The Human Element

Golf is a game of honor. Players are expected to call penalties on themselves. The other competitors in a tournament "protect the field" by monitoring each other in a group and, at the end, placing an attesting signature on a scorecard. In that vein, "peer review" is the method by which players attest to the ability of those in a club, through monitoring playing and posting of scores.

The game's code of honor means that even a hint of cheating or dishonesty can tarnish an individual. Every golfer has experienced the uncomfortable moment of asking, or being asked, whether a ruling was administered properly or the right score was reported for a hole. But we are less frequently questioned on whether a round was posted correctly for handicap purposes, or posted at all. Such serious infractions cannot be ignored, lest they challenge the sense of honor as it applies to handicapping.

Perhaps the most serious challenge to an amateur is being summoned to answer a handicap committee's intention to adjust the player's handicap index. These meetings are the last step of peer review. Many players would be surprised to learn they have no inherent right to have a USGA handicap index and that it can be revoked with just cause.

As in the U.S. legal system, each golfer is innocent until proven otherwise. The proceedings can have the appearance of a courtroom cross-examination with the committee as jury and judge. Some golfers may claim the proceeding is the result of a vendetta, but handled properly an appearance before a handicap committee is an opportunity to present information that determines a player's proper index.

These meetings are conducted at the club level; the USGA sets handicap policy, but gives clubs the latitude to administer those policies. Why would the USGA not directly control each case? There are more than 16,000 courses in the USGA's jurisdiction. Its mission is to create a system that can be implemented everywhere.

Once a golf club is established, a handicap committee is required to oversee the handicap system. It is one of the most important bodies at the club level, accountable for ensuring the game is played on a fair and equitable basis. While having a club employee sit on the committee is important, the chairman should be a member of the club. This is not just for show or policy; a peer will make a better police force than an employee.

Section 8-4b of the USGA Handicap System cites five circumstances that make it necessary for a committee to make adjustments to an index. Most people would consider three of these benign: a player improving faster than periodic calculations will reflect potential scoring ability; a temporary disability, such as recent surgery; and numerous away scores changing an index.

The other two provisions under Section 8-4b, however, are strongly worded: failure to post scores and player manipulation of rounds. These provisions allow a committee to post the score or penalty score for an individual who fails to post. It allows adjustment or withdrawal of a handicap index for stopping play before the end of a round to avoid posting; repeatedly playing more than one ball to avoid a valid score; deliberately reporting more or fewer strokes than taken; or taking extra strokes to inflate a score.

Before the meeting, the committee will gather all information, including statements of other players. Before any adjustment under Section 8-4b, a committee must give the player the opportunity to present evidence. Although no studies have been conducted, empirical data indicates that more than 50 percent of these meetings end with a handicap committee reducing a player's index. But a significant number are not altered.

Handled properly, an appearance before a handicap committee is an opportunity for a player to present information that attests to his or her index. It is the reason each club needs a strong and vigilant committee, to safeguard golf's code of honor.