If you play golf, and nobody is there to see it, did it still happen?
November 23, 2015 was a day of reckoning for many golfers who play under the United States Golf Association (USGA). This was the day they announced handicap rule changes that would be implemented for the 2016 season.
The change that caught most of the attention was the one regarding unaccompanied rounds. For the 2016 season, a player cannot go out by themselves to play 18 holes under the Rules of Golf, and post that score to their handicap. Social media exploded, mostly with criticism.
November 24, 2015 was a day golfers in Canada rejoiced. With a series of two tweets, Golf Canada announced they would not be adopting Section 5-1e of the USGA Handicap System Manual, and that scores made while playing alone will continue to count for handicap purposes.
Golf Canada received a lot of praise for this decision. They received overwhelming support from golfers on social media. The news even caught the attention of golf media giants in the United States. Big players such as Golf Digest praised Golf Canada’s decision. At least at a grass roots level, it unanimously felt that Golf Canada made the right decision by taking a stand on behalf of their players.
Then came January 22nd, 2016 when Golf Canada, like a cheap tent, eventually folded.
Golf Canada wrote:
“After careful consideration and additional discussion among our Board of Directors and Handicap Committee, Golf Canada will align with all Handicap Rules changes announced by the USGA at the end of last year. This also includes the provision that applies to unaccompanied rounds.
These changes are part of a bigger picture to unify the Handicap rules, and support the possible formation of a World Handicap System, which we wholeheartedly endorse.”
It is interesting to note the statement which said they wholeheartedly endorse a World Handicap System, yet there was no mention of endorsing the handicap rule changes applied in an effort to align with said system. They simply conceded to aligning with the all-mighty USGA.
I’ve taken a lot of time to think about this. I didn’t want to lash out at Golf Canada without thinking everything through to the fullest. After further review, I believe their decision to adopt the USGA rule regarding unaccompanied rounds was a mistake.
The handicap system isn’t just a tool for competition
The USGA stated “This change underscores the importance of providing full and accurate information regarding a player’s potential scoring ability”. Or in other words, they want Joe from the club to stop sandbagging.
However, the handicap system is not solely used for the purpose of competition. It is a self-improvement tool for many people. I know many people who keep an official handicap but don’t play in any events which require that handicap to be used. For many it’s simply a measuring stick, a motivator, and a way to give meaning to each and every round. For any of these people who play rounds alone, this tool has become much less useful.
The handicap system isn’t a perfect science to begin with
Our handicap system is a great system, and we’re fortunate in golf to have a tool which allows us to level the playing field and compete amongst each other regardless of skill level. However, it’s not perfect and never will be. There are many factors that could skew a persons handicap one way or the other over an isolated period of time.
What if you played golf on nothing but extremely windy days during a certain period, and this escalated your scores and handicap for a period of time?
What if your greenskeeper has been in a miserable mood and started placing the pins in unfair locations, making it more difficult to score?
What if Bob shoots 85 and posts a 90? Fortunately, Bob is the only one who has to look himself in the mirror.
Golf is a game of honesty and integrity. It’s the only game where players are expected to call penalties on themselves. Sandbaggers will find ways to sandbag. It’s sad, but true. The system isn’t perfect. Our world isn’t perfect. If we try too hard to control every factor, it can only lead down a path of insanity. Sometimes you need to have a little faith in people.
Entering estimated scores is not only acceptable, but required
There are several instances where we’re required to estimate or project our scores for handicap purposes.
If you’re playing in a match play event, you’re required to enter your score from the match in order to maintain a handicap that is in accordance with the Handicap Rules. It’s actually amazing how many people don’t realize this.
