The Rule of Law
A change in the handicap system is reason to reflect on how the game is governed—and how we govern ourselves
By Michael Bamberger
The news from the R&A and the USGA is welcome: Come Jan. 1, you can enter all of your nine-hole scores, your scores from par-3 courses, your partial-round scores. This is appropriate, and maybe you saw our ode to this reporter’s local nine-holer, in this space, posted just the other day.
What the governing bodies have done is make an enthusiastic and knowing nod to how many of us play a lot of our golf. It was also something they had to do. Their power comes from the unwritten consent of those whom they govern. That is, you and I. If they don’t understand collectively who we are, they cannot govern at all.
On the other side, if we are going to let them govern us, we must be all in. I’ve written this a million times: Without a rulebook, without these governing bodies, our game is chaos. Nobody carries more than 14 clubs in competition because the R&A and the USGA say you cannot. For now, it’s all working. But holding on to authority is a tricky thing. If we start to think “they” are unreasonable, we take matters into our own hands. And that is a ramp to chaos.
Now let’s tell it straight here. The handicapping system, for anybody who doesn’t break 80 on a regular basis, is not a science, despite the best efforts of the organizing bodies. Just consider the gimme. We have all played rounds with people who knock three-footers back. A three-footer? As somebody once typed, three feet to win is a yard of hell. Three feet for a double bogey is a triple that goes unrecorded, more often than not. The starting point for so many vanity handicaps. The USGA and the R&A cannot account for the human impulse to aggrandize. For what purpose, I cannot imagine.
And there are limits to the reach of these governing bodies. If two golfers go out for a casual match, they can of course do as they wish. That game is played out in an isolation chamber of their own making. But as you get farther and farther north in the game, as the golf becomes more public and more meaningful, the rulebook becomes both a necessary starting point and golf’s one sacred text. Really, anytime you are playing against a field, the rulebook is right there, watching everything, from the 1st tee to the scorer’s hut.
The handicap system is a lovely attempt to make the game one where you can play (in theory) Brooks Koepka or Lydia Ko. It makes club competitions possible. It makes flights possible. But I much prefer the question my friend Mike Donald will pose. He will never say, “What’s his handicap?” He will sometimes say, “What can he shoot?” What can he shoot is your handicap.
I can shoot a legit 82, on a good day on a course with no trees. I can shoot a 102 at Pine Valley, if you turn my Xs into doubles, per the handicapping rules. You can take the system as seriously as you may wish, but please don’t tell me it is science. Still, these recent changes are necessary improvements. I can break 40 at St. Martins, the short nine-holer I often play. Those scores should be in the mix, too.
Please read these sentences by John Updike, one of my writing heroes, with more care than you have read the preceding. They are from Updike’s report about Ted Williams’s final at-bat, in which he homered on a gray day at Fenway in 1960:
Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs—hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn’t tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted “We want Ted” for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters.
We can save the astonishing and transporting beauty of the words for another time. For now, let’s just focus on this: the gifted athlete as a god. Ted Williams was a god! Bob Jones? A god! Jesse Owens? Of course. Not in every aspect of their lives. We don’t have the right to know or judge every aspect of these lives. But they are gods for what they did on their playing fields, in competition.
What’s happening in golf now, right before our eyes, is that the line between sporting competition and everybody-wins entertainment is becoming more and more blurred. Golf on TV can be entertaining, of course. But it is not, to me, an entertainment. LIV Golf can do whatever it wishes, but it strikes me as entertainment. That TGL Tuesday-night golf bit, the same. If that’s your thing, enjoy. Most lives are filled with unrelenting monotony and stress. If these distractions relieve either for you, that has to be a good thing, right? I’d rather go to the movies or read a book, but that’s me. I’m not you.
My esteemed editor and colleague, Mark Godich, will tell me I’m slipping if I make a written reference to Koepka’s play at this year’s Masters and don’t add something like “his so-called second-place finish.” We all know what happened on the 15th hole in the first round. A TV camera caught Koepka’s caddie giving club advice to Gary Woodland’s caddie. That’s how I saw it, and I don’t know how you could see it otherwise: twice, in short succession, the second time with more emotion, he mouthes the word five. You can’t tell if Woodland’s caddie asked for the advice. Yes, it happens all the time. Yes, it’s unlikely that the information had any influence on Woodland’s next shot. But Koepka and Woodland are gods. Gods! They can do things with a golf ball that a thousand people in the world can do, if that. The Masters is not an entertainment, it’s an athletic competition. And that spirit should have guided what happened next.
Instead, we got this, a statement: “Following the completion of Brooks Koepka’s round, the [Competition] Committee questioned his caddie and others in the group about a possible incident on No. 15. All involved were adamant that no advice was given or requested. Consequently, the committee determined that there was no breach of the rules.”
Golf, the ruthlessly fair and painfully inequitable game that has captivated innumerable people for hundreds of years, took a hit that day, and it has taken a bunch more. Is this a serious by-the-book competition or not? Those two gods could have raised the status of the R&A and the USGA and the sanctity of the rulebook simply by saying, A rule is a rule.
The USGA and the R&A give us a framework for a game we can all enjoy. There are levels of the game, as there are levels to all games. This new wrinkle in the handicapping system is meaningful because of the source, the R&A and the USGA. The touring gods have a responsibility, not to tear down these institutions, but to build them up.
If they want to argue to the USGA that caddies sharing club information should not be considered a violation of the rules, they of course can do that. There’s a time and place for that. There’s a time and place for a Tuesday-night golf entertainment. But serious golf is serious golf. Maybe the rest of the world has less tolerance for serious than it used to have. OK, fine. That doesn’t mean we have to jump down that rabbit hole, never to be heard from again. This is a strange time in golf as it is a strange time period. Hold on to your principles.
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at [email protected]
Michael Bamberger was briefly a caddie on the PGA and European Tours, invented a golf club (the E-Club) that Lee Trevino used in his final British Open, spent 22 years as a writer at Sports Illustrated and joined the Firepit Collective in May 2022.
email: [email protected]