Golf: The unfair-way

Published May 17, 2006 1:19 am
Sandbaggers 'cashing in' at Utah tournaments
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At a golf tournament for amateurs and professionals a few weeks ago in northern Utah County, a middle-aged amateur shot rounds of 80-80 on a difficult course. Given the windy conditions, the pair of scores were remarkable.

Then someone noticed his handicap: 18.

Remarkable became impossible.

"Statistically, that's close to impossible," said Joe Watts, executive director of the Utah Golf Association, the state's governing body for amateur golf. "The odds of an 18-handicapper shooting back-to-back [80s] are something like a million-to-1."

UGA officials double-checked his file on the UGA's Web site, and sure enough, he was listed as an 18. Then they noticed he hadn't "posted" a score in several months.

But the damage was done. The golfer won the net portion of his flight - he won it by 14 shots - and earned a certificate worth $700 of merchandise in the pro shop (the maximum an amateur can win is $750), while dozens of others steamed, groused and uttered that word frequently heard around scoreboards throughout the state:


Of course, that's a nice term for what the player did. In many golfers' minds, the correct term is . . . cheater.

"When it comes to sandbagging, Utah is as bad as it gets," Wingpointe assistant pro Jeremy Green said.

Watts, involved in Utah golf for more than 40 years, including the last 15 as the UGA's executive director, said sandbagging "is a concern, but it is not out of control. I would say that most of our tournament scores are within normal ranges. My observation is that Utah is pretty much the same as the rest of the nation."

"One or 2 percent [of the UGA's roughly 20,000 members - those that have paid the $25 annual fee and established a handicap] can harm the system," Watts said. "But the system still works. It makes golf enjoyable for many, many people."

Many professionals and amateurs statewide, while praising the UGA for its efforts to corral the corrupt, say it is a problem. And it is growing, they say, thanks to Utah's expansive schedule of amateur tournaments, relative lack of country clubs (where members tend to police themselves) and an increase of what an amateur can collect, from $500 to $750 a few years.

What's A Sandbagger?

Simply put, a sandbagger is a golfer who is better than he says he is, although the term has reached beyond golf to include people in sports or other walks of life who downplay their chances at doing something, then pull it off.

To understand what a golf sandbagger is, though, one must first realize what a handicap is. Basically, it is a numerical measure of a golfer's playing ability, a number that allows players of different ability to play against each other on equal terms.

Handicaps are established when a player posts at least five 18-hole scores. Contrary to popular thinking, it is not the average number of strokes the golfer is expected to play above par for 18 holes. Rather, it measures what the golfer has the potential to shoot in relation to a course's rating, not its par.

According to the "Pope of Slope" - Dean Knuth, former senior director of the United States Golf Association handicap department and developer of the USGA's course and slope rating system - an honest golfer plays to his or her handicap once every five rounds.

Knuth told Golf Digest the odds are 1 in 200 a player will better a handicap by three strokes in one round, 1 in 570 they will do it by five strokes, 1 in 1,138 by eight strokes and 1 in 82,000 by 10 strokes.

Perhaps the most famous national example of sandbagging involves Microsoft mogul Bill Gates, who reportedly shot an 87 with a 30-handicap to finish low net winner (57) at a charity golf tournament near Seattle. The would-be duffer with the $18 billion fortune won a box of balls, a big-screen TV, a set of garage doors, some computer software and a whole lot of ribbing. He donated all but the latter to charity.

Gates later acknowledged he did not have an official USGA handicap and "threw out a number," never thinking he would win. Knuth says he's probably around an 18, since the odds of a 30-handicapper shooting an 87 on the Willows Run course near Seattle are worse than 1 in 1,000,000.

Gates and the aforementioned Utah golfer are not alone.

A 15-handicapper shot even-par 72 at a tournament at West Jordan's Mountain View G.C. last year, a 6-handicapper shot a 66 at the Rose Park Open two years ago and at Wingpointe's annual two-man scramble, Green says, a pair of 18-handicappers usually team up to shoot 4-under par.

"It's amazing how many guys shoot their career rounds in tournaments," deadpanned Mountain View assistant pro Ryan Colemere.

Why Here, Why Now?

Sandbagging flourishes here, many golf professionals say, because Utah has one of the best amateur circuits anywhere. On any given weekend from mid-April to mid-September, golfers can find large-field tournaments to play in along the Wasatch Front. For an entry fee that generally ranges from $50-100, any amateur with a UGA or USGA handicap can tee it up for fairly big prizes.

"Utah amateurs have it better here than anywhere in the country," said Bonneville assistant pro Jono Herrick. "This is heaven for amateur golf. But with it comes a big incentive to sandbag, because of the financial opportunities."

Added Tri City G.C. pro Rick Roberts: "Any time money is involved, people do weird things. I've seen more of it the last couple of years, probably because [the USGA] raised the amount" of money a golfer can win and retain his amateur status.

Eaglewood head professional Ryan Rhees, who has also worked at courses in Washington and Oregon, said there is "kind of a tradition here" not to post good scores, and thus keep a handicap from getting lower.

"There are fewer country clubs here, which probably makes a difference," Rhees said. "Members [of country clubs] watch each other pretty closely. They know what each other is capable of shooting."

Where They Hide

Watts said Utah's sandbaggers tend to play in two-person events such as four-balls and scrambles, rather than as individuals, because it is easier to manipulate a score and/or hide a low handicap.

For instance, when playing in a four-ball tournament, also known as a best-ball, if one player is on the green with a birdie putt, the other player might intentionally take a big number to inflate his handicap because it doesn't count against the team total.

"Problems with those are so prevalent that it has driven others away from four-ball events," Watts said. "It has gotten to where the sandbaggers are playing against the sandbaggers."

Herrice, who annually runs the Salt Lake City Amateur, said a few years ago he discovered another sandbagger's "trick."

Turns out a regular on the amateur circuit had established five different handicaps, at $25 a pop from the UGA, under five slightly different names and addresses.

"You can't blame the UGA," he said. "It has just gotten too massive, with too many golfers out there for the UGA or the professionals or anyone else to keep track of."

The Solution

Watts said "red flags go up" when a golfer shoots multiple rounds below his handicap in a tournament, and "exceptional tournament scores" stay in a player's file for a full year. The UGA gets more aggressive the more exceptional tournament scores a player posts.

The UGA has local handicap committees that meet often and investigate alleged sandbaggers, and the UGA handicap committee meets every year for the same reason. Last year, he said handicaps of at least two dozen people were adjusted by the UGA.

"We've had to pull [handicap] cards," he said. "That is very rare, but we have done it."

Herrick said the City Am went to gross-only flights three years ago, with no handicaps, partly because of sandbagging, and the changes have been well received.

"The people we eliminated are the people we had trouble with," he said.


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Golf Terms

HANDICAP - A numerical measure of an amateur golfer's playing ability. The lower the number, the better the golfer. Handicaps allow players of different proficiency to play against each other on equal terms.

SANDBAGGER - A golfer who intentionally establishes an inaccurate handicap that will work to his or her advantage. Basically, sandbaggers are golfers who are better than they say they are.

GROSS SCORE - The actual score that a golfer shot during a round.

NET SCORE - The score a player receives when handicap is subtracted from the gross score.

COURSE RATING - A numerical measure of a course's difficulty from each tee. Handicaps are established from this number, not par. Most courses are rated lower than par.

REVERSE SANDBAGGERS - Golfers who claim to be a lot better than they are.

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