Monday, 7 October 2013

Just give me a number: our obsession with handicaps

There is only one question in the English language that is impossible for golfers to answer with a single word, and that is: What’s your handicap?

It doesn’t matter if it is being asked at stylish Cypress Point or at some beat-to-hell muni on the Jersey Shore. It doesn’t make a difference if the person being queried has the bluest blood in Boston or a lineage that includes three consecutive generations of felons. If he plays this wonderful game, he is incapable of providing a simple number and leaving it at that.

“Well, I’m an 8 now, but I was a 6 at the start of the summer,” a reply might begin. “But I hurt my wrist taking out the garbage a few weeks ago and can’t really turn the ball over. Actually, I should be a 10.”
Or you have the self-proclaimed comedian who wants to show everyone how funny he is. “My handicap?” he asks. “It’s bad breath and a very short . . . attention span.”

Multiply either of those comments by four, and you have the weekend morning scene at most first tees in the country, with some poor slob with a scorecard and pencil desperately trying to discern the pertinent stroke information as he listens to more obfuscation than a Bill Clinton press conference.

“What is my handicap?,” the former First Golfer might ask. “It depends what your definition of ‘is’ is.”
And you’d think any riddles about handicaps would quickly be solved once play actually starts. But people rarely seem to have the handicap they say they do. There are the 15s who drill their drives 290 yards down the middle and the 5s who dribble tee shots between their legs. I know of entire clubs dominated by sandbaggers whose handicaps are so criminally high they should be in witness protection programs. I once played against a member of one such club, and thought we had a pretty good game going until he had a 60-yard pitch to the hole on No. 15. But then he asked his caddie not only to mark my ball, which was only a few feet from the cup, but also to take out the stick. Then the man, who said he was a 14, damn near holed his shot. He went on to win the remaining three holes, leaving me $10 poorer and more than a little chagrined. But he was just one of the guys at his place, because golf to them was mostly about winning.

Conversely, there are clubs where vanity is king and the handicap numbers are much lower than they should be. Too bad if someone loses $20 on a Saturday bet; they still have that 6 in the computer, which in their mind is akin to pulling up in a fully loaded Lexus. We have a few of those at my place, and it’s always a hoot watching them on the first hole. They conduct deep discussions about their respective indexes, all of which are as out of sync with reality as their perceptions of their own games, and then they play from the back tees. Problem is, there is rarely a time when more than one of those hackers actually lands a ball in the fairway, and that’s with everybody taking at least one mulligan.

It must be mentioned, however, that even the most honest golfers can suddenly get hot or cold, and there is nothing the rest of us can do when that happens but cringe. Such as the time a colleague, a legitimate 16 handicapper, played Carnoustie in a foursome that included a Scottish acquaintance and shot 110. Flash forward to Royal Birkdale a year later. The Scotsman had invited the American, still a 16, to join several U.K. journalists in a Stableford event. This time, the 16 carded a 78, won all the money and nearly got lynched. “They all wanted to kill me,” he says with a wry smile. “But they were really after the guy who invited me.”

While having too high a handicap can be hazardous to your health, having one too low can be just as dicey, as my friend Stratford learned one day last summer when he came home to announce he had dropped to a 1. He beamed proudly as he delivered the news, but his wife quickly set him in his place.

“You ought to be embarrassed to carry a handicap that is lower than the number of children you have,” she said sharply. Then she handed him a kid.

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