A fair handicap

First published on the Golf Monthly website on Tuesday 5th February 2008

While sitting on a long chairlift in France Fergus has time to think far too hard about handicaps.

Before I went skiing last week someone in my clubhouse asked me, “So what’s your skiing handicap?” An odd question I thought, but I considered for a moment and said, “I probably ski off single figures.” We both laughed.

While skidding about in France I wondered about how a skiing handicap system might work. Simple enough for racing: the slower skiers would have time taken off at the end. But recreational skiing isn’t just about getting down in the quickest possible time. It also involves tackling difficult slopes, not falling over, carrying your skis properly and generally looking stylish. Maybe something more generic could be done to level the playing field/piste. Better skiers could have to ski with their boots undone or down a few shots of grappa before taking to the slopes. Or their edges could be blunted and their bases de-waxed. Actually, I just don’t think it’s going to work.

The golf handicap system is pretty unique. No other sport has such a leveller. Participants who really aren’t very good at the game can beat people of county standard. No. Not just can beat, do beat.
It’s one of the best things about the game but it’s also very annoying. What gets me more than losing to someone of a dramatically higher handicap is the reaction of the independent observer. Someone who’s unacquainted with the handicap system will view it as an upset like in any other sport. They see it as Dagenham and Redbridge defeating Arsenal in the cup. This would be a common conversation between my wife and me:

“You were beaten by him? Crikey, you must have played terribly”
“No, I was giving away 21 shots. I actually played pretty well. I was out in two under, he just had some good holes.”
“I just can’t understand how you could have lost to that chap.”
“Oh, I give up.”

Could you imagine if a handicap system was applied to any other sport at competitive club level? In Sunday League football for instance. Inter Mill Inn are having a bad season so they get a three goal head start. Or down your local snooker hall. For the best players the black’s only worth five. At swimming meets the top boys have to do the front crawl with weights in their trunks. In cricket, the lesser sides only have to get four men out. It just doesn’t and shouldn’t happen.

Don’t get me wrong. Golf’s handicap system is brilliant and I wouldn’t change it. But, what sometimes happens is people lose sight of the sport’s principal objective: Getting round 18 holes in as few shots as possible.

When I was younger I did cross country running (no handicapping system.) I was reasonable at it but not exceptional. I was never going to win races but I used to glean great satisfaction from improving my placing from the previous week. I remember sprint finishing to get a ninth place and feeling like I’d won the New York Marathon. I’ve never heard anybody at my club after the Saturday Medal saying, “Yes! My 81 was good enough to sneak me into the top ten gross.”

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