Tim Aggett: Enough is enough for inactive handicaps

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir December 24, 2011 14:51

Once upon a time there was a handicap system. It was brutal, but effective. If you played one or two shots below your handicap, you got cut one shot. Three below meant down two, four below meant three and so on. Play to the number just once in a year and there you would stay. If you didn’t you’d get a shot back – assuming the club could be bothered to do an annual review. Thus the system meant everyone’s handicap represented their best game; even if it was the one from 10 years ago, when you had one of those days.

Then came a kinder, more egalitarian age (1983, at the height of Thatcherism – trust golf to be completely out of step with the world). We needed a different, fairer system. So we looked around and copied the way handicaps were run in a country with a similar population density and number of golf clubs: Australia. We all got a shot back, went up or down in stages dependent on our performance as the season progressed, and thus everyone ended up with a handicap which represented their average game.

It was actually possible (just) to run it manually. But as we all know, whilst to err is human, to really screw up, you need a computer. The arrival of widespread computerisation led directly into the complex, labyrinthine system we now operate. It has created companies whose sole raison d’etre is to provide software to run golf handicaps, and given one small committee power over every golfer in the entireUK. It was all done because we could do it; there didn’t appear to be a lot of consideration of whether we should.

In its own way, the Council of National Golf Unions (CONGU) is genius at work. Not only has it guaranteed its own existence in perpetuity, it has actually created an industry. If only our politicians were as clever.

Enough, I think, is enough. When the ordinary club golfer can’t get a handle on how their handicap works, we are in trouble. When the handicap system does not recognise the validity of social golfers just happy doing their own thing, we are in trouble. When we are actively rating golf courses to achieve an increase in the standard scratch score to bring handicaps up to continental levels for a given standard of player, we are in trouble. Yet that is where we now are – all these things are happening.

Rating is a whole different pack of cards, since we are one of the few major golfing nations not using the slope system. But the handicap system is clearly an issue, highlighted by some fantastic correspondence in the golfing press recently. This all started with a gent inWales, a Golf Monthly correspondent, who is fed up with being beaten by high handicappers in the monthly medal. Come on, grow up chap, and get your club to play in divisions and have a nominal scratch prize. However, that sparked other things.

The biggest issue of the moment is the active / inactive handicap. It’s an issue at club level since it is causing membership loss. Golfers see that little ‘i’ next to their number and read it is ‘invalid’. It becomes i for ‘i see the club won’t let my handicap stand any more’; for ‘i don’t see the point if i can’t have a handicap’; for ‘i don’t think i will renew my membership this year’. The clubs can’t afford to lose members, and nor can the golf unions.

Doesn’t stop it happening. An idea would have been to call it competitive / social. It did look like a good idea; in practice it’s been a big problem. The work involved in getting people to play just three recorded rounds is enormous. All that supplementary scores have proved to me is what I always knew; that for every ‘i’ golfer whose handicap is too high there are five to 10 who should increase. Anyway, supplementary scores are just a cheat’s charter. Do half a dozen cards each year with your mates and get half a shot back when your handicap is already four shots too many. Then clear up in the pro am / charity am circuit. Fantastic.

The best idea would have been not to do it at all.

I am now told I can’t reduce players on performance in better-ball, team events or matchplay. How stupid is that? Those are the exact places where you will see genuine performances, freed from the disciplines of the medal card which so restrict many golfers. And then you will catch the pot hunters, as they don’t play individual events since they know that’s where their handicaps will be reduced. General play is gone, other than ‘exceptional circumstances’. So a guy shoots three under his handicap in a society event and officially I can’t do anything about it? Crazy!

Can someone sensibly explain why we exclude anyone over 20-handicap from the calculation of the competition scratch score? I know the current logic is that their scores vary too much, but surely excluding golfers whose handicap is only three higher than the national average impacts on everyone else, and not in a good way?

Then we get into the areas of stroke allowances and stroke index. I actually have no problem with full difference in singles matchplay. That does make sense. Fourball has been left alone; good. Foursomes is another matter. Half difference in combined handicaps in foursomes is just crazy. Playing off nine and one, my partner and I played four rounds of our club’s mixed knockout and conceded 64 shots. It would have been 51 on the 3/8 difference, and the increase would have made not one jot of difference to the results – we would still have won the first three games and then lost that last game, even giving four fewer shots.

Again, in the mixed arena, our open is greensomes. The ladies run it, and this year faithfully used the CONGU calculation for greensomes’ handicaps. I got suspicious when an increase in my partner’s handicap meant with a combined 16, we got seven shots. A couple of pairs with a combined 32 got 14. Our playing partners with a combined 35 got 15. I looked at some other pairs and everyone got 7/16, a long-established fraction. Yet some poor sap up the line has had to sit down and work out a matrix of every conceivable handicap combo so that we can work out allowances using a new calculus which is basically the old 7/16 fraction dressed up in new maths – what is the point?

