ORLANDO — Listen to the bell, all heinous sandbaggers. It tolls for thee.
Like communism, golf's handicap system is rooted in good intentions, but is an infrastructure that is easily falsified and exploited. What was supposed to create a level playing field for sticks and hacks often tips the scales in the latter's direction, with better players penalized for, uh, being good. If this sounds dramatic, well, clearly you've never been on the business end of a 12-handicap "magically" shooting 75.
Yet those days of gaming the system are coming to an end, thanks to Cap Patrol.
Developed by George Thurner of Covington, Ky., Cap Patrol is a computer operation that polices the scores of a golf club's membership, monitoring those who aren't keeping the sport's gentleman's ethos at heart.
"I've held every position at my club [Hyde Park Country Club], and have heard every handicap-related nightmare you can imagine," Thurner said Wednesday at the PGA Merchandise Show. "They all end in the same way, which is an aggrieved party demanding justice. But there was no clear-cut way to determine if someone was sandbagging.
"And that's not counting the effect it had on [a club's] morale. No one wants to deal with the fallout of having someone cheating a tournament or his fellow members. That's why I went to work."
Thurner is a sports statistician by trade, previously creating "Statzhub" to provide statistics, game stories, photos and videos for any high school competition. Playing around with algorithms and past GHIN data, Thurner—with consultation from the USGA—was able to identify five key areas that sandbaggers use to manipulate their handicap. (At the moment, those areas are proprietary, and private.)
The result: A program that generates a report allowing clubs to easily follow every player to determine if their handicap reflects their true performance and potential. Using past scores and a course's rating and slope, the report features odds and probability to determine if the score in question should be flagged.
For example, if a 10-handicap turns in a 74, the system says this is a round that should happen once every 42 years. Which, hey, happens ... but the odds of it coinciding at the member-guest raise an eyebrow.
"If you are going to accuse someone of cheating, you need the evidence to support the claim," Thurner said. "This system puts a numerical value to the question of a player's handicap looking fishy."
The equation then provides a club the data and recommendation to support any adjustment a committee or pro deems necessary. And the system has been refined to account for the new World Handicap System that went into effect in the United States on Jan. 1.
But Cap Patrol does more than just monitor inputted scores. It pairs with a club's tee sheet to confirm scores from each round are submitted. That way, golfers—those on the sandbagging and vanity end—aren't withholding a score that could unfavorably alter their handicap.
However, as anyone who's been a member of a club or public league knows, politics can be very much at play in such matters. To ensure fairness—and frankly, civility—a person's name is hidden from the report. Cap Patrol assigns each player/member a number, with the coinciding list known only by the club pro. That way if someone is flagged, their identity is hidden to all but one before a ruling is made.
"It minimizes confrontations, both on the tee and in the board rooms," Thurner said.
Released 90 days ago, Cap Patrol has already signed up 150 properties, including Oakmont, for its program. Although the algorithm is sold only to clubs/courses, there is an application for players to monitor the system's data. The app gives analytics like "Hot Index" and "Clutch performance," while tracking all your personal rounds and progression. It also gives light to how others are playing, and recommends how games in your foursome should be set up with each player's true handicap.
Thurner understands the apprehension that comes with an outside force playing judge in these sensitive matters. Yet his hope is the idea of an honest playing environment brings back those that have been jaded by past sandbagging incidents, and provides a solution for a problem that's plagued golf for far too long.
And more important, serves as a warning to those bastard sandbaggers.
"Their day of reckoning is here," Thurner says.