Recent articles by Irish Golfer’s John Craven and Ivan Morris, and the subsequent reaction to them, showed that there is a significant cohort of Irish golfers less than satisfied with the World Handicap System. The reaction also showed that the dark arts of handicap manipulation are as widespread as ever.
With all the drama that 2022 has brought to the professional game, it’s easy to forget that the vast majority of ordinary golfers are just that – ordinary golfers. Sure, by extension, most will have at least a passing interest in the pro circuits, but ultimately, whether Rickie Fowler makes it back inside the top 100 or whether Jason Day decides to cash in his chips and join LIV are largely immaterial.
At the risk of sounding a little Cyndi Lauper here, folks just want to play golf. And that Joe or Jane Bloggs at their home club may be manipulating the system to enhance their chances of taking top prize in the monthly medal, or whatever, is of vastly greater importance than anything big tour related.
And Joe and Jane Bloggs are ten a penny. Bandit, sandbagger, buccaneer, hook or crook, call them what you will, we all know at least one – and most of us know plenty. I’ve been to Captain’s Prize ceremonies where rapturous applause rang out for individual day and gross category winners, but you could hear a pin drop when the overall champion was announced. Why? We all know why.
A couple of years back, having relocated home from abroad, I re-joined my local club and set about putting three cards in for my handicap. Despite trying my best, the scores I put up were woeful – it’s golf, it happens, and happens way more often than I’d like – but that being said, I knew that they weren’t an accurate reflection of my ability.
The club handicap secretary phoned me to discuss and was prepared to put me off 14. At best, I’d been as low as seven, but that was when I was single, carefree, and playing a ton of golf. I’d drifted out to nine before taking my sabbatical, and regardless of how little I’d played in the three years prior, I was in no way comfortable taking 14. After a brief conversation, we settled on 11 – had he gone by the three cards, I’d have been close to double that – and that Saturday, I teed it up in my first competition.
Despite not being able to drive, pitch or putt for three consecutive rounds, I caught lightning in a bottle and made the turn at two-under, racking up 25 points for my first nine holes. Partly due to the panicked ‘deer in the headlights’ sensation as I started dreaming of a first ever level-par or better round, and partly due to mental gymnastics as I thought of the lynching I’d be subjected to if I came in with a ridiculously high score in my first competition, I then proceeded to soil myself on the closing holes, but still posted 40 points and took second place.
Playing off 14, I’d have won. Comfortably.
To be clear, I’m not looking for any pats on the back here. Had I won a competition playing off a false handicap, I’d have felt no sense of pride, and no number of pints sunk afterwards would’ve dulled the knowledge that this was a hollow victory. I’d know it. And so would everybody else. And I’d like to think that most regular golfers would feel the same way I did.
Anybody can have a good day. I’ve played alongside scratch golfers who’ve shot six-under and 24-handicappers who’ve gone round in 14 over and not for a single second thought that there was anything sinister about their scoring, but it’s those who consistently turn up at the more prestigious club or team events looking like Pádraig Harrington after months of bludgeoning scorecards like they were Kellie Harrington; they are the ones who are ruining club golf.
The World Handicap System might be making it easier for them, but it’s not like they didn’t exist before. They always have, and unfortunately, always will.
By law of averages, the vast majority who read this post will be in the same boat as myself, maybe not angels, but held to a certain ethical standard when it comes to golf. But there’ll be several others reading who see things in a different light, who see golf’s self-governing integrity system as ripe for the taking.
And to them, I’ll say just one last thing.
I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror if I was manipulating my handicap. How can you?