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Golf's handicap system promotes mediocrity and should be scrapped

Clive AgranBy Clive Agran,
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The handicap system, so the theory goes, enables the best and the worst to play each other and enjoy a good game. Does it really? Or does it merely encourage mediocrity? (Brandon Tucker/GolfPublisher.com)

Everybody has a golfing hero, a player they admire above all others. Well, mine's not Tiger, Phil, Seve, Ernie or even Monty… it's Eric.

No, he's not on the PGA Tour. Far from it. He's just about the worst golfer in the Northern Hemisphere. He has a ridiculously strong grip, an appalling stance, lousy posture, a dreadful shoulder turn and a loopy swing that resembles an arthritic octopus falling out of the upper branches of a Giant Redwood. He plays, if that's the right word, off 23 and, frankly, his handicap flatters him. But I admire him enormously for one simple reason: He refuses to accept strokes when we play.

We have a game about once a month and, although I really ought to give him eight strokes, he doesn't want "charity" and so we play level. Consequently, he almost invariably loses, never complains and pays up like a Christian. He is, in many ways, the ideal opponent, which is only part of the reason I like him. On the extremely rare occasions that he wins, however, he is absolutely insufferable. Euphoric beyond measure, he gloats horribly and lets everyone within bawling distance know that he's just won a game of golf. But it would be supremely churlish to spoil Eric's exceedingly rare moments of triumph by asking him to exercise restraint. Quite simply, he lives for his wins and cherishes the memory of every one.

What appeals to me most about him is his sincere belief that whoever plays the better golf should triumph. Adjusting scores to take into account respective levels of incompetence is, for him, completely anathema to what this great game of ours stands for. And he is absolutely right.

The accepted wisdom is that the handicap system is an integral part of golf's enormous appeal. It enables the best and the worst, so the weary argument goes, to play each other and enjoy a jolly good game. Does it really? Or does it merely encourage mediocrity? What proper incentive is there for a player to improve if his reward is to receive fewer shots from, or give more to, his opponents? And why work hard to effectively reduce your chances of winning strokeplay events?

The flawed handicap system merely rewards mediocrity and discourages players from improving. Not only that but, as we all know, it is also spectacularly open to abuse, most especially from players unattached to a club who seem simply to pluck a convenient figure from the air and regularly rack up 40 plus Stableford points. Why should they be allowed to carry home the booty when truly talented single-figure players know that their chances of beating these massive totals are less than there not being at least one blonde amongst the wives and girlfriends of the US Ryder Cup team?

Let's scrap all this stroke index nonsense and stop worrying about whether or not you get or give a shot on this or that hole. Instead let's simplify the game, remove the arithmetic headache of calculating three-quarters of 11 and three-eighths of 17 plus 25 at 7.45 on a Saturday morning and follow Eric's inspirational example by allowing the better players to win.

Although in his 60s, with a handicap of 15 and lifetime earnings comfortably below $100, Clive Agran nevertheless still believes he can win a major. Arguably England's most gifted golf writer, when not dreaming of glory he's scouring the globe simultaneously searching for lost balls and great golf courses. Follow Clive on Twitter at @cliveagran.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Bloody golf

    Kris wrote on: Jul 5, 2012

    I am very proud of my 22 handicap (formerly 18) and woe betide anyone who tells me I pad it. It is only that high because I cant play this wretched game as well as I would like. Come and watch me hit a duff immediately after a sublime 3 wood.


  • Great.... I'm in.

    kenoneputt wrote on: May 8, 2007

    Can you guys play with me and a friend this Saturday, our regular game is $100 a hole? FWIW, we usually play to 7 and 10 handicaps.
    Truth is, this is an oft-heard lament from guys who have to give strokes because they are low single digit handicappers. But you should hear them whine when a +4 joins their regular group, and they can't beat him.


  • Handicap System

    Gerald Barton wrote on: May 8, 2007

    The worst thing about a handicap system is that it encourages cheating. Playing at scratch makes the temptation to "pad" ones handicap irrelevant.