Tuesday, August 17, 2010

My issue with golf handicaps and a solution.

I love golfing. It's the number one thing I like to do on my weekends. The list of reasons why I love golfing is long. It includes the fact that I love being outdoors, in a relatively natural environment, where deer walk across the fairway (see bottom) and bears are sometimes just off in the woods. I love competing against myself, constantly trying to become better. I love that it's just me and the course, and that any success or failure is totally in my hands. I love that I can constantly improve and see the changes in my game. And I love that an afternoon on the course or the range is focussed on the game, and that it can take my mind off of everything else going on in life.

I even love that there's an entire attire for golf that looks ridiculous in any other environment. Try wearing a pair of plus-fours to your neighborhood coffee shop. The course is the only place where I even try to wear my favourite plaid pants.

There's a lot of love for golf.

There are a few things I don't love about the game. I don't love how much it costs. And I don't love 5 1/2 hour rounds that consume the better part of a day. But I can live with those.

On the other hand, there's one thing I hate about golf, and that's the elitist attitude that drives the golf handicap system. For those who don't know, handicaps are a wonderful tool that allow golfers of all levels to compete with one another. With my handicap I can play with someone much better than me and someone much worse, and we can all participate in a contest to see who has the best game relative to a personal average. It's something that doesn't happen in most other sports and it makes the game more fun.

However, to ensure that people don't do anything "funky" with their handicaps the golf world has put restrictions on how you calculate your 'cap. The most significant of those rules is that you are expected to track your handicap at your personal (i.e. private) golf club. This allows your club to monitor how you are entering your scores to calculate your handicap, but it also changes the idea of the handicap from being a tool to create equality amongst golfers to one where lesser golfers are excluded from the system.

This system will have been in place for a hundred years as of next year. From my reading of the Wikipedia article on handicaps I learned that the governing bodies have reviewed this system before, to determine if there's a more equitable way of managing the tracking of handicaps. And, if their infinite conservative golf wisdom, they decided that the existing structure was the right one. I'm not surprised by this, because I expect that every member of the committee that did the review, as well as every senior person at the USGA, is a member of some golf club somewhere. (You may have guessed that I'm not a member. I've yet to figure out how to justify tens of thousands of dollars of entrance fees, plus annual dues, when I can walk on to a terrific local course for $65.)

There are workarounds to the elitist club handicap system. The USGA has set up an alternative approach whereby if you get enough people together, and those people have a public space to enter scores at a golf club where others can watch, and there's a peer review system, then they can keep handicaps. This is a bit of an improvement, but not much. It still assumes that the golfer is going to play the same club on a regular basis with the same group of people, and that they'll formally apply for handicap management approval from the USGA through a committee that they set up. The USGA seems to have tried to be reasonable, but it's really not a good solution. Particularly for someone like myself who plays about 1/3 of my rounds solo or with strangers on the Sunshine Coast coarses, and the rest with varying friends and colleagues at clubs around BC. I look for variety in my game, not to play with the same people at the same place every week.

There is a better solution. We just haven't embraced it yet. The last time the USGA did a review of this challenge was decades ago, before any of our current technology had even been considered. I write this blog post as I site in a Starbucks, where I just checked in via LinkedIn and where I'm monitoring my about to begin workday via iPhone. (I know, I'm a cliche.) When I went golfing on the weekend I used the GolfShot iPhone app, which gave me my distances from the green via GPS, kept track of my score and game data, and e-mailed me and my playing partners our scores after our round. It also tracks my play against my handicap, which I do keep in an unofficial way. (I use Yahoo!'s handicap tracker, which isn't valid in the US and is especially not valid in Canada.) There's a slew of these apps out there, all of which track scores and have the ability to send data to playing partners. It's a small step from here to having the scores validated by playing partners, automatically fed to a USGA or RCGA system, and enabling every golfer, regardless of course, playing partner or wealth to compete.

And the fix doesn't have to rely on a mobile app, even though that seems to be the easiest way to pull it off. All it requires is a bit of technology (i.e. a website) to allow players to enter scores, and for others to validate those scores. It doesn't need to be expensive, or a cash grab for a golf association. It just needs to be simple and accessible.

Back before I messed up my foot I enjoyed tracking tracking my runs with the Nike+ system. It showed me how I'd done, how I was progressing, and it let me compare myself to others. For me, it wasn't competitive. I'm slow and I always will be. But it was incentive enough to make sure I got out there and got my run in, even when I didn't want to go. Why can't a golf technology system take on the same role. Why can't it not just maintain the status quo, but actually enhance the game, make it more competitive, even allow me to play against friends that live hundreds of miles away.

Why can't technology break down the elitist barriers of the conservative golf handicap system, transform it, and turn it into a tool that makes the game more enjoyable for everyone.




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