18 Good Things About Golf: No. 7

Strokes: member-guest, 2011.

7. Golf, like all sports, is perfectly meritocratic: If you shoot the best score, you win. At the same time, though, golf is highly socialistic. In fact, it’s the world’s only welfare state that works. The U.S.G.A.’s handicapping system takes strokes from each according his ability and gives them to each according to his need—communism with a human face. Unlike raw capitalism, golf has figured out how to foster individual achievement without smothering the hopes of those who can’t keep up. Like most golfers, I am proud to give strokes yet unashamed to receive them.

Because of handicaps, competitive matches can be played by players of greatly different levels of skill. If Rory McIlroy, for some reason, could find no one else to play with, he could play with me and, after spotting me one or two dozen strokes, still hope to have an interesting contest. Golf is the only sport I know of in which direct competition between pros and amateurs, or between men and women, or between adults and children, or between young women and old men, or between old women and touring professionals, is routinely feasible. The use of different tees makes it possible to adapt the course to the abilities of the players, and the handicapping system allows further adjustments. As a result, you can play golf on an equal footing not only with your wife but also with your kids or grandkids. Thus, golf simultaneously enhances sexual parity (important to liberals) and traditional family values (ditto to conservatives).

You’d think that a system designed to facilitate gambling among strangers would be fatally vulnerable to inconsistencies and abuses. In fact, though, the handicapping system, like the post office, works better than we have any right to expect. I often play nassaus with people I don’t know—people whose ideas about reportable scores may differ wildly from my own—and yet, far more often than the laws of probability would predict, our matches come down to the final press or the final hole or the final putt. How does that happen?

The explanation, I believe, is that human nature makes the handicap system almost magically self-correcting. A golfer with a pop has a mindset different from that of a golfer playing naked. Players with too many strokes inevitably find ways to waste them, and players with too few are often inspired to shoot better than they know how. (Ben Hogan—or was it Sam Snead?—once played a match with an amateur who complained that he wasn’t receiving enough strokes, and Snead—or was it Gene Sarazen?—replied, “Then you’re just going to have to play harder.”) Every club has its sandbaggers, chiselers, pretenders, and poseurs, but, over the course of a season or two, the bets tend to even out. One way or another, most of us manage to live up or down to our innermost expectations.

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