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Praising and Lamenting the Golf Handicap and Information Network

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“I’ve been playing the game so long that my handicap is in Roman numerals.” —Bob Hope

It divides us as a nation—perhaps more than political affiliation, religious denomination or sexual orientation. I’m talking, of course, about the Golf Handicap and Information Network and its wonderful/awful (circle one) handicap index.

The system provides a handicap index for every player who posts at least five rounds/scores during a season, weighing factors like the slope and difficulty rating of the courses played. This number can then be used as a “comparison” to other players and to adjust strokes accordingly to even the match.

Ask any golfer, and—depending on what side of the handicapped line he or she is on (i.e., getting or giving strokes)—they’ll sing the GHIN’s praises or bemoan its existence. Handicapping has pretty much been around since the discovery of fire, when Zogg realized he could place a bet with the other cavemen on who would get clubbed to death or eaten by beasts when the flame went out. I’d like to think golf handicapping has evolved some since then—at least, the clubs have definitely improved.

Yet only since 1980 has the present-day GHIN been formalized, after the United States Golf Association was approached to develop handicap computation services for the Metropolitan Golf Association in New York. Today, GHIN is the world’s largest golf handicapping service.

A golfer’s handicap—or his GHIN, in common vernacular—is as ingrained in the game of golf today as one’s clubs and equipment. Ask a golfer his wedding anniversary, and you’ll likely get as blank a stare as a dog gives after you’ve shown it a card trick. Yet ask him his GHIN, and said golfer can no doubt produce an instant assessment of the rise and fall of his index over the past 10 years (with a full Excel spreadsheet available upon demand).

The brilliant deviousness of it all: handicapping is designed to allow golfers of differing abilities to compete on an equitable basis and increase the enjoyment of a round of golf (you would think).

On its surface, golf handicapping is unique in sports and should be celebrated and embraced. What other system is such a great equalizer? Yet it often becomes a microcosm of our society, a social experiment in an 18-hole vacuum.

Consider where you stand on politics and taxes. Are you in favor of taxing the rich? Then you can no doubt relate as a 16 to 25-plus handicap. Are you feeling like your hard work and golf riches (ye of the single digit handicap) mean you should keep all the strokes you’ve shaved and give none away? Then you must gravitate toward to the 1-percent tax bracket. Or are you squarely in the middle and believe you should give your fair share, paying a little more than the poor but not as much as the rich? That’s you, mid-range handicapper 10-15.

Life, indeed, often imitates golf. And it’s the American dream to aspire to greatness, regardless of our standing. But just like the classes struggle in modern society, golf’s GHIN system is a textbook case of the haves and have-nots.

GHIN might as well be an acronym for “golf hell in a nutshell.” Most arguments and confrontations occur on the golf course before a ball is even put in play—the pre round jostling and hustling for strokes. And with a host of apps that make checking your opponent’s handicap only a smartphone away, the door has been opened to a whole new level of busting.

But just like America, we somehow get along, for the most part, with our melting pot of ideals, heritages and GHINs. We find common ground in our love of country and love of the game, and hold fast the truth that all men are created equal. But it’s our handicap index that truly makes us equal.

Now, how many strokes do I get?

Depending on the time of year, Jim Finnegan  is a solid 15 handicap—but who’s counting.


For more from the 2013 Golf Guide, click here

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