The following story appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of FORE Magazine
By Ted Johnson
Since its introduction into the Southern California Golf Association, the Slope System has changed the game’s lexicon. Golfers no longer have handicaps; we carry “indexes.” We no longer say a course is “rated 72,” which is meant to reflect what a scratch player would score. Instead, we describe a course as “sloped 133.”
No wonder this system, when it was first introduced to the SCGA some 22 years ago, confused private and associate club presidents, head pros and, most of all, golfers. Since then it has become the dominant handicap system the world over because it achieved, for the most part, two key desires of golf administrators: make handicaps more accurate for less-skilled players and, most of all, portable.
“The goal of redoing the course rating system was an attempt to make the game more fair,” said Dean Knuth (pictured above), who is widely considered the key player in making the Slope System possible.
A key element of the new USGA system was the course rating component. SCGA Director of Course Rating Doug Sullivan remembers the long debate within the organization about transferring from the course rating system the SCGA was using to the new USGA system. One of the largest associations in the country, the SCGA was the last to convert.
“Kevin Heaney (today the SCGA’s executive director) oversaw the implementation of the USGA course rating system because he realized what the Slope System meant to the average golfer and what it would do for course ratings,” Sullivan said. “Slope and the USGA Course Rating System means more accurate ratings, which ultimately means more accurate Handicap Indexes.”
Course rating systems date back to the British Isles in the 1870s. Generally, the longer a hole the more difficult; and thus the longer the course overall the higher the rating. Course rating and thus handicapping fell on local golf associations, which applied their own standards, though yardage continued to be a big factor in the ratings. But those close to the game knew the higher handicapper wasn’t being represented.
“The higher handicapper doesn’t hit it as far, so the old system wasn’t as fair,” Sullivan said. “But when we went to Slope, the higher handicapper was being considered.”
Reconsidering Course Rating
In 1971, Dr. William Wehnes of the SCGA developed the “first obstacle rating” system. As the system evolved over the years, key SCGA members such as Tommy McMahon and Lynn Smith helped alter the way the SCGA rated its courses. But Knuth’s system, which the USGA came to adopt, forced further change.
One key difference between the system the SCGA was using and the new USGA system that Knuth developed, Sullivan said, “was that the USGA did it hole-by-hole, whereas the SCGA rated courses as a whole. But if a course re-did its sixth hole, with the USGA Course Rating System you don’t have to re-rate the whole course. You could just add the new numbers from the sixth hole and re-calculate the ratings.”
Prior to Slope, golfers basically established their handicaps at their home course. But when those golfers traveled to other courses to play tournaments, the old system left a lot to be desired. If you were playing Dad Miller in Anaheim or the Eisenhower course at Industry Hills, it didn’t matter. The golfer’s handicap remained the same despite the great disparity in course difficulty.
The disparity would show most in a match between golfers from those two courses. A 10-handicap established on a long, demanding course like the Eisenhower would have a great advantage over a 10-handicap garnered on the benign challenges of Dad Miller.
“An 82 at the Eisenhower is a lot better than an 82 at a course down the street,” Sullivan said.
In 1975, when attending the Naval Post-Graduate School in Monterey, Knuth needed to complete a project for a class titled, “Design of Experiments.” He visited northern California courses and tracked where golfers lost shots. He realized that higher handicappers had trouble with obstacles – bunkers, creeks, canyons, ponds, lakes, stands of trees – as well as distance. Better players, however, were able to carry many of those obstacles and thus avoid penalties.
As Knuth built data on this project, it became clear that the traditional handicap system was shorting less-skilled players. (And, in fact, the British raters of 140 years ago had devised a system based in part on a mythical composite golfer they called “Colonel Bogey.”) In a few years Knuth built enough data and used regression analysis to come up with a course rating system.
The Colorado Golf Association adopted the new guidelines and re-rated its courses to employ Slope in 1982, and the system began to spread to other associations. After his stint in the Navy, Knuth, now the president of San Diego Country Club, went to work for the USGA for 16 years, traveling 120 days a year, he said, to teach golf associations around the world how to rate courses so they could employ the Slope System. Sullivan worked side-by-side with Knuth, who carries the nickname “The Pope of Slope.”
The Slope System reflects course difficulty from each set of tees. “If you take two numbers – the difficulty of the course in relation to the player’s average – you get a sliding scale,” Knuth said. “And it works for each set of tees, too.”
For example, a player with a course handicap of 10 from the back tees at Dad Miller might be a 9 from the shorter white tees. Moreover, the 10 from Dad Miller might be a 14 when playing at Industry Hills’ Eisenhower course. Conversely, the index of a golfer shooting 82 at Eisenhower may translate to something closer to a course handicap of 7 or 8 on other courses, due to the difficulty of the Eisenhower.
Knuth and Sullivan both believe the system isn’t perfect. For starters, it still doesn’t rid the game of the dreaded “sandbagger” – the golfer who purports to be a 12 and then comes into a tournament and shoots 72. Statistically, it is possible for a 90-shooter to score 72. However, if that 12 follows up that tournament score of 72 with a 76, then the handicap is immediately adjusted down.
Knuth credits that fault in part to being able to post scores online, challenging “peer review” opportunities. At many clubs, scorecards are reviewed by a committee to determine validity. “The idea was that everything would be open for review,” Knuth said. “Now the personal computer takes that away.”
Furthermore, there is a “horses for courses” element in handicapping. A short, straight hitter has a big advantage on a tight, heavily bunkered course over a long-but-wild hitter. Conversely, the long hitter has the advantage on a long, wide-open course.
The solution, according to Knuth, was introducing additional elements into the computation of the index. He likened the incorporation of course combinations such as long but wide, short but tight, similar to fitting yourself at the shoe store: You’re a 9, but are you a 9D or 9EE? For evaluating a course, such additional considerations would help further refine a rating.
“The USGA thought that Slope was complicated enough,” Knuth said.
“Just remember,” Sullivan added, “that Slope started out as an option for golf associations in 1987, and here we are 25 years later and it’s being used in every state and 59 countries.”