George Peper: Let’s Get Personal

By George Peper

Illustration by Peter Ryan

It’s time for the USGA and R&A to take a cue from Netflix and Amazon and
make our handicaps adjust instantly to different types of courses

So the USGA and R&A have spent a great deal of time, effort, and money recently on the development of what they’re calling the WHS—World Handicap System. Under this grand regime, which will launch next year, golfers from around the globe will all have their handicaps computed according to exactly the same formula. 

Big deal. 

At the risk of sounding xenophobic, do we Yanks really care how anyone beyond our shores determines his or her handicap? I mean, when’s the last time you found yourself on the first tee with a threesome from Madrid, Melbourne, and Montevideo?

Fundamentally, a handicap is a measurement of one’s skill and a predictor of one’s future performance against a given course or opponent. It is by nature a personal, not global, thing. In my humble view, the game’s two ruling bodies could have spent their resources far more fruitfully by tightening the handicap focus rather than broadening it, by finding a way to produce handicaps that are even more personal—more accurate and adaptable, from moment to moment, opponent to opponent, and  course to course. 

The introduction of the Slope system in 1987 was a major enhancement in this regard, as it recognized for the first time the wide range of difficulty among courses. Back then, a team of golf-crazed scientists developed a sliding scale with the number 113 indicating the Slope of an average-difficulty course. Today, a 15-handicapper, playing that 113-Slope course, gets his 15 strokes, no more and no fewer. On, say, a 99-Slope course, he’d get 13 strokes while on a 130-Slope course he’d get 17.

But Slope went only so far, and the USGA has made no improvements to the system in the last 32 years when the truth is that they could have and should have. Why? Because, in the last 32 years the digital revolution has erupted. 

Today, every forward-thinking company, association, and government in the world is mining and milking its digital data, virtually all of them with the same goal: greater personalization. Think about it: Netflix recommends movies based on your past viewing habits; Amazon suggests “similar products” based on your previous purchases; Google bombards you with “interest-based ads” that reflect your browsing history. With every Internet keystroke you make, you provide information about yourself that is recorded, crunched, and redeployed to manipulate your future behavior in some way—sometimes helpfully, sometimes annoyingly, sometimes intrusively. 

Okay, so what does all this data stuff have to do with your golf handicap? Nothing, and, my fellow golfers, that is the problem.  

Consider that the expression “horses for courses” is not just a cute rhyming line, it’s something that’s quantifiable. Also quantifiable is the fact that no two golfers are alike—not even two 15-handicappers—and the same is true of golf courses: No two of them—even two courses with exactly the same course rating and Slope rating—play the same for everyone. The simple and certifiable truth is that certain types of golfers fit certain types of courses better than others. 

Consider a match between two 15-handicappers—Bluto, who’s long but wild off the tee and Percy, who’s short but straight. Now let’s put the two of them on the first tee of Big Ballpark, a 7,000-yard course with airstrip-width fairways and enormous greens. Not surprisingly, Bluto’s scoring history on similar courses shows that he handles them well while Percy’s history reflects just the opposite. In an ideal world, therefore, Bluto would get fewer handicap strokes than Percy on Big Ballpark. Now, on the course just across the street, called Single File, which has exactly the same rating and Slope as Big Ballpark but is 6,000 claustrophobic yards, strewn with trees, sand, and water, the reverse would happen: Bluto would have a heap of trouble, Percy not so much. Bluto would therefore get more than his usual 15 strokes, Percy fewer. 

That doesn’t happen now, but it should—and it can, because the USGA, just like Netflix et al., has the data to make it happen. Every time you post a score, you tell GHIN (the USGA’s Golf Handicap and Information Network) which course and tees you played. The system then applies the relevant course and Slope ratings to produce your “differential” for the round (essentially the difference between your score and the course rating). Now, bear in mind, the Slope rating is based not simply on raw yardage but on 10 “obstacle factors” related to everything from the number and size of water hazards  to the number and depth of the bunkers to the width of the fairways, the severity of the rough, and the size and slope of the greens. There’s even a “psychological” factor, presumably a menacing amalgam of all the above. 

Granted, your current handicap is based on only your last 20 rounds, but the system surely is capable of archiving a lifetime of rounds. In the case of many of us, this would mean scores on dozens, maybe hundreds, of different courses. In other words, a mountain of data reflecting the gamut of our evolving skills as a golfer. Armed with all this information—all these performances by you (both good and bad) on this wide variety of courses—the computer “knows” your game, knows about your power shortage, your two-way miss, and your sand-seeking missile, knows about your chip yips and your stone-hands putting stroke. In short, it knows where you thrive and where you choke, which kinds of courses you play well—or at least play statistically better than golfers with the same handicap as you—and which ones you don’t.

Now surely there’s a bright young software engineer out there somewhere who, with a few deft key strokes, can produce an algorithm that will interpret that data and predict with heretofore unknown accuracy your future performance, essentially provide you with a handicap that’s far more personalized than the one being spat out by the current antiquated system, a handicap that will adapt and reset itself with each new course you encounter. 

That same algorithm would be able to match you to the courses in your area that best fit your game, or advise you whether you’ll have more fun on your next vacation playing the courses of Bandon Dunes, Pinehurst, or Hilton Head. And therein lies a way for this enhancement to pay for itself, by inviting those resort destinations and other enterprising companies to develop digital ads that target their most-likely-suspect golfers. Such ads could run beside the bi-weekly email handicap updates we receive from the state and regional golf associations. 

Which gets me to another question. Again, in this digital age, is there any sane reason we have to wait two weeks to have our handicaps updated? If you can post a score online in a few seconds, shouldn’t you be able to see your new handicap roughly one second after that? But I’ll save that one for another rant.