March has been designated as Handicap Awareness Month by the Golfing Union of Ireland (GUI).
The purpose is to ensure fair and consistent handicapping across the men’s game.
Entitled #TheFairWay campaign, the plan is to educate players and clubs in the formation and correct use of the handicap system.
You see, there are people out there who don’t seem to understand what handicapping is for and manipulate the system through wilful on-course tactics.
These golfers deliberately try to claw back .1s by playing badly or not returning their score card at the end of a round.
Why would they do this? Simple: by increasing their handicap they can gain more shots and therefore have a better opportunity of winning competitions in the future.
That’s a long description for what you and I call cheating.
Handicap cheats are a very unpleasant breed but the avenues available to them are gradually being closed down.
For instance, the number of .1s you can claw back in any one year has been limited and this new campaign has shifted the focus of responsibility from the GUI and the clubs to the members who may be playing alongside these cheats.
It was the concern and complaints of members about handicap manipulation in recent times that led to this GUI response. As the governing body for men’s golf, the GUI knew it was time to address these concerns.
“There is a culture of tolerating handicap cheating which isn’t the case for other forms of cheating within golf,” says Pat Finn, CEO of the GUI.
“The finger seems to be pointed at the GUI or the branches of the GUI or indeed to club committees to deal with this problem. I don’t think it can be.
"It is endemic and the only real way of tackling it is at member-to- member level where everybody takes a proactive approach in dealing with the issue and calling out fellow members on their behaviour and saying it is not going to be tolerated anymore.”
To hammer this message home, the GUI has defined handicap cheating thus:
Playing in a qualifying competition and setting out with the aim of ‘getting 0.1 back’ or not trying your best at any point in the round with the aim of manipulating your handicap is CHEATING.
Yes, capital letters. Donald Trump would be proud.
If golfers wish to find out more the dedicated website www.thefairway.ie has detailed handicap information for both clubs and players.
Posters and flyers will also be displayed in clubhouses across the country to raise the campaign’s profile.
There’s no doubt this is an admirable and important step. Raising awareness is key but there are issues. Before these are addressed, however, it is essential to point out cheats make up a very small percentage of our golfing brethren.
Many golfers who have played all their lives will say they have never encountered one. So what about those issues?
It is entirely possible that cheats within a club already play together, thereby reinforcing their bad behaviour while ignoring what other people think.
It is also possible that other golfers will know who the cheats are and will actively avoid playing with them.
If golfers choose to manipulate their handicaps they’re going to do it surreptitiously.
A missed putt, a fluffed bunker shot, complaining about an imaginary injury as they fall to pieces in the closing holes or just not handing in their card after it’s been signed.
It takes chutzpah to call someone out on such tactics and how do you then prove it?
No one wants to call another golfer a cheat for fear of reprisals; this applies to club committees as much as the individual golfer.
You only have to think back to your school days to know how ‘sneaks’ earn a very unflattering reputation.
It is far too easy to take the path of least resistance, let the cheat get away with it and then simply gripe about it in the bar.
The other concern is the GUI’s reference to ‘not trying your best’. Who among us has not given up during a round?
It could be an injury, the unbearable slow pace of play, the rain pouring down the back of your neck, or despair at your lack of coordination.
The last thing we may be thinking about is getting back a .1 but a fellow golfer could point out you are no longer trying.
Finally, the stigma of ‘handicap cheat’ tends to be targeted at higher handicappers. That is no surprise since these golfers will experience the greatest scoring fluctuations.
The thing is, if a Pro can record a 62 and an 82 within days of each other, so a 20 handicapper can shoot 10 shots better than their handicap after weeks of hacking it around the course.
Their prize is to be called a bandit, or worse. How can anyone differentiate between the genuine and the mischievous?
There is a parallel issue: the golf clubs that appear to ignore handicap manipulation in order to strengthen their local and national teams. This GUI campaign will have little effect on such clubs and a far stronger response, e.g. suspension, will be needed by our governing body.
Even mentioning such a scenario is a delicate matter but maybe now that the GUI has found its bark it will find the bite to go with it.
The consequence of all this is that the greatest weight of responsibility should be on the golf club.
With committees, councils and handicap secretaries in place, keeping an eye on members is part and parcel of running a club, and this applies throughout the year. Handicap secretaries need to look closely at winter competition results as cheats see these events as soft targets.
This is because scores are not applied for handicapping purposes due to lift-clean-and-place, temporary greens and/or forward tees. The results can prove eye-watering and highly informative when compared with summer results.
The #TheFairWay campaign acknowledges the roles played by those within the clubs: ‘The GUI advises and guides handicap committees about the application and implementation of the handicapping system.
One of the most important things for clubs to remember is handicap secretaries should not act on their own, and it is vital that decisions are made as a committee in accordance with the rules.’ … which brings us back into potential defamation territory and the risks of making hasty decisions.
There’s no doubt this is a positive move by the GUI to change the culture in which we play. Yes, we’re talking about only a handful of golfers but such cheating ruins the enjoyment for the rest of us.
By signalling to the cheats such manipulation is being more closely monitored it should reduce the numbers of people doing it while also making it clear to new golfers how the handicap system works and what their responsibilities are.
ut cheating exists elsewhere in the game and not just from under a tree or deep in the bushes.
Cheating can be found at charity events, classics, challenges and other non-GUI competitions where individuals/teams turn up and produce miraculous scores.
These golfers may win two or more times a year yet, because of the event’s non-GUI status, their handicaps (and reputations) will often remain intact.
These are golfers who have no respect for the rules or for the game.
Their goal is simple: to win at any cost. And one of the big problems is that the prizes on offer are simply too valuable.
Who wouldn’t want to win a €500 Motocaddy, a new TaylorMade driver, a laser rangefinder, a weekend break for two… or a share of a €10,000 prize fund?
Because golf is self-regulated, there is very little to stop people cheating if they see a prize they believe has their name on it.
Golf clubs where these events are held are obliged to return scorecards to golfers’ home clubs (as are the golfers themselves)… but why not take it further and make it obligatory for the club to send the cards of the top three players/teams to the GUI.
It may be an arduous task and it involves considerable work but it will maintain the reputation of the club, the event and the integrity of a sport we love. It will also show cheats (genuine golfers have nothing to fear) that they are being watched.
Anyone who wins such an event could, as an example, automatically be docked a percentage of their handicap — for the sake of argument let’s say 10% for Classes 2 and above and 5% for Class 1.
A 17 handicapper would, therefore, be cut 1.7 shots; a 5 handicapper .25 shots.
The golfers have won a substantial prize so if they have done it legitimately they should have no complaints about being cut. Indeed, most golfers would be thrilled by the prospect.
And by collecting the cards for such events both the club and the GUI can assess the handicaps of these golfers in the long term.
These are purely speculative thoughts and I’m sure people will dismiss them as unworkable — things would be even trickier with team events — but if these cheats continue to make it impossible for genuine golfers to win a prize, then genuine golfers will stop entering, tournaments will die out and everybody loses.
In a sport that is struggling to keep members and attract new ones, this constant whiff of cheating is an added obstacle we can do without.
In a recent GUI podcast, Pat Finn emphasisied they wanted to hear ideas from golfers on ways to prevent cheating.
We should take him at his word as we all have a role and responsibility in how we tackle the problem.
Because golf is self-regulated, there is very little to stop people cheating if they see a prize they believe has their name on it