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League Play & Handicaps at a Par 3 Golf Course

Defining What Competitive Golf is at a Par 3 Course

A par 3 course plays differently than a standard 18-hole course. The calculation of handicaps for league play on a par 3 course must, therefore, be figured differently. The USGA does not accept scores from par 3 courses for figuring a player's official handicap, therefor local rules are implemented by course managers.

This article contains some of my observations and recommendations for improving the local rules regarding handicap and other aspects of summer league play at my local course, Silver Fox GC, a 9-hole, par 3. Some of this may apply to other short-course leagues struggling to implement fair rules for league play.

Typical Scores & Score Thresholds

Par at Silver Fox is 30 strokes. This means a player must average 3.3 shots per hole to shoot par. If a player birdies the first 3 holes, pars the next 3, and bogies the final 3, they would a score 30. Now, most people I play with do not shoot the course par and bogies are pretty common. If a player bogied all nine holes, their score would be 39 (a respectable score). If they double-bogied every hole, their score would be 48. A natural threshold with respect to stroke play exists somewhere between 39 and 48. I believe this threshold generally separates "competitive" and "non-competitive" golfers and should be considered when calculating handicaps for league play at Silver Fox. Handicaps and Common Sense The handicap system is intended to even out differing abilities of golfers in competition. There is good reason to use the handicap system in league play, but it is important to recognize the system has its limitations. At some point, a handicap becomes too large and you are no longer relying on golf skills to win matches.

A player with a very high handicap (above 15 or so) simply cannot be beaten by a low-handicap player no matter how well the low-handicapper plays. This shouldn't happen. This isn't what the game of golf is about, especially in a formal competitive setting such as league play. A low score should always be rewarded. Stroke play should always trump a handicap-adjusted score. Simply put, stroke scores should count more and handicap scores less. Let's look at one example. If a player shoots double bogie on every hole at Silver Fox, they would score a 48. Few would consider such a round well-played. In fact, a double bogie at many golf courses is considered the highest you may record on your card before picking up your ball and moving to the next tee (whether or not you have put the ball in the cup). Is a player that averages 48 every time they play a round at Silver Fox a competitive golfer? When it comes to league play, I say no. So a few double bogies are acceptable, but not an entire round of them. One-way Ratchet Effect A high-handicap player always has the potential to get lucky and post a low score (a score near the course par). In competitive play, such a player is nearly unbeatable because of the handicap advantage he enjoys. On the other hand, it is extremely difficult for the low-handicap golfer to shoot much below their handicap because to do so is to shoot at or below the course par (difficult for anyone).

Few golfers will ever shoot the course par. A score of, say, 4 over par is a remarkably good score for anyone, whether he's the club pro or a plays-twice-a-year hacker. A score of 4 under par is almost never seen. So the ratchet only works in one direction. A poor golfer can have a really good day, but a great golfer cannot lower his score by all that much. Unlike nearly every other sport, there is a natural lower limit to scores in golf that is never zero.

