Upon Further Review – Addressing the Rules of Golf

Sitting on my couch eating ketchup chips and crushing pints of Triple Bogey beers should not give me, or anyone else outside the ropes, the authority to influence a golf tournament.  It doesn’t pass the common sense filter.  And while it’s been nice we’ve had a nice stretch of a few weeks without a serious rules incident in golf, allow me to wade into the murky waters of rules in golf.  Because like everyone else, I have an opinion on this and it needs some unpacking.

Rules matter.  I like the self-regulating nature of golf and I like the principle of play the ball where it lies and I like that many golfers will tell their partner they got a 6 instead of a 5.  In competitive play this becomes even more important.  But I also play for fun with family and friends and we don’t get all caught up in stroke and distance penalties, putting out 18” putts and we may even allow ourselves a chance to remove a ball from a bunker which resembles a parking lot more than a sand trap.  Relaxed rules, at times, are appropriate and keep the game fast and fun.

And that matters.  I can’t imagine what would happen if during the two or three times a year my wife plays that I went all ‘USGA’ on her and told her 6 holes later that her 8 was really an 12 because she didn’t place her ball appropriately back on the green after marking it.  You can kiss her participation goodbye from that point on.  And this is not to be hypocritical, she wants to play well and play properly but within the context of an afternoon out with friends.  I am a huge proponent of Relaxed Rules which I first saw on Golf Channel some time back.  The game is meant to be fun and played appropriately.  To her and our group, what is proposed here is most appropriate.

Now, getting back to the USGA…and the official rules of golf; I still believe we can allow for a greater filter of common sense to govern rules.  Pace of play and participation are issues facing the game.  For sticklers of rules a couple suggestions:

Stakes – more red stakes on courses.  Let’s simply take a stroke, drop a ball and be on with it.  The humiliation of going back to the tee to hit again does nothing positive for the game (and I know we should all be more mindful of hitting a provisional but you get my point).

Penalties – all one stroke, easy to understand and avoids confusion.

Phone-in rules infractions – Eliminated.  Simple as that, we’re liberated from this in my world.  Once a scorecard is signed, it’s good.  Phew, solved that one easy enough.

Common Sense – if in doubt…after all, very few of us have mastered the rules book, let’s use consensus among our playing partners and common sense prevail.

In closing, I love the game of golf.  But I am finding myself watching some tournaments with an impending sense of doom that my HDTV lacks the clarity of someone’s 80” 4D to see the most subtle of infraction which had zero impact on the integrity and outcome of the hole but cause a player to lose a tournament.  Golf is a game.  Golf is fun.  Let’s keep it that way.  And when appropriate, let’s honour the full set of rules but more so the integrity of the game which the rules are built upon.

Scott Simmons Interview – Part 1 – Solo Rounds and Handicapping

Scott Simmons Interview – Part 1 – Solo Rounds and Handicapping

A Quick Nine with Scott Simmons, CEO of Golf Canada

@36aday is pleased to introduce interviews with leaders in the game of golf in Canada. Nine questions are presented to probe important issues of the game, personal experiences, stories and insight. Just like 9 holes of golf, I hope you find this enjoyable and that it leaves you wanting more

This is the first of a three-part interview with Golf Canada CEO, Scott Simmons, and will examine a January 2016 policy decision around Canadian players no longer able to record official rounds as solo players.  This was a change from November 2015, where Golf Canada chose not follow the USGA in their decision around solo rounds no longer counting toward a player’s handicap index.

  1. What changed between November 2015 to January 2016 that precipitated a policy decision reversal on solo round recording toward handicap indexing, especially one that was so positively received by the golf community in Canada?

SS – It’s a long story; I guess the basic thing was we made our decision really in isolation of trying to understand the rationale that the USGA had used.  Things happen quickly, they made their announcement and we had some social media inquiries and our committee met and decided to adopt all of the changes with the exception of the solo round provision.

36 – Ok.

SS – And I don’t think we could have ever anticipated at that time – and I don’t want to speak for the USGA – I don’t think they could have ever anticipated the amount of feedback and emotion that would be behind this.

36 – I know for myself I’m fairly active on social media and the USGA faced a significant firestorm as a result of this.

SS – Yes, and I think what happened around the decision is that it is hard to give people all the insight and background but I think the rationale where the USGA was coming from was perceived to be ‘we don’t trust people who play alone’.  And that was never meant to be the perception.

36 – That was my knee-jerk reaction.  Especially for a game that is grounded in integrity and those kind of values.  It smacked against that.  Now your organization took a couple months and deliberated, I imagine there were some conversations with the USGA, to get to the point where in late January you made a reversal around that original decision.  Is it a decision that you are comfortable with?

