YES. Nothing gets my golf juices boiling over more than the topic of sandbaggers. This debate seems much like the weather – everyone talks about it, but nobody does anything about it. Based on my unscientific research, it appears every club has about a dozen rag tag group of nerds and rednecks, who intentionally and shamelessly manipulate the USGA handicap system. These fairway felons want to win so badly, and their games suck so much, that they have to cheat to win. Sandbaggers are solely responsible for taking some of the fun out of the game for the vast majority of golfers with honest handicaps! You know whom we’re talking about. The guy who wins his flight every other year in the club championship.  The 12-handicapper from another club who waltzes in with a 74 in the member-guest. Or even your weekend buddy who always seems to beat you in a $2 Nassau because you have to give him 2 & 2.

The handicap system is one of the greatest things about golf and the program was designed to enable players of all abilities to compete against one another on a level playing field. At least it’s supposed to. Any player can have a great round. But when there’s a pattern of low scores in tournaments, it raises a red flag. The primary purpose of the USGA handicap system, which is based on the best 10 of the previous 20 scores instead of a player’s average score, militates against low net numbers.  Using an inflated handicap to unfairly gain strokes in competition is nothing new for golf. These days, a sandbagger operates in secret. All the practitioner needs to do is avoid entering a few low scores into the computer, or subtly manipulate the scores he or she does post, such as by deliberately missing short putts that don’t factor into winning a hole. In the absence of sufficient peer pressure and a diligent pro-shop staff or handicap committee, that handicap becomes official.

A sandbagger seems to thrive in beating the system. The reward comes in the form of peer recognition if they win, while hoisting another trophy and pocketing several hundred dollars in pro-shop credit each season. Sandbagging is golf’s dirty little secret! But, in order to be called a sandbagger, you have to win some tournaments at some point in your golfing career; therefore slasher-de-jour Timothy Geary may never be called a sandbagger. Amazingly, there just aren’t any “W”s in a lifetime of trying.

Is there a preferred method to deal with the game’s greatest criminal offense? The USGA attempts to educate clubs and golfers on using the system properly, and clubs are required to have a handicap committee that acts as a watchdog and has the power to step in, if necessary, and adjust a player’s index. Let’s face it: Being handicap chairman is not the most glamorous, or most appreciated, job at the club. Under the current USGA handicap system, devised by Dean Knuth, director of handicapping from 1981 – 1997, the most important safeguard against sandbagging is what is called “peer review.” This means that an official USGA Handicap can be established only by an organized group of golfers that have a regular and reasonable opportunity to play with one another. The Equitable Stroke Control (ESC) formula also is mildly effective in rooting out cheaters since it sets a maximum score on any hole, which prevents players from inflating one or two really bad holes in every round. Except, I don’t think any player should be allowed to post more than double-bogey on a par 3. 

Is a sandbagger is a dishonest duffer who only turns in his highest scores, or a good golfer disguised as a duffer! So are the days of padded handicaps over? Absolutely not, since the system is based on the assumption that every player will try to make the best score he can at each hole in every round played, and that he will honestly report every round for handicap purposes, including all tournament scores, regardless of where the round is played. Anyone who intentionally establishes a falsely high handicap is a cheater, no more or less than the golfer who mismarks his ball on the green or foot-wedges it in the rough. It’s a problem for everyone when the sandbagger is making off with the hardware in too many club tournaments!


Tom Gorman is never mistaken for a sandbagger since he never wins anything, and more times than not, is called a reverse sandbagger.