The honest truth about dishonesty

Ivan Morris

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Ivan Morris

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According to his book, The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, in which golf gets a whole chapter to itself, Dan Ariely, a Professor of Behavioral Science at Duke University, writes that almost everyone is dishonest to some degree if given the opportunity and there is a better than even chance of getting away with it.

If we remove consequences, nearly every golfer will cheat a little but almost nobody cheats as much as they could. Golfers, apparently, are well capable of performing bizarre mental gymnastics to rationalise small transgressions. When we see people getting away with dishonesty, we are more likely to be dishonest ourselves. That is why there is a perception that the majority of golfers are cheating, and they believe they cannot win without doing it too. It is also why it is important when cheating is discovered it is dealt with fairly and properly.

Ariely’s solution is simple: Make golfers swear a type of Olympic Oath. Remind them that they have a moral code. Ariely believes if golfers signed their scorecards prior to, as well as at the end, of their round they would cheat less.

It’s sad but true that for an individual to cheat consistently there has to be others involved as ‘facilitators.’ Nearly every club has its rump of handicap bandits that dominate the winner’s circle. Their friends play with them; sign their cards and pay up their losses to them without a murmur.

Officialdom gives the impression of sitting on its hands and letting them away with it but what can they do? Climb up trees armed with binoculars and watch every known suspect in the land? If golfers want to abuse the system, there is always a way of doing so. It’s just the fact that they can get away with it and are not punished when ‘rumbled’ that is so annoying.

For whatever reasons, cheating at golf appears to have grown in recent years and the perception is that it is now ‘out of control.’ It’s almost impossible to win a competition without playing ‘miles’ better than one’s handicap. It’s not unusual to see scores of 45-points (i.e. 9-under par!) and upwards in the winner’s enclosure.

The majority (in my opinion) of these ‘lucky winners’ immediately focus their efforts on recovering the excessive, spare shots in hand that they have lost by commencing a handicap building regime, so they can repeat the exercise all over again as soon as possible.

The type of person who builds his handicap in order to gain an unfair edge doesn’t seem to care what others think or that they are only cheating themselves in the long run. Apparently, these so-called sportspeople think winning unfairly is worth risking one’s good reputation.

Handicap cheating occurs at both ends of the spectrum. It’s just as sickening to see some so-called scratch folk struggling to break 85 in national and provincial championships and keeping genuine golfers on the sidelines.

Those with inflated handicaps are seen as a bigger problem than those with handicaps too low for their ability. Golfers who shoot in the high 80’s and 90’s in scratch events are only making fools of themselves. The loosely handicapped golfer who walks away with the big prize is making fools of his club mates.

Checking handicap records reveal nothings. The cheats know how to use the system to their advantage. The use of ‘average score’ instead of a player’s capability is the crux of the matter. That is what may need to change but it won’t be addressed under the new WHS system due to begin at the end of this year.

That a golfer can, if he wants to, maliciously control his own handicap is at the core of the problem. Prior to 1983, influencing one’s own handicap was impossible. Back then, getting cut was easy, getting shots back was hard; these days, it’s the opposite. For me, the entire ethos of the game has changed and made me think that competitive golf is no longer a game worth playing.

The official GUI line is: “Golf is a game of honour. If people decide to cheat, there is no way of stopping them.” There is, of course, but it requires gumption, energy and leadership that appears to be lacking. It is true to say that no matter what system is in place, some golfers will find ways to circumvent it.



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11 responses to “The honest truth about dishonesty”

  1. Ken avatar

    It’s impossible to regulate handicap, it would require that the field all play off SCRATCH to see who deserved to win. I’m in my mid seventies, scored 43pts off 16 h/c, did not win,(4th) and my h/c went to 14. That was the last time I broke 80 (2 years ago) I’m now more often struggling to break 90, so my h/c gives no chance of a win, more so because of the 1 shot per year rule. My other grievance is with the alternative day rule (local) when my better score was beaten by a previous day score using the css to give the best score. So to end that’s why I may ignore the club competitions from now on. I was a single figure player years ago, so I do love the game.

  2. Douglas Brown avatar
    Douglas Brown

    Ireland is quite bad for handicap bandits. I met someone 2 years ago who had played in the Captains Prize whilst waiting for the prize giving to commence. I asked what he’d scored and he said 43 points but “I didn’t put my card in as a big tournament coming up”! To my mind that’s cheating pure and simple and his fellow players should have informed the golf club committee and a substantial handicap reduction been given PLUS his name called out. Personally if I was marking it, if he refused to sign or hand it in, I’ve have done so anyway with comments on the card detailing the missing player signature.
    When I go to Thailand for 6 months and play, we use Tru handicap system and seldom does anyone win with more than 38 / 39. Last competition I played there at Banyan GC I had 36 points and was tied for 3rd. In Ireland you’d have been well down the field for sure.

