Your Golf Course is Too Long For You

Every October since 2000, the Sunday Morning Group has taken an end-of-season weekend golf trip to Atlantic City.
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For the past four years, we’ve allowed every player on the trip to play from any set of tees. Some guys worried at first that our matches and team competitions would be unfair unless everyone was “playing the same course.” But we have discovered that, as long as you calculate the handicaps correctly, the competition actually works better if golfers are able to make rational decisions about the trade-off between course yardage and handicap strokes. And that’s true even when the skill spread is huge. (Handicaps this year ranged from 0 to more than 30.)

Our experience aligns perfectly with the findings of the USGA and the PGA of America, which in 2011 introduced Tee It Forward, an initiative that “encourages players to play from a set of tees best suited to their driving distance.” According to the USGA:

I firmly believe all of that. But there are reasons you haven’t heard much about Tee It Forward since 2011, and the main one is probably the USGA’s semi-incomprehensible two-step system for calculating course handicaps when players compete from different tees. Virtually no one understands how the USGA’s system works, including, in my experience, most PGA of America head professionals. My friends and I are able to do what we do mainly because Tim, who is SMG’s mathematician-in-residence, created an Excel spreadsheet that does all the figgerin’ in the background and eliminates a potentially huge rounding error inherent in the USGA’s method. Every player on the trip, before we leave home, receives a handicap for every set of tees on every course we’re going to play, and is then free to choose:

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Another impediment to Teeing It Forward is that most golf courses stigmatize their forward tees by suggesting that they’re intended only for certain players — as at Twisted Dune, in Egg Harbor Township (a course we nevertheless all love):

It’s far, far better to rate all sets of tees for both men and women, and to give the tees gender-and-age-neutral names—as at Wintonbury Hills, in Bloomfield, Connecticut:

One discovery we’ve made during the past four years is that virtually all players, including many with single-digit handicaps, play better and have more fun if they move up — even way up. At Twisted Dune, Addison, who hits his driver 300 yards and has USGA Handicap Index of 0.4, played the black tees, from which the course measures 7,300 yards. But Brendan (8.3), Tim (12.3), and I (7.1) all played the “Senior Tees”—the yellows —from which the course is 1,500 yards shorter. When we started, Addison was so far behind us that we could barely see him. In the photo below, the red V is just above his head:

Addison loves playing from the tips, and he has more than enough game to do it. The rest of us, though, were very, very happy to move as far forward as we could.

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.