July 14, 2009

Fuzzy Math

Golf's handicap system shouldn't work. It depends on personal integrity, imperviousness to self-delusion, and the ability to perform grade-school arithmetic -- qualities that are rare not just in one's regular foursome, but in the population at large. A handicap is also what economists call a trailing indicator: You use it to set the terms of today's match, but your number is based on how you were playing last week, last month or last year -- before your knee operation, short-game lesson, Golf Digest subscription or divorce. Because handicaps are updated just once a fort-night, and the ability to hit decent shots can materialize or evaporate in the time it takes to walk from the third green to the fourth tee, almost everyone's Handicap Index is out of phase with reality. And nobody truly understands how to adjust scores before turning them in.

Yet you can meet three strangers on the first tee of an unfamiliar course, throw balls to choose partners, and know there's a decent chance that your $2 nassau will come down to the final putt on the final hole. How come? The reason, I think, is that golf is almost magically self-adjusting: Players who are getting fewer strokes than they think they need often compensate by swinging better than they thought they could; players who are getting more strokes than they know they deserve usually manage to throw some of them away. And almost any round includes enough good and bad luck to make its outcome unforeseeable, no matter where the pops fall. A handicap, under any circumstance, is a crude approximation. But so is golf.

Nevertheless, every club has members known for sand-bagging (carrying an inflated handicap). Often, this is a matter more of temperament than of intention: Some golfers look at a par and see the bogey it ought to have been rather than the birdie it almost was, and sometimes the guys with the most questionable handicaps are the ones who are the most assiduous about turning in scores.

Whatever the cause, my Sunday-morning group has found the cure. We make up our teams at random, by drawing numbered poker chips from a hat, and the result is that, over the course of a season, almost everyone plays with almost everyone else. That means that the opponent you accuse of sandbagging today could well be your team's secret weapon next week. You don't want to have to say, "I know we've had our little differences in the past -- but if you play to your handicap today I'll wrap my 9-iron around your neck." It's probably better to think of handicaps as the rub of the green, and figure that, one way or another, everything will even out in the end.