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.