Going it alone: How the USGA is penalizing the lonely golfer with handicap changes
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Going it alone: How the USGA is penalizing the lonely golfer with handicap changes

Golfers are supposed to be special, demonstrating the kind of God-fearing reverence for the sport's rules that only a driving school instructor could otherwise appreciate.

We keep our own scores. We call penalties on ourselves. We'd rather do the right thing than win. Supposedly.

Well, the USGA called B.S. on all of that on Monday, announcing six key changes to how handicaps are formulated, including the news that scores shot by a golfer playing by themselves will no longer count toward their handicap index starting in 2016.

Or, in the USGA's words:

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.

If you play alone, you're a cheating bum. Get a friend, jerk. And make it a friend with a USGA handicap so they can attest to your score. Because if they're not, you may as well have done yardwork instead -- your round doesn't count, buddy.

Golf has way bigger problems than this.

For starters, there's the decline -- albeit leveling decline -- of participation. Maybe it's because apparently playing alone is a bigger deal than working with golf course operators and owners to foster a welcoming, nurturing environment where noobs don't feel like they need a passport to travel into the foreign territory of Golfcoursica.

How about golf courses that are way too long for the average player? There are way too many people who shot 105 on the reg that insist on playing from 6,700 yards. And we're still stigmatizing the forward tees, like they're a worse place to be than an eHarmony date -- not just one gone wrong, but any eHarmony date.

Then there's the issue of accessing a quality course at a decent rate. Operators are tired of forking over tee times to GolfNow at self-cut-throating rates so they can land a few Hot Deal play-and-runs. Players have seen the effect that their lust for lower green fees has done to their courses. How can municipal and other low-cost facilities upgrade their courses without having to pour out obscene amounts for upkeep, including greens that run way too fast for the average player to decipher and enjoy in a reasonable amount of time?

Oh yeah, the pace of play issue. Golf takes 6 hours on many tracks nationwide on the weekend. That sounds like heaven to almost all of us -- especially if we were playing 27 or 36 instead of 18 -- but reality isn't that delightful for most people with all the other crap we have to do. Finding time to find someone to play with who has a USGA index and then actually playing with them is just another thing to add to the list.

And that's all to say nothing of the needed bifurcation of the Rules of Golf, including separate equipment standards for pros and high amateurs. But, alright, let's cut solo golfers off at the knees.

Fine, fine. Let's focus on the problem at hand.

It would seem the USGA wants to prohibit players, particularly as especially lofty country clubs, from posting scores that don't represent their talent level. Of course, that's sandbagging, an offense punishable by ostracism, or, in the event that you post scores better than your talent level, reverse sandbagging, which really just costs the offender money because they don't get the right number of shots in all the money games -- yes, golfers gamble -- and tournaments they play.

But sandbaggers can still find a shovel and some bags anytime they want, even with friends. You see, intent doesn't factor into the Rules of Golf (until it does, but that's another issue!), so a sandbagger can still pump a few stray balls into a water hazard and, in a seemingly innocuous fashion, jack up their score. Oh, I was just frustrated late in the round. I had to try that hero shot! Hell, sandbaggers don't even need the Rules to perform an (un)timely three-jack, or two, or three. Stub a chip.

If a sandbagger were really committed to defiling their index, they could just post the better (or worse) nine of an 18-hole round. Practice nine. Emergency nine afterward. Take your pick.

And the guys who reverse sandbag, even incidentally, are really just hurting themselves, and I'm a prime example. Three years ago, before my first child was born, I was playing the best golf of my life. I was right around scratch. Fatherhood has sent the number of rounds I play into the toilet. So I post less. Which means my index doesn't go up as quickly as it should. Which kills me in our league nights because I have to make birdies and eagles to contribute. Finally the scores are coming off, but the index lags my performance by a year. It's costing me two or three shots per round, and that means I go to the hip more often. I'd prefer not to be a donator.

It's also pretty evident that most people play better by themselves than with someone else, especially when something, anything is on the line. However, the handicap rules only bifurcate golf into two types of rounds: tournament and regular. Well, there are at least three. Accounting for leagues, regular games and other money matches is way more important to someone's index. The USGA is trying to get there with this change but are killing routinely solo golfers in the process.

But, outside of a fastidious committee at a competitive country club, how could the USGA enforce this? Public players can just get whoever to sign a card, just like they say they've read the Terms & Conditions on Facebook, and post. It could be alone. Who's going to audit all this stuff? What about gimmes? The marshals at public facilities will have to turn into rules officials, too. Perhaps they'll inspect players' bags for extra clubs every six holes.

There are so many people who don't have the luxury of playing golf with other people, when everyone's schedules align. They hop on a local course after work for a twilight nine or 12 or 14. They, like I do, get in a side when things die down in the afternoon.

Hell, some golfers just prefer playing by themselves. It's peaceful. It's a time to think and reflect on other stuff, and golf. That doesn't make us occasionally-antisocial sandbaggers or our scores any less valid.

Ultimately, this decision will probably have a net negative impact on the sport. Nomad golfers who don't have a home club or a regular game are less likely to purchase indexing privileges through a GHIN-affiliated agency or another state-based golf association since most of their rounds won't count. Handicaps will probably balloon. And through it all, indexes may actually be less reflective of a player's skill because, like me as a dad, they'll post less scores.

But I'll keep on playing alone. And like the guy in that FedEx ad, I'll be saying to myself, Don't count that.

About the author


Ryan Ballengee

Ryan Ballengee is founder and editor of Golf News Net. He has been writing and broadcasting about golf for over a decade, working for NBC Sports, Golf Channel, Yahoo Sports and SB Nation. Ballengee lives in the Washington, D.C. area with his family. He used to be a good golfer.

Ballengee can be reached by email at ryan[at]thegolfnewsnet.com

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