Blog 333, 11/25/15 - Storm in a Tea Cup?

lone golferIf you thought golf’s official rule book was complex and long-winded, try reading the USGA’s Handicapping Manual. Worse, slog through CONGU’s version.
CONGU stands for Council of National Golf Unions and is made up of representatives from each nation’s golf union in the British Isles (England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland). It was formed in 1924 after the R&A convened a meeting for the purpose of developing a uniform handicapping system.
As with the rule book, modifications to the UHS (Unified Handicapping System) occur frequently as clauses, instructions, definitions, etc. become outdated and the game advances. Indeed, Board Chairman Jim McArthur recently said the system “never stands still and is constantly under review to reflect experience and new evidence”.
One part of the CONGU system that has remained unchanged for decades though, is that when establishing a handicap or playing competitions that may result in the lowering or raising of your handicap, the golfer must be playing in a ‘Qualifying Round’ and the scorecard must be ‘marked and signed by a responsible person acceptable to the Handicap Committee’.
Those words are hidden away on page 29, in Part 4 Section 16 (actually 16.2), and don’t appear anywhere else in the 104-page booklet which includes tables and calculations Albert Einstein might initially struggle to grasp. It seems such an innocuous, not to say obvious, directive. In Britain (where I grew up) no one ever questions it.
On Monday, the USGA announced that among six changes it was making to its handicapping system, golfers would no longer be allowed to post scores after playing on their lonesome. My immediate reaction, and that of every other British golfer I know, was shock that our American counterparts could actually post scores after playing alone. I’ve lived in the US for 14 years, and must admit I didn’t know that.
Meanwhile, nearly every American golfer I know was seriously distressed, convinced their governing body was questioning their integrity and saying solo golfers could not be trusted to post a genuine, honest score made while adhering to all the rules of golf. A couple even said the USGA was essentially calling them liars.
Not surprisingly, the USGA wording of the new rule was a little vague - “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.”
After asking the USGA for clarification on a couple of points – what peer review actually looked like, and what a reasonable basis for supporting or disputing a posted score might be - the rule, and the motivation behind it, actually became a little hazier. But it wasn’t difficult to see why so many Americans had taken to social media to vent their anger, some going as far as to say they would actually be giving the game up if they couldn’t play alone. (Some seemed to miss the point entirely - of course you can still play golf by yourself, you just can’t post a score for handicapping purposes after doing so.)
Yesterday, I engaged in a three-hour Twitter conversation with three established golf writers – Ryan Ballengee, Courtney Capps and Gary McCormick – who all appeared disappointed not only with the rule itself but also the way it was announced. “I wish the USGA would make a better effort to communicate,” said Capps. “Or maybe even throw out a trial balloon to see what kind of reaction they're going to get. Then again, with the reaction we've seen, they probably don't want to wade through piles of emails from people who think that dropping a second ball on a few holes is ok when posting a score.”
In a Golf News Net column, Ballengee said the USGA ‘had called B.S.’ on golfers’ reverence for the sport’s rules, and on golfers who did the right thing by calling penalties on themselves. The former Golf Channel reporter joked the USGA was effectively calling solo golfers ‘cheating bums’ and instructing them to ‘get a friend’.
McCormick was actually more puzzled than angry asking what event had taken place that precipitated the rule change. It’s a good question – what prompted the USGA to modify the rule that had allowed solo golfers to post scores for so long?
The consensus seemed to be the USGA merely wanted to come in line with the R&A and other authorities around the world on the issue, while Ballengee specified it was also done to prevent sandbagging. “They want honest handicaps at the club level (not inflated) and at their championship qualifiers,” he said. He’s right – the USGA receives almost 10,000 entries for the US Open. If everyone can reliably play to the 1.4 handicap limit required, it makes the competition stronger and prevents those amusing, though tedious, cases of golfers clearly unable to break 90 from playing.
But besides the expected knee-jerk reaction, what else might come of the USGA’s decision? Ballengee suspects handicaps will balloon and fewer players will purchase the capability to own a handicap through a GHIN-affiliated agency or state golf association. Again, he’s likely right in both instances, and while the second is possibly cause for concern, I’m not sure rising handicaps is necessarily a bad thing.  
If the only time you use your handicap is in a competition or during money matches with your buddies, does it not make sense to have a handicap that reflects how well you play in competition - when something is actually on the line?
For golfers who have posted solo scores for many years, I totally understand why the USGA’s new rule is upsetting. You enjoy the solitude, and your schedule might not always match that of your friends. But, as we all know, a downhill four-foot putt looks very different when it really matters than it does when you’re out for a quick nine holes by yourself. As Ballengee said in his column, you don’t want to be playing for money with a handicap that in no way reflects how well you actually play the game. Sure, you can shoot 72 when no one’s looking and you might inadvertently miss a couple of unfamiliar rules, but you don’t want to be giving your opponents too many strokes when you’re actually closer to an 80-shooter.
I’ve also heard people keep a handicap purely to keep track of their own progress, not for competitive play. Fair enough, but why spend money on obtaining a handicap when you don’t actually use it? Just adopt your own system, and keep track of your handicap on a spreadsheet.
I suspect this rule change will ultimately have much the same impact on golf and golfers as the USGA/R&A’s decision to ban anchoring the putter. It doesn’t seem right or fair to begin with, and a good many people will most definitely be negatively affected. But we’ll find a way to keep playing and enjoying the game, because we love it so much.
Capps likewise believes the initial reaction has been a little too spontaneous perhaps. “Once the initial shock of this announcement goes away and whiny millennials get over themselves, things will go back to business as usual,” he says. “And R&A members will stiffen their upper lips and let us know this was how it was supposed to be all along.”

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