Tuesday, February 2, 2016

On Playing Golf Alone: A Sermon

Proverbs 18:1 teaches us “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire.”  The USGA has interpreted this to mean “Whoever plays by himself probably seeks to unduly increase his handicap” and has ruled such scores cannot be posted.   This ruling has not gone without reproach.  The Canadian Golf Association has tweeted “scores made while playing alone will continue to count for handicap purposes.”  Jerry Tarde, editor of Golf Digest wrote (2/2016):

Presumably (the USGA believes) you have to be watched to ensure you are not cheating.  Isn’t honesty the backbone of the game we all love?

I believe Mr. Tarde has failed to make the distinction between Golf and Handicap Golf.  Honesty is the backbone of Golf.  The stories of players disqualifying themselves for violations only they had seen are numerous and legendary.  Handicap Golf has no similar tales of a competitor refusing a prize because he knew he had unfairly increased his handicap.
The origin of the handicap system is unknown.  One story, and it may be apocryphal, is a serpent first offered players a handicap system in the guise of an apple.  The arguments the serpent made in support of the handicap system are not known in any detail, but are likely similar to those advanced by Mr. Tarde:

The genius of handicapping is that it allows everybody, no matter their ability, to compete against each other in golf.  You can play matches against (and beat)…Jordan Spieth.

Handicap Golf was not to be a game of skill, but a game of chance where the odds could be manipulated by the unethical player.  This was persuasive to many players and they consumed the apple down to its core.  Having tasted this forbidden fruit, however, they were cast out of the Garden of Golf.  They would never again tread the same ground as Francis Ouimet and Bobby Jones.  Instead, they were doomed to journey through life in the company of nefarious characters who were more than likely to pilfer their purse as they slept. 

The USGA has long recognized man’s moral imperfection and has taken steps to minimize its impact on Handicap Golf.  It developed penalties for exceptional tournament performance.  It limited the number of strokes a player can take on a hole to make handicap manipulation more difficult.  It insisted on peer review, and has now made a minor change by disallowing scores made when playing alone.  The USGA’s recent action is both proper and of little consequence.  As many Member/Guests prove, original sin will always be more powerful than the USGA Handicap System.

There are two thoughts I want to leave you with.  First, it is not the handicap system that is at fault.  Would you blame cars for drunken drivers or knives for Jack the Ripper?  It is up to you to use the handicap system responsibly and avoid those who do not.  Second, if you are fortunate enough to play alone some summer evening, think only of the joy this great game brings—the satisfaction of a solidly hit drive, the thump of well struck bunker shot, and the God-created beauty that surrounds you.  To stress over whether the round can be posted insults God’s handiwork and demonstrates a desperate need for therapy.   Amen.   


  1. Lawrence, I enjoy your in-depth analysis on handicapping.

    Where the USGA really drops the ball on this is that they make no distinction on who you're playing with. I play golf with my wife, or a complete stranger, and I get to post my score. Play solo, and I don't.

    As it related to my handicap, the fact that I played with those two different people have no bearing on anything. My wife doesn't verify that I'm entering my scores accurately, and the stranger has no idea who I am, so he cannot verify my score

    1. It is easy to manipulate one's handicap. The restriction on "playing alone" makes it just a little less easy. You can see how unworkable the system would be if it put restrictions on who you played with. Your system based on league scores seems very workable and fair.

  2. I often play alone, for a couple of reasons. First, I have a very people-intensive job, so it's nice to escape, listen to the birds twitter, and not speak to another human for hours. Second, my schedule is such that I have to squeeze out to the course whenever I can, without the time to necessarily coordinate with others.

    I post all of my scores, but I also carry a handicap 100% for myself. I play in a tournament less than once a year, and it's almost always a scramble. I seek not to raise my score to help in a tournament, but rather to lower my score. Golf is a lifelong journey of self-improvement, and part of that is to strive for a better handicap.

    So, I play alone a lot, post all of my scores, and it has no impact on anyone except myself.

    1. I wish I had the authority to offer absolution. You use the handicap system to measure your ability and not as a weapon to bludgeon your pals in a $5 Nassau. Good for you. There are others who use the "play alone" tactic to increase their handicap. The USGA reasoned since you can't play alone in a tournament, you should not be able to post when playing alone. Does this restriction guarantee the sanctity of the handicap system? Not by a long shot.

  3. I play better when I play alone, way less time between shots. Therefore; my handicap is lower than it should be. I play in Canada so I have to post the score even if I'm alone.