Golf is a living, changing game. Despite being rife with traditions dating back literally centuries, changes in equipment technology, turf science, and even the rules of the game have kept golfers on their toes for much of those hundreds of years. Golf’s two international ruling bodies, the United States Golf Association (USGA) and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club (R&A), which administer the rules and regulations governing the game, periodically review and update those rules, often to the accompaniment of cries of outrage from the golfing community at large. That was the reaction among American golfers to an announcement made on Monday, November 23, in which the USGA announced, among other changes, that from January 1, 2016 forward, rounds played alone, i.e., without a witness, will no longer be allowed to be used for the purpose of determining a player’s handicap.
The announcement made by the USGA had this to say about the posting of rounds played alone for the purpose of determining handicap:
“Playing alone and necessary peer review: To further support the key System premise of peer review, scores made while playing alone will no longer be acceptable for handicap purposes. This change underscores the importance of providing full and accurate information regarding a player’s potential scoring ability, and the ability of other players to form a reasonable basis for supporting or disputing a posted score. (Section 5-1: Acceptability of Scores)”
Currently in the Rules of Golf under “Decisions” in Section 5, Scores, the following statement is found:
“5-1a/2. Score Made When Playing Alone
Q: If a player plays alone, should the score be returned for handicap purposes?
A: Yes, provided the round is played in accordance with the Rules of Golf.”
but that is going to change on January 1.
Rule 5-1, Acceptability of Scores, states:
“Fair handicapping depends upon full and accurate information regarding a player’s potential scoring ability as reflected by a complete scoring record.”
Rule 5-2, Posting Scores, contains the following text:
“The posted scores for the day must be immediately available to all members for peer review. (See Decision 5-2a/1.)”
and it is the requirement for “full and accurate information” and “peer review” which lies behind the rule change which was just announced. What the USGA is effectively saying is that when a player completes a round of golf unaccompanied by a witness the opportunity for falsely reporting a score rears its ugly head. It is ironic, in a sport which basks in a tradition of selfless, self-policed adherence to arcane and often draconian regulations, that the American ruling body is now saying, “We don’t trust you.”
The history of the game of golf abounds with anecdotes of golfers calling penalties on themselves, often with dire consequences. The most famous of these is an incident involving the most iconic American golfer of all time, Robert Tyre “Bob” Jones. During the first round of the 1925 U.S. Open, Jones was preparing to play a shot out of the rough on the 11th hole when he saw his ball move slightly as he addressed it. Though there were no other witnesses, and officials could not themselves confirm that the ball had moved, Jones was firm in his conviction that it had, and called a penalty on himself – a penalty which ended up costing him the title. Praised for the selfless act by spectators, Jones famously replied, “You might as well praise me for not robbing a bank.”
When it comes to reporting scores there are two ways to go – up, or down. Falsely reporting lower scores results in a lower GHIN rating, a so-called “vanity handicap”. Carrying a low handicap is a point of pride among golfers, and proof of handicap is often a requirement to play prestigious courses; for example, the Old Course at St Andrews requires men have a maximum handicap of 24, women 36; and Royal Troon is even more restrictive, with limits of 20 and 30 for men and women, respectively.
A falsely low handicap rating can carry negative consequences, however. In tournament play, even if it is just your club championship or member-guest, that too-low GHIN rating will prove to be a burden when you aren’t getting the strokes your actual game deserves, and if you play money games based on your published handicap, that too-low number may cost you – literally.
On the flip side, reporting falsely high scores to artificially increase your handicap number, a practice known as “sandbagging”, is flat-out cheating. Players who do this are essentially stealing strokes – and may be the guys who are taking home the club trophy or getting into your pocket on that Sunday afternoon pick-up round.
The outrage over this new ruling was quick to develop, showing up in all of the popular social media venues. Reactions ranged from “There goes my 4 handicap!” to (referring to the USGA) “I’m starting to wonder why I am giving this organization money.”
The voices raised in dissent weren’t all weekend duffers, either. Posting on Twitter, Scott Michaux, a nationally-known sports columnist who writes for the Augusta Chronicle, in Augusta, Georgia (home of Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters golf tournament), wrote “Golfers need to raise voices and demand @USGA rescind the ruling that stigmatizes playing golf alone by deeming results untrustworthy.”
Reaction from overseas golfers has ranged from bemused scoffing at American backwardness to amazement that golfers in the USA (and Mexico, which also falls under USGA jurisdiction) would even think of posting solo scores – the R&A does not allow the practice. Word from Canada, which uses the USGA system for determining handicaps, is that they will ignore the new rule.
This ruling reminds me of the 55 mph national speed limit which was imposed during the gas crisis of the mid-1970s – a pointless regulation which turns law-abiding folks into rule-breakers for doing something that was perfectly reasonable, and legal, the day before. Unlike the 55 mph speed limit, however, the new solo-play rule is virtually unenforceable.
The word from our area’s regional golf association, the Northern California Golf Association (NCGA), is that they have received no indication from the USGA, as of this writing, as to how the new rule is to be enforced. While golfers who are members of a club will have their postings scrutinized by the club’s scoring committee, players who are members of “e-clubs”, or who are posting scores for rounds played outside of club events or at other courses, will have no such scrutiny and scores will not be vetted on the basis of the new rule.
What I foresee happening after January 1, 2016 is the establishment of a sort of off-kilter dichotomy – reasonable, honorable golfers who post honestly tabulated scores for those solo early-morning or after-work nine hole rounds, or the rare solo 18-hole round, though scrupulously accurate in their accounting, will become scofflaws when they post their scores online, as many will still do, for their local association’s handicap committee to use in assessing their GHIN rating.
So now many of us will become outlaws; honest, and dishonest, all in the same action – and all because the USGA has decided to reverse a practice which had been in effect for decades.