The aim of the golf handicapping system is relatively simple: take golfers of widely varying experience and ability and make the game fair for everyone. In theory, a neophyte can play against Tiger woods and there is a way of comparing them. The score of an 18 handicapper and a 36 handicapper can be adjusted and thus compared in competition or out. Unfortunately, the system is quite perfect. Welcome to the world of golf sandbaggers.
Does the Golf Handicap System Work?
Before worrying about deliberate manipulation of someone’s handicap, it is worth posing the question whether the handicap system does actually work. I would say that generally it works about as well as it is possible for it to work which means that sometimes and for some categories of golfer, it is miles off.
This is easiest to see with an example. Let’s take a 27 handicapper. This is someone who, on average, will shoot between bogey and double bogey on every hole. Of course, it doesn’t really mean this at all. This golfer will have some pars or maybe even the occasional birdie on his card as well as triples, quads or more. In fact, the defining characteristic of a high handicap golfer might just be inconsistency.
On a great day, he or she might well shoot 15 over, or a dozen shots better than their handicap. This is a good round, but far from unheard-of. It would be applauded without causing any raised eyebrows. What about a scratch golfer? What if he shoots 12 shots better than his handicap?
Without worrying too much about course rating in order to keep things simple, this golfer has just shot 12 under par. This simply doesn’t happen. A scratch golfer who shoots 3 under par really isn’t that common and 12 under is in “pigs might fly” territory.
The end result is that, on a good day for both golfer, a low capper who is far more consistent can’t compete with the peaks of a high handicapper (but will win easily when the high capper has an off day.) There isn’t really much you can do about this. It is the reason why most competitions will have categories, even with handicap allowance, so that perhaps all the single figure golfers are competing together and so on.
This variance is going to be present whatever system is used, but the golf handicap system, even under the new world handicap system, is still open to manipulation. A was actually witness to an example of this in a recent competition.
I played in a Texas Scramble which I enjoy doing a lot. If you don’t know this format, have a look at my article linked just before. Basically, you play in a team (in this case a team of two) and use a better ball format after every shot. It is a format that lets teams score very low because you can take risks, choose the best shot and get away with a real horror shot generally.
For this reason, handicaps are calculated a little differently. As an example, on the course we played, we had a handicap of 4. For reference, we were 9 and 14 handicaps. Most teams will consider it an ordinary day if they shoot there handicap and a winning score will be low.
Scores are usually calculated in net when handicap is taken into account and gross without accounting for handicap. We played not especially well and shot, if I remember correctly, 4 over par. Better than our handicap, but not really very good in the scheme of things.
The winning score in the net category wasn’t very low “only” 6 under I think. This seems amazing, but scramble scores are always low.
Gross and Net Scores
Then we came to the gross. The gross is counted in stableford. To simplify, a level par round is 36 points, 1 under 37 and so on. Our gross score was 36 points (4 over minus our playing handicap of 4 shots.)The couple who won shot exactly the same score as us…..except that they both had handicaps of 54 and a team playing handicap of 20! Their net score was 16 under par. Even though their handicaps were limited to 36 rather than 54 to try to prevent cheating, they beat us by 16 shots in relation to handicap!
If this doesn’t shock you, think of it this way. We are both experienced golfers. I am still a single figure golfer and my playing partner, although getting on a bit, is a solid 14 who has been near scratch in his younger days. We didn’t play badly, just average for golfers of our level, shooting our team handicap. A team that had tow golfers with a 54 handicap shot the same score.
Once again, to put this in context, a 54 handicapper will average a triple bogey per hole. If I score one triple in a round, I am deeply disappointed.
Winning the Net
The existence of a net category in competition is of course necessary because otherwise only the very best golfers could compete. Unfortunately, the net category is ripe pickings for the sandbagger. Our two golfers in the story above are prime examples. Their handicaps are a long way above their true level of ability. They had a great day, but both were, at worst, bogey players.
At the prize giving there were a few pointed comments from the organizers and quite a bit of muttering from the players. It is unlikely that they will be able to play again at that course until they have got a more realistic handicap.
Sandbagging can be achieved in different ways. Of course, deliberately playing badly in competition is the most obvious one. Another way is to selectively manage which cards are handed in and counted for handicap. The aim is simply to get more shots than you should when the competition comes around and win the net category.
Not all golfers with higher handicaps than their playing level are sandbaggers of course. Many people enjoy the game without playing competitions and perhaps have a much better level than their handicap would indicate. However, these people are then signing up for a competition in order to try to cheat their way to the top prize.