Friday, September 11, 2015

How Golf Handicaps Changed the World: A Parable

It was a cold and wintry London night.  Inside at the British Museum Reading Room, Karl Marx found his mind  muddled by a fog as dense as that on the Thames. He stared at the blank paper before him  and questioned whether he was capable of formulating a new economic system.

Seeking inspiration,  Marx paced through the stacks where he happened upon an R&A member, Reggie Threepwood, who was researching his lineage back to the Duke of Norfolk. Somehow the conversation turned to golf and its peculiar handicap system.  Reggie railed against the injustice he suffered in his latest two-ball and patiently explained how the handicap system worked.  “It takes strokes from each according to ability, and gives strokes to each according to need,” Reggie scoffed.  Marx abruptly announced with elation "I have found my muse," and rushed back to his desk to begin writing. 
After Marx’s departure, Reggie detailed how the handicap system was plagued by greed, sloth, acceptance of mediocrity, and unethical behavior. These are the same human frailties that would eventually doom Marx’s new economic order.  Greed shows itself when those in charge do not distribute resources evenly.  Reggie complained prize money was awarded equally to low-gross and low-net players in a recent tournament.  Since he carried a 14-handicap, he had no chance for a gross prize. He had to grovel with the other net players for the few crumbs set aside for them.  “The Committee believes all players are equal, but some players are more equal than others,” he groused.

Reggie continued his harangue to a small group of mostly disinterested listeners.  He posited the handicap system promoted sloth.  He had lost his recent two-ball match to Colonel Emsworth whose handicap had risen through lackadaisical play.  “If you play poorly long enough,” Reggie harrumphed, “you are most certainly going to win.”  More disturbing to Reggie was the Colonel was not embarrassed by his victory and accepted his mediocrity with aplomb. “This tore at the very fabric that made England great and did not portend well for the future of the nation,” Reggie lectured.

The Colonel did lose his next match to Sir Bernard Twistleton, the Earl of Sandbag.  This gave Reggie no comfort since the Earl was notorious for playing poorly in four-balls when his partner had the hole well in hand.  This unethical behavior gave the Earl “a couple of strokes in the bag” he could pull out when needed.  He had never lost a match when more than a quid was at stake.  Reggie believed the Earl was not corrupted by the usual suspects, liquor and gaming, but by a more insidious temptress, the handicap system. 

Reggie recounted his complaints about the handicap system to the Club Secretary, Captain Wodehouse.  Captain Wodehouse was sympathetic to Reggie’s cause.  He had long been amused by the foibles of the aristocratic members.  There were a few who kept their handicap unrealistically low.  These were the men whose every conversation ultimately turned to their time at Eton.  More common were members who treated a reduction in handicap like dipping their toe in the icy North Sea and quickly retreating to shore and the comfort of their customary handicap.

Captain Wodehouse’s theory was confirmed by the work of economist Angus Loaffer.  Loaffer had developed an eponymous curve relating golf winnings to a player’s handicap.   Loaffer sketched his curve on a napkin for the Captain at his going away party-Loaffer was emigrating to America.  It showed any movement in a player’s handicap from his optimum resulted in losses.  If a player’s handicap decreases, the player loses an edge.  If the player’s handicap increases, opposing players either lower the stakes or boycott him altogether.  Therefore, players tend to find their optimum handicap and stay there.  The discussion with Reggie reminded the Captain that Loaffer never did pay the incidental charge for the napkin on his closing bill.  To his credit, Loafer had followed the Captain's suggestion and dropped the “o” from his surname at Ellis Island so it was no longer a synonym for indolence.  Since Loaffer had proved so amendable to his advice, the Captain would return the favor and write-off the napkin as a miscellaneous expense.   
As Club Secretary, however, the Captain was duty bound to defend the status quo so he argued “Only a handicap system can ensure equitable competition between players of different abilities.”  Reggie thought this a small benefit, however, since scratch players rarely troll the locker room looking for a 36-handicap to fill out the foursome.  Players of equal ability tend to group together mirroring the rigid hierarchical social structure in England. “Within my level of play,” Reggie countered, “I find it more equitable to negotiate strokes rather than rely on handicap cards.  If we can agree on strokes, then both players think it a fair contract. When you ask a player his handicap, you put his honor stake.  If he hits shots inconsistent with his handicap claim, he is to be avoided in the future.  If you rely on the handicap system, then you put the onus for accuracy on the handicap card and not the player where it should be.” 