SS – Yes, and again even though we work very close with the USGA if you think about handicap and course ratings our systems are not identical.  I will give you two examples: one is in terms of timing.  If you and I go out and play tomorrow and post our scores our handicap factor is updated immediately.  Whereas the USGA still has a two-week waiting period.  So if you and I are both 10.0 factors right now, we go out and play 5 games over a week.  I shoot 100 in every game and you shoot 75 in every game, several days from now we will both be a 10.  But when it updates you will probably drop to an 8 and I’ll go up to a 12.  So instead of real time it’s a two-week lag.  As well, we differed around equitable stroke control. I’m about a 12 (handicap) so under the old system all I could count was a double bogey.  The USGA had a slightly different system where at my level the most I could count was a 7, didn’t matter if it was a double bogey, triple bogey or a quadruple bogey.  In essence, our handicaps are going to be slightly different.  If I go down and play in an event in the States, my handicap hasn’t been computed in exactly the same way the guys in the U.S. have been.  So that presents a little bit of a challenge, or I’d even call it an opportunity.  Time flies, I’m going to say it’s last year or the year before and we changed to adopt the USGA equitable stroke control so now when I can go out the most I can count is a 7.  It is no longer just a double bogey.

36 – I seem to recall that change coming in about a couple years ago, it wasn’t too long ago.

SS – I don’t want to speak for the USGA but I think it is only a matter of time before they change to our system of real time updates.  So again where you think about those two changes, what is the key benefit? Having that alignment especially between the United States and Canada means consistency.  There is so much cross-border golfing and people posting scores, it just makes sense to be consistent with the US.  That said, our committee decided we were going to continue accepting solo rounds.  Then we sat down with the USGA and talked a little more about their rationale, and the key thing is there are six handicap bodies around the world.

36 – Ok.

SS – I don’t think a lot of people know that.  The R and A is not involved in handicapping at all.  There are six bodies: United States, Australia has their own system, Argentina has their own system, South Africa has their own system, the European Golf Union, and then there is CONGU which is the system used in the United Kingdom.  But they are all a little bit different.  And I think there is an aspirational goal to try to create consistent world-wide handicapping, one system.  So if you and I travel to Boston or we go to Singapore or Scotland or South Africa, all of us who are playing the game and keeping an official handicap factor are playing by the same methodology, the same rules I would say.

36 – That’s really insightful.

SS – So in a long rounded way I am going to give you an answer to your question.  The USGA system is the only one in the world that allows solo rounds.  So in an effort towards – and it may or may not happen – an aligned global system, this change was made.  And it was more to be aligned globally and had nothing to do with, ‘we don’t trust you’.  I don’t know if you’re familiar with how handicaps are calculated in the United Kingdom for example, if people play ten casual rounds with their buddies they can’t count any of those scores whether alone a twosome, threesome or foursome.  They have a competition about once a month and you go out and play and those scores are attested and you have one score a month that counts toward your official handicap.   So when you think about our system where you and I can go and play alone or with each other, we count every single game we play.  9 holes, 18 holes.  And I am not saying one is right or one is wrong, I’m just saying look at how different they are.

36 – I appreciate understanding the scope of the systems that are out there.

  1. I’d like to ask more about a world handicap system because shortly after the communication came out from Golf Canada (about the solo round handicap policy change); you sent out some tweets and let people know that part of the rationale is to possibly align to a world handicap system. I am curious to know, Mr. Simmons, what can you share about this?  Is there any timetable for its launch and could implementation result in any other policy changes around handicapping?

SS – Well I wish I could give you a lot of information, answers to that question, but I can’t.  I don’t really know the timetable; I don’t really know what’s been talked about because it has been conversations among the six entities.  I guess from my chair I just want to be supportive.  I am supportive of an international alignment.  And if one step toward that is no more solo rounds than sign me up. Because Canada wants to be part of the international golf landscape and if the rest of the world is moving to an aligned system we want to be part of that.  As far as the timing, I really don’t have any information on that.

36 – I respect that.  So if this is in its early development phase do you see Canada having a voice or seeking a presence around the development of this system?

SS – Ideally that would be fantastic.  I have expressed our desire to help to the various governing bodies and to the USGA, whose system we fall under.  So for Canada, of those six bodies, we fall under the USGA.  We use their computation.  I have expressed to the USGA we would love to help and be involved in any way we can.  I think they are open to that input so I may be able to give you more information down the road if we are in the room having the discussions but right now we are not.