The CONGU handbook intones that stroke index should be based around matchplay. Why, when the vast majority of clubs play huge amounts of stableford golf? Then, they say, the index should not allow more then x number of shots to be received in y number of holes, and the holes where the shots are given should not be based on difficulty? This is one area where CONGU badly needs to butt out and allow the clubs, who know their courses best, to make these decisions.

We need the handicap system to properly recognise the validity of individual choice. If someone doesn’t want to play competitively, or because of work issues finds it really difficult to get to clubs on competition days, they should not be subject to an artificial penalty, even stigma (‘not sure I’d trust that handicap; inactive’ – heard that already in the locker room). It is not the job of the central authority to tell golfers and clubs how they will behave. It is their job to provide a simple, effective system. Which we do not currently have.

Tim Aggett is the general manager of Staddon Heights Golf Club


Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir December 24, 2011 14:51
Write a comment


  1. Power September 10, 08:09

    I agree we have a player and not the only one who does this who as gone out in a 9 hole competition on a Tuesday and Friday who was playing off 7.4 he now is playing off 9.5 ie 10 and stil inl singles competition why are rabbits and tigers allowed to get point 1back over 9 holes really are sick of this handicap system half the time it’s a waste of time entering competition’s oh and in a morning swindle our two high handicappers come in with 53 points

    Reply to this comment
  2. Neil Sjoberg December 25, 11:33

    Well done Tim Aggett for condemning our dreadful handicapping system! It is the most destructive contribution to golf club membership in my lifetime.
    Until we get a simple, do-it-in-your-head, self-regulated, best-score-over-SSS handicap, the popularity of club golf will continue to decline.
    There is, I fear, no chance of change. Too many people gain money or power from the present system.
    I know many other managers share these views but have a career to protect, so they keep their heads down.

    Neil Sjoberg
    Manager, Epping Golf Club

    Reply to this comment
  3. Steve Rumball December 25, 11:32

    Not only do I wholly endorse the fact that the ‘i’ for inactive does cause members to leave, which I am certain that the powers that be will not believe, but I also have what I believe is a reasonable strategy for a simple-to-explain, simple-to-administer handicapping system.
    You simply take a rolling average of the last 10 submitted cards – so when you play in the medal this weekend and have a shocker, your rolling 10 average will increase because the card that drops off, that is the card that is oldest, happened to be the round of your life. The rolling 10 system means that your handicap reflects what you have been playing like recently, instead of binding you to a handicap that was achieved in a purple patch of golfing glory five years ago when your reduction was 10 shots in four months, following which you have become disillusioned with the game as you have not played anywhere near to it for three years now!
    For a new handicap, take the same three cards to start and average them. As more cards come in, the average is still taken – six cards, divide by six until we reach the total of 10 and then you are into the system.
    Simple to explain, simple to understand, simple to operate – it will never catch on then!

