Those heavenly, handy-dandy handicaps help golfers

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By Elsa Bonstein, Golf Gab

You can play golf or you can stroll a few miles with your friends, pausing occasionally to hit a small round object with a club, while chatting about your new kitchen curtains, the latest recipe for duck a l’Orange or the cute shirt you bought on sale last week at Belk.
That’s great fun but, let me assure you, real golf is better.   
And, if you’re going to play real golf in which you keep score, you will need to establish a handicap.  
New golfers invariably ask why they need a handicap. They ask, “Why can’t we just play the game and not keep score? You’re taking all the fun out of it.”
Not so fast. If you play and keep score and post those scores and establish a handicap, you can play in tournaments at your club, you can play in charity events and you even can play matches within your circle of family and friends.
When our kids were growing up and learning to play the game, our family always had something on the line and a real score to keep. At first we gave the kids three strokes on each hole. As they got better and established their own handicaps, those strokes diminished. Soon they were giving me strokes.
The bets were many and varied. Did we go out for ice cream after golf? Who washed the dinner dishes? Who made the beds the next day?
We had yucks and laughs and a whole lot of fun, and to this day all four of my daughters play golf. In fact, their husbands all play golf (one is a golf pro), and all the grandchildren older than age 7 play golf.
  “Handicaps allow competition between genders and generations,” Lynn Furman, of Ocean Ridge, said when we chatted about handicaps last week in the Tiger’s Eye clubhouse. “Golf is socially bonding; you make a lot of friends playing golf.”
Lynn and his wife, Beverly, moved to Ocean Ridge from Northern Virginia in 2006. Neither had played golf until about retirement age and each decided to take up the sport while searching for a gated community on the East Coast.
“I played football, basketball and tennis,” Lynn said. “My wife was a swimmer and she crewed. Now we love the game of golf. The game is intricate and interesting because it’s not one game, but many. There are many types of competitions: individual, team, match play.
“Best of all, you can play it for your whole life. You can have strategies for playing as you get older. Golf is not necessarily a game of youth and power. As you lose distance, you can play target golf. You think about each shot, keep the ball in play and avoid hazards. Golf is both complicated and interesting at all levels of play. Some of the best golfers at Ocean Ridge are not necessarily the youngest ones but are guys who know how to get the ball from tee to green in the shortest number of strokes.”
In talking about handicaps, we both chuckled when we thought about handicapping other sports. A tennis player with one hand tied behind his back? A track meet where the seniors get a half lap start? Can a 50-year-old play basketball or football or ice hockey against a much younger opponent?
“Handicaps came about as an equalizer for players of different abilities,” said Eddie Pratt, PGA golf professional and director of golf at Sea Trail when I stopped by to chat with him. “Golf handicaps are not based on age, but scores. Golfers of any age can play and compete together in a tournament because of the handicap system.”
But how does it all work? How does a golfer establish a handicap? What happens when a golfer plays different courses? Some golf courses are easier than others. Does the handicap system take that into account?
Getting a handicap is simple. Pay a fee to your club or association and turn in 10 scorecards. The pro shop will help you get started and soon you will have a temporary handicap. As you play more and post more scores, your handicap will go up or down, depending on how well or poorly you are playing.
The handicap system allows players of various ability to play together. The lower the handicap, the better the golfer. A scratch player will shoot around par, a golfer with a handicap of 20 will usually score 20-over par, or 92, on a par-72 course. If your handicap is 10, you will get 10 strokes on the 10 hardest holes of the course you are playing. On a scorecard, the holes are numbered 1-18 according to their difficulty.   
There is a course rating system that determines something called rating and slope for each golf course and each tee on that course.  
According to the United States Golf Association, the official arbiter of the game, “The USGA course rating system is the standard upon which the USGA handicap system is built.”
Each golf course is evaluated by a USGA course rating team, using various criteria, including length, topography, water hazards, fairway width in landing areas, rough, bunkers, out-of-bounds, water hazards (do they cross the fairway or merely hang out on the sides?), trees, greens (fast, slow, contouring, size). Each set of tees (from the tips to the forward) has a unique rating and slope, a number like 74/136 (really hard) or 69.3/116 (easier).   
A golfer’s handicap can go up or down when playing at an away course, or if he plays from a different set of tees at his home course. To make it all somewhat equal, golfers establish an index. This is a traveling number that can be used to calculate the golfer’s handicap at another course. Each pro shop has an index sheet that will calculate the visiting golfer’s handicap on that course and on a particular set of tees.
It all sounds complicated, but with today’s computers and the Internet, it’s really simple. I’m old enough to remember the manual handicap system that clubs used to have. You never wanted to be the handicap chairperson in those days, because it was the worst job of all. You had a large notebook and after each competition you entered everyone’s scores, then averaged them and figured a handicap for every member. Yikes!
Today, I can post my scores in the clubhouse computer, on my PC or even on my smart phone. Every two weeks, I get a computer printout of all my scores and my handicap at my home course and my index number for traveling. Piece of cake.
Eddie and I talked about posting scores. “Most golf associations post the players’ scores when there is a competition,” he said. “Even groups that play together regularly often have one person who will post everyone’s scores at the end of the day. It keeps everyone honest.”
“Sandbagging” is a derogatory term used for those golfers who have a false handicap. Basically, it refers to those who cheat the system, and if you really want to do it, it’s pretty easy. Don’t post away scores. If you don’t need a putt, miss it. Don’t post a score if you don’t finish a round.
But, remember, golf is a game of honesty and integrity. Do you really need that pewter mug with your name engraved on it?   
Golf Gab groaner
Give me golf clubs, fresh air and a beautiful partner and you can keep the fresh air and golf clubs. (Jack Benny)
Elsa Bonstein is a golf columnist for The Beacon. Reach her at elanbon@atmc.net. Follow her at facebook.com/elsa.bonstein.