Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Golf Canada
Golf Canada

For many players, handicaps heading higher Add to ...

Most Canadian golfers don’t know it yet, but many of their handicaps will soon increase. That’s because Golf Canada has revised its handicap system. The changes are now in effect. The revisions and procedure can seem complicated, but a little knowledge will go a long way toward golfers ensuring their handicaps are accurate.

The handicap system’s technical term is equitable stroke control, or ESC. It’s meant to ensure, in part, that all golfers have an equal chance of winning in competitions in which handicaps are used. A golfer who holds a 17 handicap should be able to compete on an equal footing against a golfer who holds a three handicap. The golfer with the lower handicap would give the other player 14 shots in a match, and off they’d go.

Golf Canada’s ESC program prior to March 1 was biased against the higher-handicap golfer. The 17-handicapper who made a triple-bogey seven on a par-four was allowed to record a maximum of a double-bogey six, the same as the three-handicapper. The golfer with the lower handicap would obviously not make as many double bogeys during most rounds as the higher-handicapper.

Then, in a match, the higher-handicapper would have to count his full score on a hole. Imagine the three-handicapper playing the 17-handicapper on a par-four hole rated as the ninth-hardest hole on the course. The three-handicapper is giving the 17-handicapper 14 shots during their match, or a shot on every hole rated one through 14 in difficulty. Imagine that the 17 makes a seven on the hole, and the three-handicapper makes a bogey five.

The 17 would have been able to record only a six on the hole in a game other than the match. Now he has made a seven, and the score counts in the match. He gets the one shot, making his net score a six. The three-handicapper wins the hole with his bogey five.

Under the revised ESC system, golfers with handicaps from 10 through 19 can record a seven, no matter the par of a hole. Golfers with handicaps from 20 through 29 can record an eight, even on a par-three, while golfers from 30 through 39 can record a nine, no matter the par. Prior to the revisions taking effect, golfers from 19 through 32 could record a maximum of three over on a hole, or, for example, a seven on a par-four. Golfers from 33 and up could record a maximum of four over, or an eight on a par-four.

Brent McLaughlin, Golf Canada’s director of rules, competition, and amateur status, cited data confirming that the majority of golfers who maintain handicaps through its service will see their numbers rise. The data indicate that 34 per cent of the golfers hold handicaps from 11 through 20, 21 per cent from 21 through 30, and 12 per cent are above 30.

“The way it was, in a match between a high-handicapper and a low-handicapper, the player with the lower handicap would have more than a 50 per cent chance of winning,” McLaughlin said in a telephone interview. “Most players’ handicaps will trend higher [under the revised calculations] The highest will be those who have two or three blow-up holes.”

McLaughlin added that the changes were based on studies done over the past few years, and that thousands of Golf Canada members who turned in surveys requested the change.

A word of elaboration is required here. A golfer does not really hold a handicap, per se. He, or she, maintains a handicap factor, the term in Canada. (The United States Golf Association calls it a handicap index.) A golfer who posts his scores properly will be provided a handicap factor, determined by a calculation based on the low 10 of the past 20 scores. Consider a golfer whose handicap factor is 12.8, and who is invited to play the difficult National Golf Club of Canada in Woodbridge, Ont.

That handicap factor, assuming it’s been established at courses less difficult than the National (a strong likelihood), will convert to something higher at the National. The 12.8 factor is put on a sloped line, and that is indeed what it is – a line that slopes to take into account course ratings. Ratings are based on a variety of indices, the most significant of which is course difficulty.

That converted number will represent the player’s handicap for the round at the National, and will allow him to compete against a golfer who brings his own handicap factor there. Whatever a player’s handicap factor, and wherever it has been established, it will translate into a course handicap.

Meanwhile, Dean Knuth, the man who developed the USGA’s course rating and slope system, believes that the ESC procedure as the USGA, and now Golf Canada, use, is problematic. Knuth worked for the USGA from 1981 through 1997, and now lives in San Diego. He has worked for a company in the defence industry since, providing intelligence for the reconnaissance community. The Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Navy are clients.

He approves that there’s now uniformity between the Canadian and U.S. systems, but he takes issue with the procedure in Golf Digest’s April issue.

“Golf Canada was using a system nobody else in the world used,” Knuth said in a telephone interview, “and now, unfortunately, it has adopted a bad system. Most of the rest of the world uses the net double-bogey limit I advocated in the Golf Digest article that makes much more sense.”

Using that procedure, Knuth, who is known as The Pope of Slope, writes, “A golfer with a course handicap of 12 could take no more than a seven on a par-four that is rated the 12th-toughest hole on the course (add two strokes plus one handicap stroke to the hole’s par). A golfer with an 11-handicap, however, could take only a six (two strokes but zero handicap strokes). This formula helps creates more accurate handicap indexes and speeds up play.”

Knuth goes into detail of why he believes this is so on his website ( popeofslope.com). McLaughlin argues that the U.S. experience is that there’s no evidence that play will be slower because golfers will finish a hole rather than picking up now that they can post a higher score. He adds that the harmony between the systems will mean that Canadian snowbirds can post scores now to clubs they play in the United States. He said that the system at U.S. clubs didn’t accept the Canadian procedure.

One thing is certain: As Canadians return to their clubs this season, those who care to develop accurate handicaps will have to adopt the new system. McLaughlin said that Golf Canada has provided clubs with explanatory posters. Its website also provides information as to the revised procedure.

Still, McLaughlin said, there could be some “backlash.” Life is about to get more complicated for Canadian golfers, while many handicaps could increase. They may be more truthful, but the truth can hurt.

RELATED LINK: More blogs from Lorne Rubenstein


Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada’s Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round’s on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf’s Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at rube@sympatico.ca . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein

Report Typo/Error

Next story




Most popular videos »

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular