Getting Handicap Racing On Par

Handicapping our boats is a start, but wouldn't it be better if we could handicap ourselves, too? What works for golf could work for sailing. Gaining Bearing from our November/December 2012 issue.

sailor Ken Read golfing

Ken Read golf

Another day on the greens gives the author time to ponder the subject of handicapping the PHRF stalwarts.IAN ROMAN/Volvo Ocean Race

Handicap racing needs a jolt. We’ve got systems like ORR and IRC and even the new High Performance Rule, which rate the boats, but when boats are rated by complex formulas that can be exploited by clever designers, an arms race is unavoidable. New sails, pro crew, and constant tweaking of the boats will always serve as a way to gain an advantage. It can be fun for those with deep pockets and the people they employ, but frustrating for those who can’t afford to play such a high level. And then we have PHRF, which tries to equalize all shapes and sizes of boats, allowing them to race against each other fairly in all sorts of conditions.

It’s time to take handicapping a step forward, and PHRF is the perfect rule to tweak and revolutionize. It’s time to consider handicapping the sailors. Where I sail on Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay there’s a lot of racing happening at the local level, but I’m amazed to see the overall numbers are down quite a bit, and that many of the teams doing the racing are the same programs I saw 25 years ago. There’s little growth and even fewer new faces. It’s great to see the longevity of sailors and their passion for local events, but there’s cronyism in the clubs. The same people routinely win the trophies.

Hence my epiphany—and it didn’t even happen on the water. It happened on the golf course. The handicap system in golf is simple. Every time you play a legitimate round of golf you put your score into golf’s national handicapping system, called Golf Handicap and Information Network, which is a part of the United States Golf Association (golf’s equivalent to US Sailing). The score is placed in your list of the last 20 rounds played, and not only is the score saved, but each golf course has a rating as well. For example, an 80 on a difficult course carries more weight than an 80 on an easy course. Each round helps determine your overall “handicap,” and that handicap is an average amount of shots “over par,” based on the top-10 scores you’ve had from the last 20 rounds played.

In August, I played in a three-day tournament. It was match play with twosomes, including handicap, which in layman’s terms means that my friend and I were a team, and we played in a ladder format against the next pair that we met in the ladder, either in the winner’s bracket or the loser’s bracket, all including our “handicaps.”

In this particular tournament, there were golfers of all ages and skills levels. The beauty of the handicap system is that it puts everyone on the same level. My friend and I played our first round against a twosome with an average age of about 70. With a handicap spread between us of 10 to 18, we gave them quite a few strokes. If it were a straight up score, we probably would’ve run away with the match, but the handicap system prevented that from happening. Next up was a twosome with a very good 35-year-old (3 handicap) and an average 50-year-old (14 handicap). They guy with the 14 handicap inflicted the most damage. He was on fire, and consequently, they trounced us. We went into the loser’s bracket against a team that had very similar age and handicaps to us, so we essentially played them just about level.

So how does all this golf talk relate to sailing and handicap racing? In golf, the person who plays three times a week can compete against someone who plays once a month, with both having a good chance of winning. Tournaments and normal matches amongst friends, strangers, or business acquaintances flourish year after year because everyone comes into any given match feeling as though they have a chance. Handicaps equalize the playing field, and if you’re on your game that day, life is good. If there were no handicaps applied, only the best golfers would show up. This is where PHRF can go to encourage new blood into the grassroots side of the sport, as well as increase participation, and as result, spread the trophies around more equitably.

Let’s take an average PHRF program from Narragansett Bay. They probably do an evening beer can series at their local club, as well as a few major events during the year. What if you had to put in your score after each race in order to get your handicap? The boat still has a base rating in seconds-per-mile, but the crew’s skill for that particular boat would create an additional seconds-per-mile correction to the boat’s base rating. And, the actual event you sail in would serve as a multiplier for that “personnel-rating factor.”

A weeknight race could hold less weight than the PHRF New England Championship, for example, or Key West Race Week. Maybe the boat’s personal-rating factor would simply be a seasonal or bi-seasonal correction. There could be a number of ways to accomplish this.

It would have to be fairly self-policing. If you want to stack the deck by putting a bunch of pros on board, no sweat, but when you win you will be hurting your handicap after collecting that trophy. If you decide not to get that new jib and want to sail with all your family or newcomers to sailing, then that’s fine as well. Your personnel-handicap factor will reflect the relative skill of the team over time.

A few individuals in the marine industry will see this as a terrible idea because it doesn’t really give an advantage to a new sail, a new spar, or the smoothness of the bottom paint. In reality, however, it does present an advantage because everyone would see what the posted personal-rating factor is, and a lower number means you’re a better sailor or team. The marine industry would also gain long term because hopefully this would be a way to increase participation, which in turn helps everyone. Plus, every golfer wants a single-digit handicap: It tells everyone you’re a player. And I’ll still buy new clubs and equipment to help me get better, even if my handicap is going to go down as a result (hopefully). We all want to get better—that is sport at its core.

I realize this is a broad way of talking about handicapping people or crews, and I’m not the first person to think of it, but the fact remains that we have the infrastructure in place (US Sailing) and smart people who can write software and create websites to make it happen. The rest should be easy. Find an equitable way to handicap sailors and more people will come and play the game. The proof is on the green.