Let's take the extreme example to illustrate the point. If you made 5 holes-in-one and eagled the remaining 4 holes, you would shoot a 13 at Silver Fox. 13 is only 17 below the course par, but I've played against people with handicaps above 17. A more typical example. If a +15 golfer shoots a 35 (5 over par), then the +6 golfer playing against him must shoot an impossible 26 to tie. How many people do you know that have shot a 26? None. How many people do you know that have shot a 35 at Silver Fox? Hundreds. Handicaps and the Driver The most obvious place on a golf course where the handicap advantage is justified is at tee boxes where the driver is used to put the ball in play. The average male golfer drives the ball 215 yards. Senior men rarely drive the ball more than 160 yards on average. Thus, there is a clear need for handicap compensation off the tee. Courses have traditionally compensated for the discrepancy in driving distance by providing different tee boxes (Blue, White, Red, Yellow, etc.). The appropriate way to compensate for the shorter drive distances of older players is with the use of forward tees, not with handicap. In the current system, both advantages are given to the 65+ year old player. Handicap and Approach Shots The distance advantage that younger, taller, stronger, or more skilled players enjoy off the tee disappears when it comes to approach shots from the fairway. Every player has several clubs in his bag that allow him to reach a green from 100-125 yards out. The average golfer should be able to comfortably hit a pitching wedge or 9-iron 80-120 yards. Thus, there is no need to apply a handicap advantage to pitching, chipping, and green-side bunker play. If Silver Fox were peppered with numerous fairway bunkers, or contained several long-yardage holes, or maintained a high slope rating, handicap compensation would be well justified for short game play (fairway to green). But because Silver Fox does not have such hazards, handicap is all but irrelevant once play has moved beyond the tee box. If you hit your driver 150 yards off the tee, there is only 1 hole on the course where your 2nd-shot is longer than 100 yards (and that's from the Blue tees). Handicaps and Putting Handicap adjustments are not justified with respect to putting. Once the ball reaches the putting surface, physical and age limitations disappear. It is reasonable to expect every golfer to be physically able to putt the ball across any green. Differences between competing players' skills on the green are best addressed by practice, not by the use of handicap adjustments to scores. Holes Reachable in One Are Handicap-Exempt A par 3 is a par 3 is a par 3. Holes #1, #5, and #7 offer all golfers a hole-in-one opportunity. Thus, three of the course's 9 holes need no distance-related handicap consideration. Forward tee boxes adequately address the differences in golfer age and ability, as mentioned above. Distance handicap considerations only applies to 6 holes. Establish a Maximum Handicap for League Play So what is a "good", "marginal", or "bad" score at Silver Fox? Par for a standard 18-hole golf course is 72. A "good" score for a full round of stroke play is considered to be between 72 and 108. "Marginal" scores fall between 108 and 120. A "bad" score is anything above 120. If a player routinely scores above 120, it would be difficult to call him a competitive golfer. We can calculate "good", "marginal", and "bad" score ranges for our local short course (par 30) by determining a conversion factor. The conversion factor for Silver Fox is 0.833, given the par score for 9 holes at a standard course is 36 and at Silver Fox is 30. Calculation: 30/36 = 0.833 Score Ranges Calculations Comp/Non-comp Good 30-45 (36 * 0.833 = 30) Competitive Marginal 46-50 (54 * 0.833 = 45) Competitive Bad 51+ (60 * 0.833 = 50) Non-competitive Scores between 30 and 45 are what the average, reasonably well-practiced player should typically score during a round at Silver Fox. Such players are the club's competitive golfers. Players who consistently post scores in the marginal range would also be considered competitive golfers. Players who consistently score in the 50s (equivalent to 120 or higher at a standard 18-hole course) are not competitive golfers, but might become so with practice. The data argue for the establishment of a threshold score (a maximum competitive score) which corresponds with a maximum handicap for league play. I propose the maximum handicap for league play be set at 12, equal to a round of seven bogies and two double bogies (42). To be clear, that is 12 shots for a 9-hole round (or 24 for 18 holes).

A maximum handicap of 12 would reduce the outsized advantage currently afforded high-handicap players who are non-competitive with respect to stroke play. A maximum handicap would also limit "unbeatable situations" that arise when the high-handicapper shoots an unusually low score, which happens with some regularity on short courses.

A way to check whether this makes sense is to tally up how often league players with +18 handicaps won holes on their stroke play (i.e., golf skills). I suspect the percentage would be in the single digits. Establish Official and Unofficial Handicaps I propose two different handicaps be used for league play. Unofficial Handicap - For purposes of week-to-week play, an Unofficial Handicap (playing handicap) would be established at the start of league play using scores from the previous season. All recorded scores for the previous season would factor in. If no previous scores are available, the first 3 weeks of league play for the current season would be used. Use of an Unofficial Handicap is a pragmatic solution that facilitates early season play and new comers to the league. Official Handicap - At the close of league play, an Official Handicap (scoring handicap) that utilizes all scores from week-to-week play and playoffs is calculated. The Official Handicap would be used to back-calculate weekly scores and determine the winning team for the current season. Because the Official Handicap utilizes a full season of scores, it more accurately characterizes a player's proficiency. Its not uncommon for some to sandbag the first 3 weeks in order to get a high handicap, but who would sandbag an entire season? Pick a Tee, Gentlemen Male egos being what they are, few men enjoy hitting from the Yellow tees. Most of us prefer playing from the Whites and Blues. However, I've noticed certain senior players will elect to hit from the Yellows on certain holes in order to improve their scores, but hit from the Whites otherwise. Hole #4 and #9 come to mind. I propose that this practice be stopped. If you start the round from the Whites, play the Whites throughout. If you start from the Yellows, play them through to the end. No tee switching. Its poor form, gentlemen. Golf Carts for League Play: An advantage? I personally feel there is no advantage to using a golf cart for a 9-hole round at Silver Fox. I walk 18-hole courses and carry my own bag every time and have no trouble keeping pace with cart players I am paired with. I believe golfers should walk the course and carry their bag unless required to do otherwise (#thebuckclub).