36 – Thank you, I will certainly keep my ear to the ground around any news coming from your office on this issue.

  1. What exactly is the problem this solo round decision is seeking to address and how serious an issue was this for Golf Canada?

SS – I think in isolation it is not a problem.  You mentioned it earlier; it goes back to the essence of the game being a game or honour and integrity.  In talking to the USGA, it was not about trusting people.  But when you think about the unique nature of a solo round versus say a round with peers or fellow competitors, and in fact some people say the reason may be some people don’t understand the rules and may account themselves for a 6 or 7 and maybe were entitled to a free drop and did not need to add a penalty stroke.  I think the whole concept of having peers with you allows you to enjoy the game more and is fair and equitable both ways.

36 – The integrity issue swings both ways between the sandbagger and the person with a vanity handicap.

SS – If you’re a golfer who plays a lot of solo rounds you don’t ever want to be accused of that.  So why not have the games that count toward your official factor be ones where your peers have been with you.  And again, this has nothing to do about trusting people, but boy if you’re a 15 (handicap) and shoot a career best 78 at the member-guest and walk away with all the prizes and no one has ever played with you, you’re only putting yourself in a position where people may question you when everything is legitimate and you’ve counted every stroke and you really did have your career game.  Peer review is so essential in the game of golf.  It really has nothing to do with trust.

36 – I understand.

Tomorrow, the conversation with Mr. Scott Simmons will complete its look at solo rounds; will address the state of the game of golf in Canada as well as opportunities for greater youth engagement in the game.

Golf Canada Reverses Handicap Decision on Solo Rounds

Following the USGA decision on November 23, 2015, that member scores played as a single will no longer count toward their handicap index there was a firestorm on Twitter. The feedback was consistent in its criticism of the USGA. In a blog post I had written the following day, I wrote “the USGA does not trust its public players and it does not care to engage them”. Trust and integrity seemed to be the central themes to peoples’ criticism, only exacerbated by the fact that golf is all about honour and respect.

In Canada, Golf Canada followed up on November 24 with that it would not follow the USGA decision, maintaining its pre-existing policy to allow its players to record scores played as a single. I will admit I felt a strong sense of pride in my association’s decision to take a leadership position to that supports the honesty and integrity of its membership.

Fast forward almost two months to the date and Golf Canada sent a brief three sentence communication stating it has chosen to align its policies to the USGA on this issue. Following this decision, and the disdain from players and media alike, CEO of Golf Canada, Scott Simmons (@golfcanadaguy) sent three tweets out; outlining Golf Canada’s alignment to one system, also stating that ‘recreational’ players will soon have new means to track their performance, and lastly, this decision was made my Golf Canada alone aligning within a world handicap system. With that news, here are some reflections from the perspective of one public player:

1. This was extremely poorly communicated. Canadian golfers should expect more from their national association.

2. Global alignment is well and good but only around a system that respects the integrity of its players. This is a leadership moment lost. I rather see Golf Canada act alone and advocate for a system that respects the integrity of their association members.

3. It is possible Golf Canada buried the lede here? A World Handicap System is a great opportunity to align golfers around the world. But I would argue it’s better to do it right than do it quickly (or at all).

4. Are there no other pressing issues in the game of golf here in Canada, and globally? Environmental stewardship, continuing efforts to grow the game and dialing back the golf ball are three that quickly come to mind. I struggle to understand the root issue driving this decision. Is handicap fixing that large a concern or is the need to align to global handicap policy that important?

5. Engage and advocate for change. I plan to learn why this reversal in decision was made. I want to explore the pros and cons of this, but I struggle to see how I could be convinced that a policy that is not aligned to the values of the game – integrity, honesty and respect – can be embraced as something good for golf.

I look forward to an opportunity to speak with leadership at Golf Canada about this and will share any information I can with you. I am sad that over 30% of my rounds played in 2015 where because of circumstance or a conscious decision to play as single would not count toward my handicap index. The value of my Golf Canada membership seems diminished today.

Playing Alone and Necessary Peer Review

Stephanie Wei (@StephanieWei) provided the first tweet (which I happened to notice) about USGA changes to their handicap system.

USGA Handicap system 2016

So, the USGA will no longer allow it’s members to count score played as a single toward their handicap index.  The response on my twitter feed was a consistent mix of shock, disappointment and curiousity.  For a game which markets itself on terms like ‘integrity’, ‘honesty’ and ‘truth’, this move does make much sense to me.

