We are re-visiting the handicap debate in this issue because it has always been one of the most discussed and argued aspect of the game of golf. I say “game” rather than “sport” because sports are based solely on one’s natural ability and the luck factor and not on some computer’s attempt at making everything un-naturally equal. When golf is played at the top level, be it professionally or amateur, it’s person vs person, shot for shot and whomever has the best score, or wins the most holes, is declared the victor.

One would only hope that this philosophy would extend to the masses who jam (not so much these days) municipal golf courses and exclusive private country clubs. Alas, those who play golf as a form of recreation, for the most part anyway, have the backbones of jellyfish and would not participate (spend their recreational cash) in something unless they had a reasonable chance at winning, even if that victory is achieved by cheating. And let’s face it folks, the GHIN handicap system that we use in this country is a very definite form of cheating. It’s a golfing version of; A, welfare and/or, B, a golfing version of socialism (trying to negate individual ability and work ethic and replacing it with an artificial form of equality).

Right now you are very likely asking the question, “I thought he was arguing the merits of the handicap system?” Well, in this debate, that’s my assignment, but in the spirit of full disclosure I like handicaps about as much as I like the way the government of the United States has beenconducting business for much of this century. Still, since golf is a business and business thrives on making money, we have to face facts and the facts tell us that the game would probably cease to exist without the GHIN system in place. Golf, for the most part, is played by either working people on the weekends or retirees. Both sets of folks want to have fun on the golf course and golf, by its very nature, is anything but fun. It’s difficult, frustrating and the primary reason people drink when they’re finished playing. They don’t need any more angst in their lives, so the Royal & Ancient and the USGA years ago devised a method to synthetically level the playing field — handicaps. This way a player who shoots a score of 85 can have a “competitive” match with his buddy, who usually comes home close to even par.

It’s designed to enhance the fun aspect, but there is another aspect to golf that skewers this; gambling. People love to wager in the golf course, be it a few bucks to several thousand. Dewey Tomko, a terrible golfer, is a terrific gambler, who has made a ton of money against much better players mainly because of the handicap system. The USGA must cringe when they hear the stories, but they are legend. Remember the gentleman from Japan, who won the AT&T Pro-Am at Pebble Beach several years ago? He owned a golf course in Japan and ordered his handicap chairman to give him an inflated handicap. Fortunately his cheating was uncovered; he was stripped of the title and barred from further participation in the event. But it illustrates the lengths that people will go to in order to win on the golf course, without of course hitting the range and pounding thousands of balls in order to improve.

Ideally the GHIN system works pretty well, if people are honest, count each shot, and turn in all of their scores. It takes the 10 best scores of the latest 20 and bases the handicap on that. It’d work wonderfully except many people either don’t turn in all of their scores, some turn in scores that are either much higher or lower than they actually shot, or play terribly on purpose when there’s nothing on the line. Then, when their club or another club has a tournament they play their “A game” and clean up. For that reason many clubs now have two handicaps in place, the regular GHIN and a tournament handicap, which takes into account only scores posted from tournaments.

Golf is perceived as a gentleman’s game where honor is paramount, but the handicap system shows us that this is more theory than reality. If it wasn’t why are so many events played at 80 percent of somebody’s handicap? Honor among thieves?


Tim Geary is a R.I. based freelance writer. Even with his inflated handicap he can’t beat anyone.