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, place 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 player 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 Handicap Index and that it can be modified or revoked.

As in the U.S. legal system, each player is innocent until proven otherwise. The proceedings can have the appearance of a courtroom cross-examination with the Committee as jury and judge. Some players 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 potential ability and Handicap Index.

These meetings are conducted at the golf 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 17,000 authorized golf clubs in the U.S. alone.

As part of being an authorized golf club, a Handicap Committee is required to oversee the USGA Handicap System. It is one of the most important Committees at the club, accountable for ensuring the game is played on a fair and equitable basis. While having a club employee serve on the Committee is important, the Chairperson must 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; also, we don’t want to jeopardize the employee’s position as ultimately the Chairperson has the appearance of handling a penalty score, modification, or even withdrawal of a player’s Handicap Index.

So when faced with a situation how does the Handicap Committee handle it? There are essentially three options: post penalty score(s) to the player’s scoring record, Handicap Index adjustment, and withdrawal. First, they should review if the situation is due to a player’s failure to post. Section 8-4b of “The USGA Handicap System” outlines the recommended procedure for players who fail to post an acceptable score as soon as practicable after completion of the round. This is the simplest option the Committee has as there is no notification required before a penalty score is posted for a player by the Handicap Committee. If it’s a more severe situation, there are provisions for modification or withdrawal of a player’s Handicap Index.

Section 8-4c cites the most common circumstances that make it necessary for a Handicap Committee to adjust/modify a player’s Handicap Index (e.g., 10.4M). 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 a Handicap Index.

The other two provisions under Section 8-4c, however, are more in line with player dishonesty: player manipulates of round and continued violations of Section 5-1e (unacceptable scores clause).

If the Handicap Committee desires to go through with a possible modification or withdrawal it can send a letter to the player that describes its intention (reason for modification/withdrawal, proposed modified value, date it will become effective, when to meet with the Committee to discuss, etc.).

Before the meeting, the Handicap Committee will gather all information, including statements of other players. Before any adjustment under Section 8-4c is made, the Committee must give the player the opportunity to present his/her side of the story (withdrawal noted in Section 8-4f). Although no studies have been conducted, empirical data indicates that more than 50 percent of these meetings end with a Handicap Committee modifying a player's Handicap Index. But a significant number are not altered.

Handled properly, an appearance before the Handicap Committee is an opportunity for a player to present information that attests to the player’s scoring record. It is the reason each club needs a strong and vigilant Handicap Committee, to safeguard golf's code of honor.