Art of the Handicap

Why would you need to get a USGA Handicap index? Well, there are a lot of very good reasons to consider dipping your toes into the complicated world of the USGA Handicap. Primarily, game improvement and competition. What is that handicap index anyway? In short, it’s a complex mathematical equation aimed at rating you as a player. This “index” levels the playing field for competition so a higher handicap player has the ability to compete against a better player on equal footing. At least that’s the sales pitch from the USGA.

A little background perspective. For years, me and my buddies always played golf as a “straight up” endeavor. If I shot 80, and the other guy shot 85, I beat said other guy and I am a happy camper. Seems equitable to me. There lies the problem for a lot of players in regards to competition. If player A is considerably better than player B and continues to beat said player like a rented mule…..player B will probably find someone else to hang out with and hopefully beat…again, like a rented mule (Please take the euphemism as tongue and cheek. I don’t advocate the beating of mules rented or otherwise). So I never pursued a handicap because I didn’t think I needed one, most of the guys I ran with were pretty evenly matched. When someone asked what my handicap was for a scramble formatted outing, I’d probably say something like an 8 or 10 based on my average scoring. Again, my ignorance of the system should have been abundantly evident to anyone in the know. You can’t be an 8 or a 10, it’s either or simpleton! It’s human nature to underrate our abilities, at least in my case. Average scoring is only one part of the equation. The USGA takes into account the course rating (what a scratch player would shoot), slope rating (the delta between scratch and a bogey player), mixing it all together with the average or median slope rating of 113. It’s okay, it hurts my head too. Seriously, I don’t want to ever meet the people that came up with this stuff. I have adequacy issues as it is.

Prompting this exploration of the handicap system was an innocent question by a family friend. We were talking about indexes and he asked me: “What does that really mean anyway? I have an index, but then I get a handicap course index when I play different places. I just don’t get what the difference is and why it all matters”. I had no answer for him, because I didn’t (and still don’t to some degree) understand the vagaries that make up the program. Spending some time on the USGA website on the handicap explanation page was extremely beneficial. Have to give props to the level of detail and the delivery of the information….took me a few go arounds, but I finally got it. I would suggest those interested to give it a spin to become better educated about the process.

The discussion about the handicap course index vs handicap index prompted because of the dreaded Sandbagger moniker. The family friend, let’s call him Bob to humanize him, was participating in a tournament and shot a very good score and was basically accused of being a “F%*#@!!” Sandbagger. Seemingly, the cat is out of the bag and nobody wants to get near him because he’s feral and very aggressive. For the record, for this particular person (still call him Bob), this simply isn’t the case. We’ve all caught lightening in a bottle. I once started double, double, double, and shot 78….can’t even explain that one, might have been the additional fiber in my diet. He played well, made a few crazy putts, hit the right side of the trees, hell, it was just one of those good rounds. Just happened to be in a tournament setting and he was apparently not paired with genteel sportsmen of a by gone era…I might say something like, “that sandbagging mother trucker” to myself, never out loud. Inside voice people, use that inside voice.

To the real Sandbaggers…you know who you are….seriously, why? Devoid of a soul? I’ve played with supposed 22 caps that will throw down an 82 in a tournament like spreading butter on warm toast. “Man, I just got hot today, sorry about that, just swinging the club…lucky I guess”, you sure did, “your new nickname is Microwave. You instant cooking son of a….hey look here comes the cart girl”. I have it on good authority that you may be hot for all of eternity if you keep up these shenanigans. Satan has a special place for your lot…nothing but downhill knee knockers….must makes, eternal damnation at stake. Good luck with that (insert maniacal laugh). You can’t hide your dastardly deceit, this isn’t Capital Hill, you aren’t above the law.

An aside, Capital Hill just so happens to be a fantastic stop on the Robert Trent Jones Trail. Same name, way different class of people, the people in Prattville are humans.