  3. Dick Cotter avatar

    Well said,Ivan! Would agree that the Pre 1993 system was better.Honesty and integrity
    is no longer a “given”-in my view the influence of other sports where you can “con ” the
    referee easily -has transferred to golf.Starting with giving golf”beginners” in their 20/30’s
    24 h/c + based on 3 “cards” signed by their pals is not on.They should be assessed by the
    Club Pro or a low h/cap club official prior to being awarded a handicap.They should also
    be required to do a basis Rules Test prior to being allowed to play in official club comps.
    In all sports,you are required to know the Rules-and more important in golf-where you are
    your own referee!

  4. Ken Graham avatar
    Ken Graham

    Another Ken.
    I only took the game up in my forties in Thailand. I have to say I love the game but mostly just by playing to beat the course and hit as many satisfying shots as I can like a healthy walking game of chess. I have been very disappointed over the twenty ish years since I started at the tremendous lack of etiquette as well as numerous cheats. That is why I play mainly for the pleasure of the odd good shot/round and the exercise. I generally enter any twos in a comp, content that that should be the last thing anyone is likely to cheat me out of. The right company also means a hell of a lot in a round of golf, generally down to mutual respect and consideration. Oh, I play off 13 by the way. Nothing special.

  5. Joe Dunne avatar
    Joe Dunne

    I took up golf in Ireland under the old handicap scheme in the 70’s. I started off a handicap of 18, got cut 7 shots the year following, after taking up golf. The system was a bit severe, leading to a lots of low handicap golfers. I moved to the UK for 22 years under the new handicap system, it worked well there, as the prizes were secondary to the satisfaction of winning. As most prizes were worth far less than 4th prize in a team event in my current club. The only issue was as per previous response, the new handicap based on three cards, signed by friends , this was also the norm when a golfer changes clubs.

  6. Brendan Carberry avatar
    Brendan Carberry

    Can someone explain to me why we get .1 back on our handicap if we don’t return our card in competition golf? Surely this encourages cheating? I think we should lose .2 if card is not returned.

  7. al lysaght avatar
    al lysaght

    I enter compitions to support the club, my hcap is 21, because of bad healt, people have stopped playing golf over the 1 shot back, people have lost interest because of this rule it’s the governing bodies that need to change personel on a regular basis, on minding your handicap, you have to perform on the day no matter what your hcap one exception was paying in a 4ball qualifier, 12 handicpper, shot level par in FOTA GC, in cork, his partner playing off 23, reaching par 5’s in 2, had 50 something points off 3 quarters of their handicaps, people who cheat that much says everything about the people running the game:(

  8. Con avatar

    Very good article, we need more discussions on where we see the future of game of golf, but based on the Golf Club being seen as a club to join for the long term, for competitive golf & social occasions amongst friends. The handicapping system is not a big problem, it’s really having the freedom and desire to fully implement the system, and for club members & club officials to support the Handicapping Committees. Handicaps are both the best thing and worst thing of playing golf. I’d suggest the we need to look at the traditional weekly prize winners structure. One overall winner out of say 200 competitors means that getting 45pts is the requirement to “win” and therefore need a big handicap. What about having a prize structure that supports having 36pts being an achievement and is worth enjoying, rather than thinking it’s “rubbish” because it’s 9pts off winning. Maybe more divisions, no overall winner and lower value prizes. One more observation, the decision makers should remember that golf is a game of skill, and not to keep pursuing the view that it should be made “more enjoyable” for everybody. “Everybody” will not play golf, and “more enjoyable” really means easier, and therefore skill is being diminished.

  9. Gerard Mary Maher avatar
    Gerard Mary Maher


    Great article and I agree club competitions are now only for the cheats who build their handicaps.

    Unless committees reduce the prize values the problem will remain.

    I suggest

    1. All the players who equal standard scratch get a voucher worth double the entry fee.
    2. The overall winner to get 3 times the entrance fee.
    3. Limit Captains prize values to €100.
    4. Medals to be medals not vouchers.

    Golf committees will still make the profit they need to run the club as only 15% of golfers match SS on competition days..

    Gross prizes for each handicap category in every competition.
    ie 0-3, 4-7, 8- 11, 12-16, 17-20, 21-28

    This will encourage all to aspire to be the best in their category every Sunday.

    There was a time when lower handicap golfers were respected but now they are often ridiculed.
    This needs to change.

    Unless we speak out and change our approach to competitions now the game will lose the respect of all honest golfers.


    Gerard Maher

  10. Rhona Darcy avatar
    Rhona Darcy

    Some years ago I was speaking with a man I knew about his golf. He was a member of a club just outside Dublin. He told me he was a member of the Best Cup team and they were in the semifinals. He excitedly told me how his team were winning, with results of 5/4, 6/5 etc. I remarked that he must be playing great golf, to which he agreed. So I asked him how many shots he had lost in the season and he looked at me in puzzlement and told me none! I said that surely if he was playing so well, he must have lost some shot. He told me the team members were “not allowed to play in club competitions while they were on the team” . I told him, he and his club were cheating, they were playing off false handicaps. I regret to this day that I didn’t phone the GUI and report his club! I was disgusted,

  11. Frank avatar

    dishonesty in golf.
    all I will say on that is 5 kilometres.

    enough said.

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