However, if powered carts were not permitted during league and all players instead were required to walk the course with a push cart or carry bag, I suspect scores for many would rise significantly. Fatigue would become a factor, distraction would enter in, injuries would increase, and enthusiasm for league play might decrease for some. Importantly, pace of play would suffer without carts, thus the elective use of carts is appropriate and should continue.

More Match Play, Please

Match play creates a totally different dynamic between players and is suitable for league play. In match play, stroke count is irrelevant; the lower score wins the hole.

Under the current system (stroke score and handicap score), a total of 2 points are possible for each hole. Players are awarded 1 point for the lowest stroke score and 1 point for lowest handicap-adjusted score. When ties occur, both players are awarded a half point.

I propose that match play constitute half of the weekly league outings. A total of 9 points would be possible in match play (36 for each team of four players each week). Ties would still result in a half point for the hole. Whether stroke scores need to be recorded is debatable (possibly for handicap purposes).

Club Championship Example

The table below reflects the results from this year's Club Championship. Handicaps for the top six players ranged from +5 to +9, which meant all were evenly matched. The three players with the highest handicaps won the competition, though the player with the lowest stroke score won outright. The difference in stroke play was minimal (between 31 and 36). In a season finale such as this, especially with players so evenly matched, I would prefer that stroke play be used to determine the final positions.

** Player E was me. I played as a +6 handicap throughout the season, but mysteriously became a +5 for the Club Championship.


1.) Establish a maximum handicap. I suggest 12.

2.) Establish an Unofficial Handicap (start of league) and an Official Handicap (end of league).

3.) Play from the same tees throughout a round.

4.) Continue elective use of powered carts.

5.) Implement more match play.

Additional Facts: Slope Rating, Length & Topography Silver Fox is not a difficult course if judged by its slope rating. Slope rating is a metric used to rate the difficulty of golf courses. Values range between 55 (very easy) and 155 (extremely difficult). The average rating for a standard course is 113. The slope rating for Silver Fox is 84 (white tees) and 88 (yellow tees). Silver Fox is not a long course. More than half of the holes (#1, #3, #5, #7, and #8) are reachable from the tee with an iron. The longest hole is #6, 254 yards when played from the Blue tees. This is a drivable distance for many mid-handicap players.

Blue Tees Yardage = 1719 yards (Avg = 191 yards) White Tees Yardage = 1555 yards (Avg = 173 yards) Red Tees Yardage = 1438 yards (Avg = 160 yards) Yellow Tees Yardage = 1222 yards (Avg =136 yards) Silver Fox is a relatively flat course. According to Google Earth, the difference between the highest are lowest elevations on the course is about 17 feet. Highest: 3081' at #5 tee box (Blue). Lowest: 3064' in the grass hazard on #7.

Clubs I Play from the White Tees

#1...PW or 9-iron

#2...3 hybrid

#3...3 or 4 hybrid

#4...3 or 4 hybrid


#6...3 hybrid



#9...3 or 4 hybrid


Skye began playing golf in 2017. He plays Mizuno MP irons, RTX wedges, Ping hybrids, and an Anser putter. No driver, no woods. He bought his first member pass in 2019. Over the past 2 seasons, Skye has played more than 200 rounds at his local 9-hole course (Silver Fox GC), where he shoots in the 30s. He shoots in the 80s on standard 18-hole courses. His league handicap is 6. Arnie beats him most of the time.

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