The way you swing the club is a dead giveaway. Oh, and all those magnificent chips, and the 8 one putts tend to be an indication that you are aptly suited for a pitchfork, horns and a piggy tail. I’ve seen the Sandbagger explain away his good fortune as he apologizes for the drubbing he laid down in a pickup Nassau. Thought I was going to witness a fight in the parking lot. I didn’t know you could use the F word in so many colorful ways. Ladle a little “Som bitch” on top and you have yourself somewhat of a spectacle…I was on the ready….to call somebody if it came to blows. The innocent bystander in me continued making 3 footers on the practice green, serendipitously witnessing the whole event. No idea what the stakes were, but I suspect they escalated to make things a little “interesting”. That’s why people despise the Sandbagger. It’s like winning by subversive methods, just south of outright cheating, akin to Guerilla warfare.

So many different people have told me I’m screwed for having a low handicap, they say I can’t win tournaments that way. Might have a chance in the “Gross” division, but on the “Net”side, bupkis….Slim isn’t even present for roll call. I guess the logic is you really want to win on the “Net” side when it comes to tournament play….just looks better I guess, that’s the game…wait, what? It’s unfortunately a byproduct of the handicap system. People will try and “work” the system for personal glory. A lot easier to win as a 12 when you are really a 5 or a 6. How would an additional 6 strokes sound to you? Sounds like a bicep workout lifting that trophy to me. To achieve….rather deceive….said result, just put the bad scores in the computer for a couple of months, that cap will raise itself, Cialis be damned. Any disparaging insinuations about the performance enhancement needs for the Sandbagger clan is in the eye of the beholder. My intent isn’t to sully the Cialis brand, just said Sandbagging users. Too harsh? Interestingly…..lots of Cialis ads during televised golf…draw your own conclusions. No, they aren’t sponsoring this blog post.

Equitable play? The real aim of the program is to level the playing field between somewhat dissimilarly skilled players. Basically, creating an environment for competition where none could otherwise exist. The concept is altruistic, “Kum ba yah”, world peace…..all those Smurfs and only one Smurfette, I get it. At first glance I hate it, how is it fair for the better player? Is it his fault he worked at his game to get good? Then, it dawns on me the genius within. A 20 cap can compete with a 4 cap and both players are having fun competing against the course and one another. You know, sport. Dave won’t want to play golf with Bob if he knows he’s losing by 20 today, that’s demoralizing….he can get beat up at the office…but if the field is leveled, we got us a game. By rights my son who is roughly a 9 cap, can repeatedly beat me because I would have to give him so many strokes.…or I got to go “low” to keep him at bay. Guarantee my focus, and his will be keenly sharpened in this scenario. Right now, I only worry when he’s going good and I’m not. If I have to theoretically start 6 shots in the red, shut the front door, he’s going to step heavily on thy neck, and smile while doing so. Begrudgingly, I have a sinking suspicion my scores and his for that matter, might be better if we played by these rules. I’ve never given him strokes. When he beats me, it’s straight up. I think of John Wayne or Clint Eastwood in the cinema of the mind. Would they want a show down against a guy who gets 6 extra bullets? That’s the old me, I’m a changed man, the handicap system is a good thing now that I get it. Best believe when he gets to be a scratch player and I start meandering upward into double digits, I’m getting strokes every single time, not even joking. That will be 5 a side kind sir.

All in all, I’ve learned to accept and appreciate the handicap system. It’s a good for the game. Your score can potentially improve given you have a moving number that gives you a bi-monthly snapshot into the state of your game. When that number is dropping, you tend to work that much harder to fine tune and get it even lower. If it starts to rise, you have objective feedback that your play is suffering and needs attention…or another built in reason to play 9 and go directly to the 19th hole. Get involved and get a handicap. It’s pretty cheap to do and the rewards are worth the effort. Even if you lose to a 20 cap and you are a 3… are still a 3, which ain’t too shabby.


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