Handicaps cause more problems than they solve – let’s do away with them

The Scoop

According to our resident Foghorn, Tom Irwin, the handicap system is a source of arguments and a barrier to social mobility

The move to a maximum handicap of 54 is, I believe, a necessity with worldwide handicapping around the corner. In reality, it will only affect those starting out in the game as they see themselves improving against the sport’s given system of measurement.

The handicap system is held up as one of golf’s great virtues. The argument goes that having a handicap allows players of all abilities to play, compete and socialise with one another in a way that is not possible in other sports. True enough, in any Saturday swindle there will be a spread of handicaps. These things have merit but my long-held belief is that handicaps cause more problems than they solve.

In matchplay, if the person off the higher mark wins they instinctively know that ‘I would have lost off stick end’. It is not like they have legitimately scalped the scratch man.

In turn, he will often hide behind the very same excuse of ‘well he should be at least two shots lower’.

It is similar to an FA Cup giant-killing when the top side has fielded a weakened team. Yes, OK, they lost but it was only their academy team so not proper, really.

They also feed the elitist attitude that the sport is associated with. Having a handicap gives everyone a number and there is something slightly dystopian about that.

Golf handicap

We have created a sporting environment where your relative ability is known to all. It is like going to the gym with your BMI stamped on your forehead. Anyone who has read Lord of the Flies knows that nobody wants to be friends with the fat kid and no one wants to play with the nerds with handicaps in the 20s. We all want to hang around with the cool kids in Category One.

Worse, it creates a divide between what we have taken to calling ‘members’ and ‘nomads’.

England Golf are very keen that we just start to talk about ‘golfers’ and the presence of a ‘proper’ club handicap is a big reason we can’t.

In Series 3, Episode 1 of Charlie Brooker’s amazing Black Mirror, he depicts a world where our social standing, jobs we can apply for, houses we can buy, is dictated by our online social score.

Likes on Facebook essentially determine your class. The golf handicap system is a bit like that.  A low handicap opens doors and commands instant respect. I play off scratch and do I want to be associated with anything worse than a 7? Or, worse still, one of those trifling Golfshake types? No, thank you, sir.

Some will say we need a handicap system for proper competitions to be possible. Well, if anything the sport is blighted by competition. There is too much of it. Let us just play.

The threat of .1 is the biggest cause of stress is my life. Missing a buffer zone ruins entire weeks of my life, not to mention my family’s.

If I could just shoot 82 in peace without the darkness of a HANDICAP INCREASE looming over me my life would be much better. I play 20 or so competitive rounds a year. All are super-stressful occasions because of the looming potential of .1

The winter medals at our club are non-qualifiers. Amazing! We just go and play and our handicaps are unaffected. What a pleasure.

Golf handicap

It is competition that means that handicaps cause all manner of arguments and give rise to all kinds of unpalatable, small-minded behavior – those that sandbag, those that avoid playing in less than perfect conditions, those that scream ‘bandit’ when someone from a higher mark than them wins the hideous, engraved tankard on Captain’s Day…

If we all just played and we shot what we shot, all this would go away. The best player on the day would win and we would have one less thing to fall out about.

The same players would always win though. Well, actually they wouldn’t would they, and so what if they do?

That is what happens in amateur athletics, amateur cycling – indeed, any other sport. The fastest, best people win and the rest of us benchmark against ourselves, because, do you know what, we are all limited by different things – be they ability, physique, time, money, desperation or dedication – so the idea of one amateur competing fairly with another is a falsehood anyway.

If we need to segregate on ability, then let’s do what football does and create arbitrary leagues and everyone can move up and down at season end. One day you might be even be good enough to get promoted to a professional league. But then, frankly, why do we have professional and amateur status anyway?

I’m not going to get started, that is for another Foghorn.

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