When holes are conceded in match play, you’re required to project your most likely score on that hole. If a putt is conceded, you’re required to determine if you would make that putt more often than you would miss it. If the match ends before 18 holes are played, you’re required to project what you would have scored on the remaining holes by using the handicap ranking of the holes. If you’re a 5-handicap, for example, and one of the finishing holes is ranked 5th or harder, you take bogey on that hole (or in other words, par plus any handicap strokes you’re entitled to on that hole) and give yourself pars on the rest. This isn’t something you are just allowed to do if you feel like it, it’s something you are expected to do.
What if you’re playing a stroke play round and get rained out after completing 13 holes? You project your 18 hole score using the handicapping of the holes remaining, as I mentioned above. As I said, this isn’t just an option you have if you feel like posting your score, it’s a requirement under the Handicap Rules.
There is room for error under these rules. There would undoubtedly be instances where your projected score would be significantly different from your actual score had you played out all 18 holes under the Rules of Golf, for better or for worse.
However, play a complete round of 18 holes under the Rules of Golf by yourself in 2016? Sorry, you can’t enter that score, because THAT would be crazy.
For your reference, below is directly from the FAQ section on Golf Canada’s website:
Q. What scores are acceptable for posting purposes?
A. Almost all scores are acceptable because the basic premise of the Golf Canada Handicap System is that every player will try his or her best on every hole, in every round regardless of where the round was played. Therefore all of the following are acceptable scores:
- 18 hole rounds
- 13 or more holes played you must post an 18-hole score
- 9 hole rounds
- 7-12 holes played you must post a nine-hole score
- Scores on all courses with a valid Course and Slope Rating, whether at home course, away course, or out of country
- Scores in all forms of competition: match play, stroke play, team competitions
- Scores played with preferred lies
I understand why they require players to post scores under all the circumstances outlined above. Every time we tee it up, it updates our current potential, even if we just play 13 holes. So it makes sense to make efforts to have this performance reflected in our handicap calculation the best we can. This is part of the reason why the elimination of solo rounds to count towards handicaps baffles me. They have made it virtually impossible for an honest golfer who plays alone often to have an up-to-date and accurate handicap. This doesn’t sit well with me.
Joe Blow, an honest member at the club, is planning to go out after work during the week to play a couple of rounds by himself in preparation for a member-guest on the weekend, where handicap strokes will be implemented. Joe is currently an 8-handicap who recently had a lesson and started hitting it much better that week. He shoots 78 and 76. Clearly Joe has improved his current scoring potential with these rounds. If he didn’t enter those scores before his member-guest, you might think he’s a sandbagger. Well as of 2016, Joe isn’t allowed to enter those scores. His scoring potential now out paces his official handicap — the very essence of sandbagging.
What constitutes not playing alone?
According to the USGA, “as long as someone accompanies the player during the round (e.g., fellow competitor, opponent, caddie, marker for a tournament, friend riding along in a cart) the player is not playing alone.”
Essentially, as long as there is another body that remains nearby, you’re not playing alone. I could take my friend who knows nothing about golf or the rules, toss them in a cart, and I’m not playing alone.
The new rule is likely a moot point for many golfers who are members at a club – they have a regular group of people to play with and rarely, or never, play alone.
What about young working professionals, the working parents, the people working shift work and the people who aren’t members at a golf club? Those people who have dynamic schedules and don’t have regular tee times, but still try to get out when they can because they love the game and want to get better – does it make sense to make it harder on them to keep a handicap just because someone else isn’t available to play with them? When one of the main priorities of Golf Canada and the USGA is to “grow the game”, this rule seems counter-productive.
When there is overwhelming criticism (or outrage, in many cases) from the members of governing bodies, they need to take a harder look at their decisions. Are the board of directors really making the best decisions for the game of golf when those decisions leave much of the membership upset?
I commend the efforts of golf’s governing bodies to work towards a World Handicap System. However, we should be working together towards this goal, not simply adopting whatever the USGA decides is right.
Encouraging more peer review isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Eliminating unaccompanied rounds for handicap purposes completely, however, seems over the top. Particularly for a game with core values such as honesty, sportsmanship, and integrity.