Understanding the CSS, SSS & handicapping systems


England Golf member services executive Gemma talks us through the more complicated bits of golf

How are handicaps calculated?
We use the CONGU system, and it’s an incremental-based system. So if you play well, depending on your handicap category, your handicap comes down anywhere between 0.5 and 0.1 every time you play better than standard scratch. If you don’t get anywhere near that then you go up 0.1 each time, so incrementally over a period of time your handicap can come up or go down.

Explain the difference between CSS and SSS
There are two associations. The first one is the standard scratch score (SSS), which is the indication of course difficulty. That is assessed on a set of criteria by a ratings team which come out and look at the course. They rate that under what we call average playing condition, so mid-season with leaves on the trees and defined fairways. We come out and do a series of measurements, take some data and then issue the club with a SSS. It is based on the ability of a scratch golfer.

Competition scratch score (CSS) is calculated following the conclusion of a competition and takes into consideration the number of scores returned by all the players in the field, and then the amount of people in each handicap category.

It’s quite a complex calculation but the CSS can move up or down depending on how bad or good the scores are that day.

If you have a lot of people who play below the SSS, you tend to find the CSS coming down. You’d have to have nobody really playing in their buffer zone for it to go any higher than one or two. The CSS is a floating rating of the competition results rather than the course itself.

Why can your handicap only go up by 0.1 but can come down by more than that?
You are never expected to perform to your handicap every time you play golf. But if you were to go up 0.5 every time you missed your buffer zone, your handicap could end up being five or six shots higher than you actually are very quickly. If we had a system where you went up as much as you came down, we’d have a lot of people on very strange handicaps. 
There have been a lot of discussions with the R&A and they are trying to bring all the world handicapping authorities together. If you miss the buffer zone by one shot or 15, you go up 0.1. Is that fair?
If a player isn’t playing anywhere near their handicap then we would rely on the golf club and handicap committee to look at it. It’s not fair to him and can also have a detrimental effect on the overall CSS calculations because he will always be outside his buffer zone.

Is there a limit to how much SSS can be under or over par?
The SSS is purely a rating on the course’s difficulty, the par is set by a specific set of guidelines, and those boundaries are set by the R&A. 

Should golfers really look at standard scratch rather than par?
It’s a misconception. Players think that they need to shoot level par. Actually they should shoot the SSS, so your net score should equal the SSS. Even though you can say that a 72 should be exactly the same across the board, it can differ between courses.

When you work out the SSS, what do you look for?
The process looks at the yardage of the hole, and then it looks at some key measurements. We base readings on a scratch male golfer, and we estimate that a scratch golfer will carry the ball 230 yards from the tee and achieve an average roll of 20 yards, so an average shot length of 250 yards. The second shot would be a 200-yard carry with 20 yards of roll.

When we look at a hole, we would stand on the teeing ground and see what obstacles we can see, looking for anything which would cause this particular shot to be more difficult than average. We then walk to the 250-yard point and look at how wide the fairway is and how close any hazards are. We do the same for each shot as we move along the course. The obstacles are assessed on their own merits as well, so how much water you have to carry or how deep the bunkers are. We look at green surface, whether it’s flat or undulating, how big it is, how well protected by bunkers it is and if there are any mounds or drops off the green that would make the shot into the green easier or harder. We work to a checklist on each hole. Each hole gets a rating and then it’s added up together to give the SSS.

Would you like to see a worldwide handicap system?
There have been a lot of discussions with the R&A and they are trying to bring all the world handicapping authorities together.

It certainly would be good for the game, and it would mean your handicap in England would be exactly the same as somebody’s handicap anywhere else.

It’s something that we would like to see and it is possible, but I think it’s a long way down the line.

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