Wednesday 26 June 2019

Dermot Gilleece: 'Handicap rules promise a level playing field'

A single world system that more accurately measures a player's standard has clear benefits, but changing mindsets will be vital

A new World Handicap System (WHS) is set to be introduced next January. Photo: EpicStockMedia
A new World Handicap System (WHS) is set to be introduced next January. Photo: EpicStockMedia

Dermot Gilleece

Mention cheating in golf and sinister images are conjured of the cloven hoof emerging, as chronicled so brilliantly by PG Wodehouse in one of his much-loved stories. Yet some of the game's greatest inequities have been perpetrated through handicapping, which makes a pending development all the more interesting.

A new World Handicap System (WHS) is set to be introduced next January, designed to bring the game of golf under a single set of rules for handicapping, while providing a more consistent measure of players' ability between different regions of the world.

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The transition already involves educational events from Singapore and Japan to the Caribbean and the US. Meanwhile, the Royal and Ancient and the USGA have launched a social media video campaign, reminding golfers of the eight key features of the new rules of handicapping.

They are:

1 Minimum number of scores to establish a Handicap Index and maximum Handicap Index of 54.0

2 Basis of calculation of Handicap Index

3 Acceptability of scores for handicap purposes

4 Course Rating and Slope Rating

5 Calculation of a Playing Handicap

6 Maximum hole score for handicap purposes

7 Adjustments for abnormal playing conditions

8 Frequency of updating a Handicap Index.

Though the organisers are optimistic about world-wide compliance, they accept some countries will need more time. "Golfers throughout the world will be able to play equitably, measure their success and more fully enjoy and engage with a more welcoming game," said Mike Davis, CEO of the USGA.

Martin Slumbers, his counterpart in the R and A, added: "It is important for golf to modernise and become more appealing for people thinking of taking up the sport. Handicapping is clearly part of this. We are working closely with national associations, as we do across all our core activities, to ensure they are fully prepared for the introduction of the new system."

On this side of the pond, the Standard Scratch Score (SSS) and Handicapping System was introduced in March 1926 by the home unions (CONGU), at the request of the R and A. The most significant adjustment during my lifetime occurred in 1983 with the adoption of the Australian points system, which has since remained largely unchanged.

Now, however, we will have a system uniting the six existing handicap authorities under one set of rules, governed by the R and A and the USGA, and the benefits look to be incalculable, not least for holiday players.

To return to my original point, some golfers of my experience find it extremely difficult to acknowledge handicap manipulation as cheating. They would be horrified, however, at the idea of a ball being nudged in the rough, or the odd hack being conveniently overlooked in reckoning one's score at a hole.

It takes something quite blatant to drive the message home, which is probably why the so-called Deepdale Scandal has claimed such an important place in the history of the game. Though it happened more than 60 years ago, it was only at the millennium that the full facts came to light, courtesy of Dave Anderson, Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist with The New York Times.

Once listing the Duke of Windsor and Dwight Eisenhower among its members, Deepdale is a highly regarded golf club based in Long Island. And the scandal involved their annual Calcutta of better-ball teams.

For the 1955 event, with auction funds totalling $45,000 ($300,000 at today's values) and the winning ticket worth $16,016.90, two three-handicappers entered off 17 and 18. Predictably, with net rounds of 58 and 57, the pair cruised home by a five-stroke margin and one of them, Bill Roberts from Massachusetts, deposited $3,713.99 in a local bank as his share of the pool.

Six weeks later, the swindle was exposed by the now-defunct New York World-Telegram and Sun, after one of the "conscience stricken" perpetrators confessed in a letter to the president of the host club.

On the assumption that Roberts would play in the event with regular partner Richard Vitali, their names were duly entered on the auction sheet as "Field R". But Vitali withdrew and in his search for a replacement, Roberts eventually came up with Charles (Bud) Helmar, a three-handicapper from a municipal course, who played under Vitali's name.

Meanwhile, Roberts insisted he had entered the pair off seven and eight handicaps but that "somebody had put a '1' before the numbers."

Vitali later recalled: "The day after the tournament, Bill (Roberts) called me laughing. 'Hey,' he said, 'you won a golf tournament.' I said, 'What do you mean?', to which he replied 'Well, it was too late to change names.' I said 'Bill, who went?' And he said that he didn't even know Helmar, the fellow who went, but that he was a helluva player."

In his letter to Deepdale's president, Helmar stated that Vitali knew nothing about the deception. "I shall return to you any money or prizes sent to me," he added. "This is my story and all I can say is that I'm truthfully sorry I had any part in this."

His partner, however, used a portion of the Calcutta money to buy a new green Volkswagen convertible, one of the first models of its kind in New England, with a radio and a heater. Meanwhile, the fall-out included a stern warning from the USGA on high-stakes club gambling, with the result that events such as the Pebble Beach Pro-Am stopped holding Calcutta auctions.

Both Roberts and Helmar forfeited their amateur status, but having pleaded - "I didn't like it, but I agreed to do it" - Helmar was reinstated after four years.

Roberts' father, Ray, an outstanding amateur in his own right, later sent a cheque to the USGA covering his son's winnings, which they forwarded to Deepdale. Bill Roberts, however, never applied for reinstatement, settling instead for life as a golfing outcast.

Three years after the event, he attempted to qualify in Toronto for the Canadian Amateur, which was outside the USGA's jurisdiction, but over-anxiety caused him to play poorly. While there, someone turned to him and said: "See that kid from Ohio over there? He's going to be the greatest golfer who ever lived." It was Jack Nicklaus.

Looking back, Roberts concluded: "I take 50 per cent of the blame for what happened. I feel badly, because I never gave myself a chance to be a top player." The other 50 per cent of the partnership, chose to forget the ill-fated scam.

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