June 28, 2009

Does Your Club Have Its Own "CSI: Handicap?"

Handicaps are golf's great equalizer: players of two different abilities can have a match with one another, and based upon their handicaps, if each plays to their established abilities, then there should be a close and interesting match between the two. That is, as long as everyone is honest about their scores and their golf, and also if they are consistent in posting their scores when they play.

Problem is, not everyone is scrupulous and they game the handicap system in order to achieve a higher or lower index than they rightfully deserve. The later scofflaw, the guy who inflates his scores in order to have a higher index, is probably trying to gain an edge in tournaments at his club or elsewhere. The perjorative common term for this kind of cheater is a "sandbagger." And in my view, sandbaggers are the worst kind of cheat there is in the game of golf.

Fortunately, the USGA takes handicap cheating very seriously, and has create a way for your club to have its own "CSI" to serve justice: a Committee for Sandbagger Identification.

No one is perfect, and we all make mistakes when it comes to the rules of golf from time to time. The best of us call penalties on ourselves when this becomes apparent -- and we do so out of honor and respect for the game. Sometimes we may miss something, and are reminded by a competitor -- and our faces turn red in apologetic shame for the transgression. It wasn't that we weren't trying to play honest golf, it's simply that we didn't know we had crossed a line. We play by the rules and we post our real scores, not something we pulled out from some unmentionable region beneath our wallets.

And the USGA Handicap system is quite fair: it expects folks to have career days sooner or later, and also have days when their score might indicate their desire to toss their bag in the nearest lake. All of that is accounted for, with the simple expectation: play by the rules and report hoest sports. Easy enough. Thankfully, almost no golfer has to run through the complicated formula for handicap calculation -- computers do that, but rest assured, it is a fair system.

Fair, unless there's a guy who will deliberately cheat -- improve his lie when no one is watching, for example. That's another level higher on the golfing blackguard, and he is the detestable sort who makes a match grueling in that you have to not only be vigilant over your own game, but his too. If you catch him in the act, he usually denies what he's done, because let's be honest here -- lying is also part and parcel of cheating on the golf course...and most liars try to cover one lie with another lie.

At the pinnacle of golf's con artists and ne'er-do-wells is the fellow who cheats across the board by sandbagging.

He's the grifter of the game,
the hustler who wants you to believe that he's a fourteen indexer -- right before he goes and drops an easy 75 in the money match of your annual club championship. Truth is, this guy is a real five handicap, but he wants to have that trophy so badly that honor means nothing. Considering the high intrinsic value golf places on honor -- we are our own referees, after all -- what does that say about him? Nothing much good, you can be sure of that.

The next day, this fellow might not be able to find the fairway with a seeing eye dog, or make a putt longer than two inches, but on days when trophies and cash is handed out, he's Tiger Woods. After all, he's "working on his handicap" -- or if you prefer, getting ready to scam his next victims.

Truth is, that fellow is a coward afraid to play you true handicap to true handicap. He may be better than you in reality, but he's afraid to play without crutches. You might beat him and his ego might not be able to handle that.

Fortunately, there are remedies for that sort: the Handicap Committee of your club. You do have one, right? The USGA gives the Handicap Committee a lot of leeway and power to manage their club's handicaps, and they can, at their discretion, fix a problem index for a golfer who won't be honest about his scores. It's a thankless job, but a necessary one to ensure fair competitions. Without their work, the grifters would make a mockery of the handicap system and eventually interest in tournament play would suffer. Who likes to play a game rigged against them, after all?

Specifically, the rule states "the Handicap Committee shall determine the amount of the adjustment." That can be for sandbagging, failing to post good scores, or any number of the range of handicap infractions. Cheaters post fictional scores, or quit after 12 holes to avoid posting a score, for example, can be fixed right up once the Committee figures it all out. Their powers are such that they can also simply take someone's handicap index away entirely -- thus crippling the scofflaw's ability to enter into amateur tournaments. That's happened three times here in North Carolina that I know of, and each time the USGA faithfully backed the Handicap Committee after evidence was presented.

Don't think that the adjustment is always to a lower number -- there are people who deflate their handicap in order to keep a single digit or otherwise low index, presumably to protect their pride. That's not the guy you want in a better ball match, uneless you have a strong back and plan to carry him on it for 18 holes.

How long does a penalty handicap last? As long as the committee thinks it should, although the USGA wants the committee to review such decisions each month when handicaps normally are revised.

So there is justice in the golfing world.


  1. I know there is justice, but I have reported someone who was blatantly cheating during two tourneys. Each time our head pro did nothing. Didn't want to upset a wealthy member.

    I could care less what golfers write down on their own scorecard during a fun round, but when we are competing that is another story entirely.

    This is why I always tell our course champ, "I don't want to be a net champ, I want to be a gross champ." Not sure this will ever happen, but I'll keep trying.;o)

    Great post!

  2. There are sandbaggers out there. However, in my experience, many of the complainers are players who have little knowledge of the Rules of Golf and tend to bend what few rules they know. To these players, anyone who putts a 3 footer, hits balls out of divots, or takes a "stroke & distance" penalty becomes immediately suspect.

    My handicap index undoubtedly suffers from playing by the rules, even in a casual round. Because I do not make liberal use of mulligans, gimmee's, or rolling the ball out of a bad lie, my index may be a couple strokes higher when compared to someone who is more casual in their approach. I also play in all kinds of weather conditions. As long my play is "in season", my score gets recorded.

    The true sandbagger deserves to be singled out for scorn. Just don't sweep those of us with honestly earned higher handicaps into the same category. Brian Kuehn


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