Road Hole Shorts

Golf Design, golf, golf, GOLF


By Mary Armstrong

Published in the Las Cruces Sun-News 10/07/2011


If this headline started your heart beating a little quicker or made your eyes squint and lips purse, you’ve probably either been accused or have accused someone of being a sandbagger.  There are fewer subjects in golf that are more hotly debated than the handicap system. 

The USGA established the first handicap system in 1912.  The methodology was improved in 1987.  During that time, you established a handicap and played to that number wherever you went.  That number – expressed in whole digits like 15 – was an indication of what a given player could expect to score relative to an expert player.  So if an expert player (Course Rating) was expected to score 71 on a given course, the player in question would probably score somewhere around 86. 

As golfers began playing in more handicapped events it became clear that the system didn’t account fully for the differences in difficulty in golf courses.  A very good example of this problem is offered by the USGA on their “Our Experts Explain” webpage.  The comparison is made between Pinehurst #2, which has no water hazards, and The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, which has many forced water carries and sand everywhere.  While both courses are difficult, and an expert player might not score significantly different between them, a player whose tee shot carries only about 150 yards and not always down the fairway would be another story.  The Slope Rating is basically a modifier on the old handicap system to account for this discrepancy and the result is termed a Handicap Index.  So, a player with an index of 1.5 would have a course handicap of 2 at Pinehurst #2 and Sawgrass, but someone with a 25.9 index would have a 31 at Pinehurst #2 and a 36 at Sawgrass.  Now that is a whopping 5 stroke difference! 

There have been other improvements in the system as well.  One is the Equitable Stroke Control.  Depending upon your handicap index, you cannot take a score on a given hole higher than “X”.  If you are playing in a tournament, you still must report your actual score, but when you post your score for handicap purposes you must adjust any scores that exceed the allowable score for your handicap at the particular course you are playing.  So, if your handicap index is around 10, your maximum allowable score may change from a double bogey to a 7 depending upon the difficulty of the course you are playing.  But, there are still areas where math and computers aren’t the total answer.  Human judgement is sometimes required.

If you are interested in more information, the USGA Website ( is easy to navigate and easy to understand.  I highly recommend club officials get the “straight poop” on this issue which will at some point become vitally important.  In fact, the USGA recommends that each Golf Club (private course or not) have a Handicap Committee, comprised of fellow golfers.  They (not your proshop staff) are intended to be the first line of defense in maintaining the integrity of the Handicap System.

A few years ago, I was on a handicap committee and we had a situation where a player was consistently winning “Net” events.  There were numerous complaints of “sandbagging”.  The committee investigated the situation discretely and found that the player rarely played stroke play unless he was playing in a tournament.  He played in a match play league and on weekends often played for “skins”.  “Skins” are a game within the game where the player within a group (your own foursome or within a larger group) that scores the lowest on a given hole is awarded a prize – usually in the form of a relatively small wager.  Both of these types of play can result in more erratic scoring on a hole by hole basis.  This will usually result in higher recorded scores since the player is more interested in achieving the lowest score on a given hole and not necessarily the lowest score for all 18 holes. 

The committee’s first directive was for the player to turn in scorecards for each round.  After reviewing several scorecards, it became apparent that the player had several maximum scores (and few birdies as well) on each card.  The committee concluded that his scoring did not accurately reflect his potential in stroke play and referred the matter on to the regional amateur golf association for a recommendation.  The result was an adjustment to the player’s handicap.  Often the most difficult aspect of dealing with handicap issues is the rumor mill.  The handicap committee must be wholly equitable and most importantly removed from peer pressure and cliques.  An open inquiring mind and a sympathetic heart are tools of the trade. 

But, make no mistake; an active handicap committee is imperative at every golf course and every golf course should be concerned that when there members play in events outside of their Club that the accuracy of that member’s handicap reflects on the Club’s integrity as a whole.

When making an accusation or receiving an accusation of sandbagging, take time to reflect on the situation without emotion.  Often there are explanations and cheating isn’t necessarily the reason.  The handicap system and recording scores properly can seem complicated, but a few moments of reading is all that is really necessary. 

A golf architect in New Hampshire for over 20 years, Armstrong brought her craft to Las Cruces in January 2010.  She is the founder of Armstrong Golf Architects, which provides planning, designing, permitting and construction monitoring services for golf course projects.  You can comment on her writing and view past articles at her blog:


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