Captain Wodehouse then gave Reggie a hypothetical.  Say you meet a stranger on the first tee at St. Andrews.  Without a handicap system, how could you ensure a fair match?  Reggie was not swayed.  “First, I see a stranger as a potential friend and not a potential mark.  There is no better bonding experience than navigating the perils of the Old Course together.  I want to commiserate if he finds himself in Hell Bunker, and not benefit from his misfortune.  Meeting people on the first tee is one of the great pleasures of golf.  To spoil it by suggesting a bet should be grounds for expulsion from the R&A.”   

Captain Wodehouse saw Reggie remained unconvinced and tried another tack.  “Without the portability of handicaps our Member/Guest would not be possible,” the Captain argued.  Reggie, however, viewed this as a good thing.  At the last Member/Guest he had to stand in a food line like some waif from a Dickens’ novel.   Then there was his brother-in-law he was obligated to invite who for one week a year had an unquenchable thirst for the most expensive single malt scotch the club had to offer.  The only saving grace of abundant liquor was it made you overlook the winner who sported a 20-handicap and had a swing like old Tom Morris.  “I was just lucky,” he will say.  Reggie thought the winner of any large field event should be fitted for leg irons rather than given a trophy.  No, the Member/Guest could go the way of the Dodo bird and Reggie would be fine with it.

Though his audience had dwindled to a few, Reggie mused about the other sports he enjoyed—football, rugby, billiards, lawn tennis, and croquet.  None labored under the yoke of a handicap system yet continued to thrive and be enjoyed by multitudes.  “Why is golf different,” he wondered.  Could golf ever become so pure players abandoned the handicap system?  He saw it as unlikely for two reasons.  First, the other sports he enjoyed did not require vast tracts of land or large on-going maintenance expenditures.  To make a golf club financially viable, there needed to be a large number of members.  In most cases that required recruiting bad golfers to join.  An attractive and necessary inducement for membership would be the handicap system that makes even the novice player competitive, a status he might never earn in other sports.  Second, he foresaw a burgeoning bureaucracy whose very existence rested on the sale of handicaps.  Handicap sales will beget handicap tournaments which will beget more handicap sales, and so on.  The bureaucracy will ensure a handicap is to golf what a deed is to property ownership. You cannot be without it.

Reggie ended what was now a soliloquy by enjoining, “The handicap system is here to stay, but there are ways to keep one’s integrity and minimize the system’s downside.  Try to find players of similar ability and convince them to play matches at scratch or at negotiated handicaps.  Use your handicap as a measure of performance and not as a cudgel for extracting insignificant pecuniary gains from your fellow competitors.  And to retain self-esteem after a series of losses, remember winners of handicap events are either lucky or have an unscrupulous handicap.  Neither is a cause for celebration.”  

Postscript:  Marx went on to finish his seminal work, Das Kapital.  The movement it inspired led to much misery and death in the 20th century.  In Marx’s defense, turgid economic treatises are rarely the cause of such mayhem, and that is probably the case here.  The Laffer (nee Loaffer) Curve finally found its niche when it related tax revenue to tax rates.  The theory behind the curve, termed Supply Side Economics, was the driving force behind the boom in the American economy which ironically led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  Captain Wodehouse’s journal about life at the club was eventually passed to his grandson Pelham, known familiarly as P.G.  It may have been the basis for some of P.G’s farcical novels.  As for Reggie, he fell to his death while trying to retrieve his guttie at a cliffside golf course near Cornwall.  At the inquest, his playing companion testified Reggie only searched for his guttie as a diversion will waiting for a dawdling twosome to clear the green.  While slow play couldn’t be listed as the cause of death, it was certainly a contributing factor. His home club placed a plaque in his memory on the first tee.  It read:

Reginald “Reggie” Threepwood

He played golf the way it was meant to be played, with honour and quickly.

Please do the same.

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