    Steve Rumball
    Manager, Chalgrave Manor Golf Club

    Reply to this comment
  4. Peter Austerberry December 25, 11:30

    The ‘poor sap’ referred to would, on a personal basis, like to correct some of the inaccuracies (factual and some perceptual) the article contained. For information, I am a member of the GCMA and, yes, the CONGU board (and therefore the ‘he would say that wouldn’t he?’ brigade).
    Tim Aggett avers that active / inactive (A/I) is the ‘issue of the moment’ yet devotes only two and a half column inches to the topic, the remainder to taking a swipe at CONGU. He claims that A/I is ‘causing membership loss’ while conceding ‘[A/I] did look like a good idea, in practice it’s been a big problem’. The system was introduced in England and Wales last year after being in use in Scotland for a number of years where, it was reported, there had been no noticeable impact on membership. As a county secretary I was acutely aware that club membership had been increasingly in decline for at least three years before A/I was introduced; some club managers locally do not feel A/I has had a noticeable effect on that decline. Perhaps Tim Aggett’s members who would have left anyway are citing becoming ‘inactive’ as the reason. For me, the ‘2-for-1’ issue, the plethora of cheap winter offers and the relaxing of the requirement for needing a handicap certificate to play a course as a visitor are bigger incentives to become a ‘nomad’ than A/I is a disincentive to remaining a member. A/I may be a factor in some cases but, in itself, is not the prime ‘cause’, which is surely financial.
    Interestingly, managers have mentioned that CONGU’s introduction of the universal handicapping system (which has encouraged mixed golf) and nine-hole qualifying scores has produced a greater positive effect on retaining members than A/I has had on losing them. Like Tim Aggett’s ‘evidence’, this is only anecdotal, and statistical data separating out the various factors would be almost impossible to gather. Tim Aggett makes no mention of these initiatives, both of which were taken to increase participation. As his other 20 or so column inches make it appear that he came ‘to bury CONGU, not to praise it’, perhaps this is no surprise.
    He wrote: ‘I am told I can’t reduce players on performance in better ball’. In fact CONGU says precisely the opposite: ‘Players who have identifiably performed consistently well in other forms of competition should be assessed to ensure that their performances do not suggest a lower handicap than their stroke play record suggests’ (introduction to the Annual Review Report).
    Tim also stated: ‘This is one area [allocation of stroke indices] where CONGU should butt out and allow the clubs who know their courses best to make these decisions’. In fact, on page 62 of the 2008 edition, CONGU recognises the very points made and did effectively ‘butt out’.
    It has, over the years, moved a long way from the stance ‘difficulty in relation to par should not be taken into account when selecting stroke indexes,’ (1997 edition Appendix I). Appendix G emphasises that it contains only recommendations and suggestions. In my view, the wording of the appendix allows clubs to decide how to allocate stroke indices based on the mix of its competition play requirements, whether Stableford scoring or matchplay. CONGU would have been roundly criticised for being at odds with the advice given by The R&A, had Appendix G been worded any differently.
    According to Tim: ‘Officially, I can’t do anything about it [a player who shoots three under in a society event]? Crazy!’ No, according to CONGU, you shouldn’t, not you can’t. In my view it is crazy that you should want to do something about a player’s handicap who shoots three under in a society.
    He also stated: ‘We are actively rating golf courses to achieve an increase in the Standard Scratch Score [SSS] to bring handicaps up to continental levels for a given standard of player’. Clearly the EGU has much work to do in getting across the message (yes, even to its raters like Tim Aggett) that the system was actually designed to achieve uniformity in the SSS determination across the seven unions. Also, anyone who thinks that increasing the SSS would have the effect of bringing handicaps up to a level cannot really understand how the system works.
    He wrote: ‘[CONGU] looked around and copied the way handicaps were run in a country with a similar population density and number of golf clubs’. Really? In fact the Australian system was ‘copied’ because it was the only widely used system based on using attested competition scores only, a culture our golfers were accustomed to. In fact Australia, as most know, has nowhere near the same population density as we have nor the same number of clubs.
    Tim concluded: ‘It is not the job of the central authority to tell golfers and clubs how they will behave. It is their job to provide a simple system, which we do not currently have.’ In fact it is a simple system, play above your buffer zone, your handicap goes up 0.1, play in your buffer and it stays the same, play below it and your handicap comes down. Yes there are occasions (about 15 per cent of the time) where the Competition Scratch Score (CSS) complicates the issue and about five per cent when Nett Double Bogey (NDB) does but I would say the majority understand that. Virtually all the ‘complications’ arise out of trying to produce as level a playing field as possible by ensuring uniformity of application. Complexity also helped the application to trademark the algorithm to prevent plagiarism (it would be impossible to claim that systems based around simple averages represented some form of unique thinking). Yes, there is an education problem at administrator level (as Tim Aggett’s contribution shows) and the 2008 edition of the Universal Handicapping System and the website were designed to help all become more informed. Additionally, all the national unions hold regular handicapping roadshows to further assist the education process.
    I accept that there are others with different views on handicapping than ‘that small committee that has power over every golfer in the UK’ (another of Tim Aggett’s misconceptions. Very importantly, it only has ‘power’ over club members). I consider a CONGU handicap is actually an important tool in clubs’ recruiting and retaining members and should remain so. GCMA members were reminded of problems with websites offering ‘official handicaps’ through the recent Advertising Standards Authority ruling. These sites show the marketing power of a CONGU handicap. They are aimed at encouraging club members to become ‘nomads’ and started to proliferate using the fact that they were administered ‘like CONGU handicaps and recognised by golf clubs throughout the world’. CONGU has successfully pursued sites that used the acronym without permission. Joint action of CONGU and the unions has, over the years, resulted in the closure of such sites.
    I am only too aware that there is no such animal as the perfect handicapping system and am glad to receive (and pass to CONGU for evaluation) suggestions for improvement. I did email Tim Aggett asking for his constructive suggestions as to how the system could be improved (and explaining why ‘Category 4’ men are not in the CSS calculation), a week later I was still awaiting his response.
    In my view, Golf Club Management should enter the handicap debate and, indeed contribute to it, by presenting well-informed reasoned arguments with positive suggestions. Whether, it is acting responsibly by publishing an ill-informed, almost wholly negative criticism, that contains fundamental inaccuracies under its own banner, without any disclaimer, I would question.

    Peter Austerberry
    Member of CONGU’s council and vice-chairman of the Golf Union of Wales’ Handicapping and Course Rating Committee

    Reply to this comment
View comments

Write a comment


Join Our Mailing List

Read the latest issues

Advertise With Us

For editorial enquiries in the magazine or online, contact:


For advertising enquiries in the magazine or online, contact: