for taking the responsibility seriously. They've underwritten massive studies in the quest to refine and improve the formula. They've even gone to court to try and protect the integrity of the entire system. Furthermore the USGA distinguished its handicapping system from those in the rest of the world by making it inclusive of all of a person's golf rounds, not just the competitive ones. So whether it was a round on your home course, a dinky executive course, or on vacation halfway around the world, the majority of what happened in your golf-life was baked into your handicap number. Thus the USGA index, for better or worse represented a vital, living, breathing statistic, not unlike one's resting heart rate or blood-cholesterol levels.
Handicapping has served all manner of golfers well for over a century. Giving/receiving strokes based on handicap indexes (when used in conjunction with honesty of course) more often than not results in close, exciting competitions, even between golfers of wildly varying skill levels.
Beside competitions, the handicap index provides a useful metric for any golfer to assess his own skill and progress (or lack thereof) at golf. Rather than getting bogged down in minutia like fairways, GIRs, putts per GIR, a golfer can take one quick look at one simple number and get a good idea of What's Going On. Make any significant improvements to any part of your game and that handicap number will respond. A simple, elegant way to track your game. Philosophically too, the handicap is a beautiful concept, one that recognizes that evaluating people based on their very worst moments is neither fair nor particularly useful. Plus it gives the everyday golfer something meaningful to strive for every single time he tees it up. Beat your handicap in any given round and you'll know that no matter how it went down, you played decent that day.
NOW, a massive change is afoot. The USGA has declared that starting on January 1, any round used to compute handicap must be attested by person designated as a marker. This marker is not just any old jackass that happens to be in your group, mind you. Nope, according to the Association the marker is a much more serious person than that. The marker is "one who is appointed by the Committee to record a competitors score in stroke play". That means that rounds played alone, or alongside disinterested parties, are no longer relevant to a person's handicap.
What might seem like an act of exclusion by the Association, that makes it fairly bothersome (or in some cases, impossible) for the average golfer to maintain an official index, it might also be characterized as simply a withdrawal by the USGA from a certain market of golfers--all those who don't compete at the regional, state or national level. But why? Maybe it's just tired of stressing out about the integrity of every single person's handicap index in our vast nation. Maybe this is a step towards the eventual unification of every handicapping governing body on Earth. Heck, it could be as simple as the USGA merely trying to keep the dishonest poseurs from clogging up its own qualifying events.
Whatever the intent, it's a welcome change. This new situation will better suit the world we live in. The USGA handicap formula and guidelines are no less useful to everyday golfers on January 1 than they were for the hundred years prior. Only now, people no longer have to pay for the benefit. The genie's out of the bottle--the handicap formula is essentially in the public domain.
Back in 1950, people did everyday math with pencil and scratch paper. Maintaining a rolling average of your ten best scores of your last twenty in those days represented a serious chore involving long division and decimal places and over time, lots of scratch paper. Even if they knew the handicap formula, people wouldn't have the stomach for that kind of work, so it's understandable that most would rather pay their USGA dues, mail in their scores and then simply wait by the mailbox for the latest handicap card to arrive.
Now there's a myriad of online score and stat-keeping sites for golfers. You don't even need a computer, just basic internet access. In theory a strung-out drifter living under a bridge could maintain a dead-accurate handicap index, to say nothing of left/right rough tendency, strokes gained and other fancy modern metrics.
Handicaps should be kept, as rigorously as ever, by individuals, groups and associations, whether by the new USGA guidelines or the old. Because they incorporate more detailed stats in addition to social networking, online score and stat-keeping sites might even promote better (i.e. nosier, more invasive) peer review, scrutiny and finger-pointing among golfers than our analog-era forbears could ever have enjoyed. How better to check up on your fellow members' golf games than to peruse the blow-by-blow accounts of any and all of their past rounds? And now in this age of GPS club tagging, keeping tabs on each others' comings and goings can only get easier and more convenient. I mean, back in the pencil-and-paper age, what did people do whenever someone's handicap index came under suspicion? Stop right there sir, I'm gonna need to see your license and handicap card.
Also, now the lone wolf golfers of the world, those who play mainly for their own enjoyment are now relieved of any pressure to align with the Association. They are still free to maintain handicaps, with every bit of the same rigor as the USGA expects from its dues-paying members. Without getting into personal politics, I think the vast majority of golfers would agree with less Big Government meddling in their everyday lives.
The new world order will upset some. They might feel unsafe without the aegis of the USGA hovering over them. But the hard reality is that the USGA is no more able to protect us from cheaters and sandbaggers than the federal government is able to prevent some high school kid from copying quiz answers. USGA official or not, a handicap index is/was only ever as good as the honesty of its user.