Editors note: This column originally appeared Feb. 4, 2011
You’re a fairly competitive person, aren’t you? Even though sports, and golf specifically, are wonderful for exercise and recreation, there is an inherent invitation for a contest. We all want to improve and part of the inspiration for progress is to be better than the next guy (or girl).
But what do you do when the next guy is a lot better than you? Or, maybe you’re better than him. It’s like watching the Steelers play a local high school team. What fun is that?
So, imagine your next round of golf is with a friend who is definitely a better player or, to be even more dramatic, your next round is with Phil Mickelson. Granted, the wager will have to be within our budget, but we certainly don’t want to lose. Is there a way to “level the playing field”? You betcha.
The game of golf has what is known as a handicap system. This system allows players of different skill levels to compete as if they are equal. Here’s how it works, in broad terms.
Let’s say that Phil’s average score is 70 for eighteen holes. And, for our model, your average score is 98 for eighteen holes. On a given day, your score is 18 shots higher. So, you need an 18 shot “pardon.” Enter the course handicap.
This pardon can be applied one of two ways, and the manner in which it is applied will depend on your form of play. Stroke play and match play are the two forms of play. In stroke play, the players will have an aggregate score for all 18 holes. For match play, each hole is a competition in itself. The player who captures a greater number of these hole-by-hole competitions is the winner.
The pardon is simple in stroke play. Once you have completed 18 holes, your course handicap, your pardon, (18 shots in our model) is reduced from your overall score. The actual score (known as “gross”) was 98 and the score after the pardon (known as Net) is 70. You tied Phil. Nice job.
Match play applies a pardon on each hole. In our model, the course handicap of 18 would break down to a one stroke pardon on each hole. When Phil makes a score of four on the first hole and we make a score of five, the hole is tied. If we played a round of golf according to the model, no one would ever win.
But, of course, golf is not a game of perfection, and there will always be a winner, even if we have to play a few more holes to break the tie.
OK, let’s go into a few more details that you need to know. (Remember, part of my job is to provide you with information that will help you impress your friends ... or your boss, assuming he or she plays golf). Each golf course is assigned a rating. This rating becomes a factor in a formula that will establish a personalized course handicap for you.
Every time you play, you will post each score in the system (at the course or online). Your scores and the rating of the course go through some equations and the result is an index. This index is used whenever you play and converts to a course handicap at the course of your choice. Your index is based on your playing history and it translates to a course handicap that will give you a greater “pardon” on the more challenging courses and a lesser “pardon” on the less challenging course.
Now, what if someone tries to manipulate the system? Perhaps someone would play poorly on the average day and establish a greater course handicap, only to play up to their potential on game day. This player would receive more strokes (pardon) than they deserve and would be difficult to defeat. The system, designed to create a “leveling playing field” would be used to “stack the deck.”
This is known as “sandbagging” and the perpetrator is a “sandbagger.” It might earn you few bucks or a cheap trophy, but it might get tough to find someone who will join your foursome. The handicap system has a protection against this and, in fact, will apply “penalty rounds” to help offset the fraudulent entries.
On the flip side, some see a low index or course handicap as an esteem builder, like name-dropping. Fabricated low scores are posted resulting in a lower index. This might be known as an “ego handicap.” It’s not helpful on the golf course, but some feel it is useful in conversations around the water cooler.
If you don’t have an index (a Golfer Handicap Index Number, GHIN), virtually every golf course will have information about how you might obtain one through their club (the cost will vary). Or, if you prefer not to have a “home” course, log onto www.ncga.org (the Northern California Golfers Association) where you can join an online “E-Club”. Then go out and play as often as you can, posting scores to establish your own personal index and course handicap.
John Renslow is general manager and director of golf at Alta Sierra Country Club. Please contact John with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.