Arizona Cardinals wide receiver and future first-ballot hall-of-famer Larry Fitzgerald teamed up with Kevin Streelman to win the 2018 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am on Sunday, demolishing the field by seven shots with a four-round, better-net total of 41-under 246. The duo overcame a tough two-shot loss the year prior to Ken Duke and Carson Daly, cruising with a team final-round 59 at Pebble Beach Golf Links as Streelman locked up a sixth-place finish in the individual portion of the event.
Streelman finished at 13 under for the week, making 15 birdies on his own and obviously getting no strokes. Fitzgerald accounted, then, for at least 26 shots to the good for the team total, including gross and net scores that were better than his partner’s throughout the tournament. (On some holes, Fitzgerald could have made a natural birdie like Streelman and earned a net eagle with a stroke. A Fitz par with a stroke means a net birdie that beats a gross par from Streelman, etc.) That basically amounts to six or seven shots per round. That’s a big contribution.
Of course, for the better golfer who has seen a movie like this before, the first thought is to wonder if Larry Fitzgerald, who was getting 13 shots per round in the pro-am competition, is a sandbagging son of a gun.
On first glance at his public GHIN numbers, it doesn’t look good. Fitzgerald carried a 10.6 index heading into the event, and that does translate to 13 strokes per round on Pebble Beach from the tees the amateurs played. While that translation isn’t amiss, Fitzgerald’s handicap history chart shows what would be a suspicious, sudden uptick in his handicap index, particularly since the NFL season ended. After all, before Week 1 this season, Fitzgerald had improved down to a 6.6 index. Had he played the pro-am with that index, he would get five less shots per round, and maybe someone else wins instead.
The first thought is typically that someone in this situation punched in a bunch of bad rounds before the pro-am, jacked up the handicap index and got bonus strokes he used to perfect on the Monterey. Scam sniffed out, right?
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Well, it’s more complicated than that, and that’s precisely why I said on Twitter that Fitzgerald was getting too many strokes, not that he is a sandbagger.
Larry Fitzgerald entered at least 18 — likely more — scores into GHIN in January. The NFL season was over, and he had time to play. He didn’t play as well as he could, playing through an early golf season slump of some kind. He played in the Diamond Resorts Invitational in Orlando in January, and he scored poorly in their modified Stableford scoring format. The golf wasn’t good. And since your handicap index is based on the 10 best/lowest-differential rounds out of your last 20 (then multiplied by 0.96), Fitzgerald’s lousy January wiped out all of his good scores from last summer in a hurry. His handicap index went up in a hurry, and it happened in a way most recreational players who aren’t retirees wouldn’t understand. So, he went to Pebble with a 10.6 index, and then he found something apparently, and he played great all week.
That doesn’t mean Fitzgerald is a sandbagger. It means he got too many strokes for his skill level. He’s clearly capable of shooting in the mid-to-upper 70s when he plays well, so getting 13 shots was too many. But given his current form, getting only 8 was probably too low. How, though, is a tournament director supposed to know that when assigning handicaps?
Part of the problem is our handicapping system. Our handicapping system in the United States looks at your best 10 rounds out of your last 20 (if you’ve recorded that many), and it assesses your skill based on those. That doesn’t work for a variety of different potential reasons. In Fitzgerald’s case, four bad weeks of golf obscured clearly very good scores during the late summer. However, the USGA system cares more about recency than a longer arc of scores.
That longer arc can work against players who don’t get to play much. Take me for example. My handicap index should probably be anywhere from 3-5 points higher because I don’t get to play as much as I once did pre-kids. When I play, I could turn in a good score or a clunker, and it’s hard to predict what will happen. However, because I have a bunch of good scores from 12-16 months ago, it takes a while for the newer dud scores to mean anything to my index. By then, I might have a week where I play a bunch, score well a few times and screw myself all over again.
The USGA handicap system should look at a long-term arc of time, not a frame of reference based on a total number of rounds. Look at a player’s scores over a year, whatever they are and however many there are. Instead of picking the top half of rounds and calculating index from that, the middle half of rounds played should be considered and an index drawn from them. If it could be helpful, perhaps weight the most recent rounds a little higher than older rounds in that one-year span. This way, handicap indexes are based on a player’s typical performance, not the outliers. This could help eliminate vanity handicaps, or ones, like mine, that look like a vanity handicap. It couldn’t prevent sandbagging, but it might make it offer less incentive to do so because a player’s index will naturally fluctuate toward the mean instead of get ruined by a sudden rash of good golf.
Of course, any winner in a net-score golf events get the side-eye from the other teams. That’s how it works. And identifying players’ handicaps is really tricky for tournament directors, which is why they almost never give full handicap to a player. But if our handicap system more capably addressed the real, normal skill level of players, there would be less finger pointing.