I played 31 games this year and almost 30% of those were as a single.  Lowering my handicap is very important to me.  I strive to play my best and to improve.  I play in bad weather and at odd times of the day when there may be not be others on the tee sheet.  Being penalized for this does not seem right.

I was engaged in a conversation with a twitter follower yesterday who shared the following:

Public Players – speaking personally – join an organization like Golf Canada or USGA to be able to obtain a handicap index, to realize the benefits of membership and to engage in our national (and regional) golf organization(s).  Within Ontario, annually, the Golf Association of Ontario hosts a Public Players Championship.  It provides people like me the chance to compete similar to private club members experiences.  I value that while I do not belong to a club, my national golf association feels my participation in the game is acknowledge and celebrated.  I appreciate (as exists in Canada now) that circumstances which mean on occasion I play as a single are valued toward my engagement in the game. I will place a fine point to my critique:  to me, the USGA does not trust it’s public players and it does care to engage them.  @UWedge made an excellent point above around engagement; we’re not all members of private clubs who have regular tee times with other members. Jason Sobel shares my sentiments in his tweet yesterday about trust:

The marginalization of the public player continues.  Rules like banning anchored putting, and now this need for peer reviewed scoring do nothing to grow the game and engage players outside of the country club.  For the leaders in the game who are seemingly dead set against bifurcation, their actions seem to be pushing public players and marginalizing us to a place where we don’t belong and are not welcome in the ‘USGA’ game.  I saw many people posting on twitter than 10, 25, upwards of 90% of their rounds are played as a single.  Factors like work scheduling, budget and proximity mean the local muni may be the only place an avid golfer can get to and play a sunrise round, on their own, before getting off on their day.

Critics may say this is an issue of integrity.  Soon they can look within the walls of their country clubs to enforce issues like this.  Decisions like this only disengage the public player more and more from a game and a national structure and organization that many of us are passionate about and care about.  A decision like this in Canada would give me real cause to consider the value of membership.


The Plague of Slow Play

“Scots do not dally when they play golf.  From their opening stroke on the first tee to the last putt on 18, they play golf with an unerring determination to get to the ball, hit it, and move on…golf is what they are out to play and play it they will.” – Willis Copeland, http://www.theindependentgolfer.com.

I am not a fan of the current USGA “While we’re young” campaign aimed to, essentially, shame slow players to play faster.  To me it’s like trying to swat a fly with one piece of tissue paper instead of rolled up newspaper.  And while I admit I laughed at PGA Professional Ben Crane’s video where he poked fun at himself, I was also struck by the audacity of another PGA pro, Rory Sabbatini, who putted out and basically played the 18th hole alone in protest of Crane’s slow play.  All these belie a significant problem which I feel is keeping people from starting (or for many, continuing) to play the game.

If it was touring professionals alone, I’d be ok with this.  Their livelihood is at stake and their extended rounds mean more time on the couch in the winter to watch golf.  But public golfers are lemmings, ok, I am.  I try to dress like the late Payne Stewart or Ian Poulter.  I like that I can use their equipment and play the same courses they do (although I no longer try to play from the tips, but some will…not an insignificant issue in itself). The point is, we emulate their actions.  We grind over short putts, partially because modern course design provides risk of three putting from 4 feet and ready golf is not commonplace (among other issues).

I’m not radical in my beliefs; course marshals should not have tasers, and should not escort people off the course immediately.  But they should be empowered to effectively move play along.  And players should be aware of and ultimately responsible for the ramifications of their slow play.  I admire a campaign that Copper Creek, in Kleinburg, Ontario, has had, boasting a 4.5 hour round ‘guarantee’.  Another progressive alternative is to reward fast play.  The deep thinkers of the national governing bodies of golf can skirt around this all they want, but the issue is real, deeply problematic in my opinion, and requires some innovative solutions that need to balance a ‘carrot and stick’ approach.  And using a 14 year-old scapegoat at the 2013 Masters, in my opinion, is weak when the issue is much more pervasive.  Perhaps the “While we’re young” campaign needs to be aimed inward at the USGA.  Time and resources can be better utilized leading an action agenda toward solutions, creative and innovative ideas, not gimmicks likely to be lost on the most heinous offenders.  After all, we all impacted by the challenges around pace of play.  John Gordon of Canadian Golf Magazine says it best, “If you love this game, you will take a personal responsibility for it”.

I’m interested in your thoughts.  Is slow play really a serious issue for golf?  What is the greatest challenge that leads to slow play in golf today?

P.S. Special acknowledgement to an excellent article (pg. 11) on the issue of slow play in golf by Canadian Golf Magazine’s Steve Auger which inspired this post.