Handicap Hub: Handicapping Head-Scratchers Part III
Part III: The USGA Handicap System and (vs.?) the Rules of Golf
By Kelly Neely, Sr. Director, Handicapping & Course Rating
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This is article No. 3 in a series of Handicapping Head-Scratchers – procedures within the USGA Handicap System that puzzle and perplex. Looking for clarity? We can help.
Forgive me if I’m about to use a poor philosophical analogy, but if the Handicap System and the Rules of Golf are roads, are they in completely different locations, many miles apart? Or are they running parallel; sometimes merging, sometimes veering off from each other?
(Right now, they’re both under construction, but that’s a whole other subject).
Before I go down this road (sorry!), I have to reveal that within the walls of the OGA office there has been some good-natured banter regarding whether or not the Handicap System actually trumps the Rules of Golf (I can picture Rules experts cringing at the mere thought!). Of course it really doesn’t, but it’s a fun argument for me nonetheless.
Side Note: The Handicap System assumes that the player carrying a Handicap Index is following the Rules of Golf, and the player in turn makes a promise to do so. But did you also know that your golf club’s Handicap Chair signs an agreement with the OGA and USGA called the “Club Compliance Checklist” that includes 17 questions, one of which is: “Does your club insist that the Rules of Golf be followed?” (PS: I’ve never seen anyone answer NO). So, the golf club issuing Handicap Indexes also makes a commitment to uphold the Rules.
The roads of the Handicap System and Rules of Golf do run parallel for the majority of the route. But, interestingly, there are a few turn-outs, where you’d think that the Rules are being disregarded or perhaps minimized. Over time the Handicap System has provided flexibility which makes scores not played strictly according to the Rules of Golf acceptable. Why would the USGA allow this, you say? Because, in the world of handicapping, a lot of data is necessary. More than you would ever expect. More scoring data means an accurate Handicap Index indicative of the player’s potential ability.
Many players are surprised to find they must post scores under the following circumstances (read: not a suggestion). Yes, even if it feels like you’re veering away from the Rules.
Conceded Putts and Incomplete Holes
In stroke play, a player is required under Rule 3-2 to hole out at every hole. However, in some special forms of stroke play (Stablefords, for example there are instances where holing out is not a requirement. When a player fails to hole out, in either stroke play or match play, the Handicap System requires data for handicap purposes that is an acceptable indication of what transpired. Handicap System Manual Section 4-1 states:
“A player who starts, but does not complete a hole or is conceded a stroke, must record the most likely score for handicap purposes. The most likely score consists of the number of strokes already taken, plus, in his best judgment, the number of strokes that the player would need to complete the hole from that position more than half the time. The most likely score must not exceed the player’s ESC (Equitable Stroke Control) limit.” In this instance the player must evaluate each situation based on what they can reasonably expect to score.
Example – Player A and B are playing a match. On a hole on which neither player receives a handicap stroke, A has holed out in 4; B has a 30-foot putt for a 5. B has lost the hole, and picks up. B records x-6 on the scorecard because 6 is B’s most likely score.
“Mulligans” are a relatively frequent occurrence on the golf course. But they are not recognized under the Rules of Golf. The Handicap System doesn’t want to eliminate a round that has seventeen holes of valid scores if a “mulligan” was played on a single hole. So, for handicap purposes, the hole score made with the mulligan is tossed out and replaced with a hole score that is not considered out of ordinary for the player, based on his Course Handicap. The player’s score becomes par, plus any handicap strokes the player should receive on the hole(s) in question (Handicap System Manual Section 4-2; Holes Not Played or Not Played Under the Rules of Golf).
Example – A player with a Course Handicap of eighteen receives a stroke on every hole, so that particular player’s hole score where the mulligan was used would be par plus the one stroke, or a bogey.
Preferred Lies / Winter Rules
The use of Preferred Lies or winter rules is not endorsed nor interpreted under the Rules of Golf. But since we live in the Northwest, where sunshine is frequently in the liquid form, widespread soggy course conditions occur. In an attempt to provide fair play in such adverse circumstances, the Committee in charge of the course can enable a Local Rule granting specific relief (The Rules of Golf, Appendix 1, Part A, 3b).
Scores made under a Local Rule for preferred lies or winter rules must be posted for handicap purposes. In fact, even if no Local Rule exists and the player decides on their own to use some creative form of preferred lies, the score must still be posted when in active handicapping season (for the OGA this is March 1 – November 30).
Side Note: The correct application of Preferred Lies is in closely mown areas only (meaning – any area of the course, including paths through the rough, cut to fairway height or less). This doesn’t mean you can prefer your lie in the rough. The rough is called that for a reason, no matter the season.
Electronic Measuring Devices
As stated in The Rules of Golf 14-3, the player must not use any artificial device, unusual equipment, or use equipment in an abnormal manner. What comes up frequently, and for practical purposes, is the issue of not just distance measuring devices, but anything categorized as an electronic measuring device (who doesn’t carry their smartphone with them at all times?). The Committee is allowed to enact a Local Rule allowing such devices. But what about posting scores?
If a player uses a distance-measuring device to measure distance only, regardless of whether the Committee has established a Local Rule, then the score is acceptable for handicap purposes. Additionally, if a player uses such a device to access weather reports provided by weather stations through an app or internet browser, the player is deemed not participating in the specific act of gauging or measuring variable conditions (wind or gradient) which might affect his play, so the score must be posted. It’s only when the player breaches more than one stipulation within Rule 14-3 that causes disqualification, and in addition, renders the score unacceptable for handicap purposes.
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