Handicap Hub: Handicapping Head-Scratchers Part II | Oregon Golf Association

Handicap Hub: Handicapping Head-Scratchers Part II

Part II:  Golfers Playing From Different Tees

By Kelly Neely, Sr. Director, Handicapping & Course Rating
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This is article No. 2 in a series of Handicapping Head-Scratchers – procedures within the USGA Handicap System that puzzle and perplex. Looking for clarity? We can help.

Not sure what the driving reasons are – whether concurring with the USGA and PGA of America’s “Tee it Forward” campaign, or realizing that shorter distance equals more success and smiling on the course – but I’m thankful that more golfers are gladly moving up to a forward tee. There is even a trend of kinder and gentler Tournament Directors who are allowing players to choose which tee they want to play from. What a concept! This can increase participation and speed up pace, both enjoyable consequences of including a shorter tee.

All of this is well and good until those playing forward realize they’re forfeiting strokes, due to the application of Section 3-5 of the USGA Handicap System – Players Competing From Different Tees. Then the head-scratching begins and exasperation sets in. As with other handicapping conundrums, this rule deserves further examination, less emotion, and – sigh – a bit more math. But if we always remember that the goals of the Handicap System are to achieve equity and fairness, it’s well worth the brain-strain.


Let’s take a couple of life-long friends, Bob and Ron, who are so close they always play the same course and even have the same Handicap Index, which is 15.1. The similarities end there, as they typically play different tees; Bob plays the White tees (70.7/131), and Ron plays the Gold (66.8/116). As usual, the two decide to play a head-to-head net competition, without any knowledge of Handicap System Section 3-5 adjustments. Drinks are on the line, and Bob is tired of shelling out for Ron’s single malt scotch.

Bob’s 15.1 converts to a Course Handicap of 18 from the White tees, and Ron’s 15.1 grants him a Course Handicap of 16 from the Gold tees. If both players play to their handicap that day – what we call “target score” – Bob shoots an 89, and Ron shoots an 83. (Note – It’s crucial that all golfers with Handicap Indexes understand Target Score, which is Course Handicap plus Course Rating. This represents the score you need to shoot to play to your handicap.)

But let’s get down to brass tacks – what about the results?

  • Ron – 83 – 16 = 67 Net
  • Bob – 89 – 18 = 71 Net

Both did as well as they could possibly expect to do as players carrying 15.1 Handicap Indexes, yet Ron beats Bob net – again. And Bob ponies up for Ron’s scotch again. As you’re reading this, you’re no doubt thinking what Bob is thinking – what is missing here?

About four strokes to be exact.

If Bob and Ron had both been playing the White tees, their match would have started off equally, simply by converting their Indexes to the Slope Rating of 131. But the scoring expectations between the White tees and Gold tees are completely different. By failing to make a second adjustment to equalize the two Course Ratings in play, they unfortunately set off from the first tee on uneven ground, with no hope of an equal match.


And, if Bob and Ron had known about the Section 3-5 rule, they would have taken the difference between the Course Ratings of the White and Gold tees (70.7 – 66.8 = 3.9, rounded to 4), and added strokes to Bob’s Course Handicap, giving him a 22 instead of an 18. The rule also allows the rounded difference to be subtracted from Ron playing the shorter tees, giving him a 12 instead of a 16. It doesn’t matter which method you use, as both have the same mathematical effect.

Now let’s go back to our Net results with the proper adjustment, and apply it both ways:

  • Tie with Net 67s if 4 strokes are added to Bob’s Course Handicap (89 – 22 = 67)
  • Tie with Net 71s if 4 strokes are subtracted to Ron’s Course Handicap (83 – 12 = 71)

Now that fairness has been achieved, Bob and Ron are both picking up the tab!

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