Schupak: My love/hate relationship with golf's handicap system

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Schupak: My love/hate relationship with golf's handicap system

Amateur

Schupak: My love/hate relationship with golf's handicap system

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I have a confession to make.

I have a love/hate relationship with golf’s handicap system, which is new and improved in 2020.

Apparently I dropped to a 6.6 from a 6.8 without hitting a shot with the recent implementation of the World Handicap System, but in general I love that it allows me to play – in theory – a fair match with my dad, a 13.1, even though we’re not playing the same tees and I can finally beat him straight up some of the time. And I love love love (have I made that clear enough) that it allows me to have a prayer of a chance against my wife, a 3.5 who is the stick in the family.

Handicapping is one of golf’s more important institutions – a system that enables players of different skills to compete fairly with each other. In no other sport is it feasible for players of all skill level to play on equal footing. Good luck stepping into the batter’s box to face the 100-mph fastball of New York Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman. But with the right number of strokes and summoning our “A” game, we all could give World No. 1 Brooks Koepka a run for his money.

As with most things with the sport, we have the Scots to thank for this concept. According to the history books, there are written references to handicapping as early as 1687. In Great Britain, the first governing authority to establish a nationwide system was the Ladies Golf Union.

The USGA formulated the basis of the handicapping system used today at a meeting on Oct. 11, 1911, at Baltusrol Golf Club. The system has continued to evolve ever since and received its latest reboot on Jan. 1. You can read about all the changes here.

I love that we’ve left the Dark Ages and no longer have to wait two weeks to find out how much damage that fluke low round is going to do to our index. Now our handicap indexes are updated faster than I can lose a sleeve of balls. That alone makes the introduction of the World Handicap System a winner in my book.

But there’s still a lot I don’t like. Topping that list is getting pencil-whipped at the first tee. I hate anyone who says, “I’m about a 15.” You either know your handicap or you don’t. It’s sad how few golfers actually have an official handicap. It’s easier than ever to get started, so do yourself a favor and get one – that’s my public service announcement for handicaps. It’s kind of like driving a car without a license. You wouldn’t do that, would you? If you want to play a match with strokes, you should have a handicap, plain and simple; otherwise, let’s stick to playing straight up.

Interestingly, when I brought up my hatred of “the about guy” to my wife, she mentioned that I sometimes am guilty of doing this, and I guess I’m guilty as charged. Allow me to explain.

I play a lot of what you’d call “hit n’ giggle” golf – scrambles and best-ball games where you try to get home in two on a par 5 or go for broke on the drivable par 4 or take some crazy angle off the tee because there’s nothing to lose. Sometimes you just pick up or don’t bother hitting that knee-knocker after your partner is in. It speeds up play.

Also, playing three or six holes before the sun goes down is my jam, a reward for a hard day’s work.

In short, I play a bunch of golf that for one reason or another never gets factored into calculating my handicap. So, sometimes in the first tee negotiation with my wife I will say I’m “about a 9” even though I know full well I’m a 7. I’m just trying to factor in those uncounted rounds and make it a fair fight.

Which brings me to another thing I hate about the handicap system: It is never going to be an exact science.

Dean Knuth, the Pope of Slope (which is one of my favorite golf nicknames) who helped invent slope rating in 1987 for the USGA, already says the new system is flawed.

If he’s right, that’s unsettling because my wife treats the handicap index as if it’s the 11th Commandment – thou must follow the handicap. This summer, until GHIN corrected this madness, I was getting only 1 per side. Here’s the thing: Beating her getting only one shot felt twice as good as getting 2, though it won’t stop me from groveling for 3.

The handicap system is a very un-American concept, dare I say, bordering on Marxist in nature. It rewards mediocrity and penalizes the people who have worked hard to be good at the game and those who are most committed to improvement. There seem to be too many golfers content to remain a 20 handicap and clean up at the club’s member-guest.

I’m not even going to touch on the systemic cheating that goes on in the club scrambles and pro-ams I play in other than to say to the teams that turn in scores that would make Korea’s Kim Jong-il blush: Really? Do you need to win that badly? Did your parents not hug you as a child?

Other than that, I love the handicap system. Long live net birdie – as long as I’m the one stroking.

Editor’s note: Adam Schupak has a long history of calling out, “Four for three!” as a putt falls. The editorial staff of Golfweek tries to not hold that against him. 

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