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Pope Of Slope

How to detect a sandbagger or a vanity handicapper

By Dean Knuth
Golf Digest
August 2003

A Golf Digest Campaign: Get a Handicap

Why is it that we so rarely play to our single-digit handicaps or that some of those 14-handicappers often play a lot better than we think they should? We asked Contributing Editor and golf handicap expert Dean Knuth for some explanations and mathematical possibilities when it comes to playing to "your number."

Q:
How often should I play to -- or beat -- my handicap?
Knuth:
If it's accurate, you should average about three shots above your handicap. For example, a player with a course handicap of 16 on a course with a rating of 71.1 should score on average about 90. The USGA handicap system is based on 96 percent of the best 10 of a golfer's last 20 rounds, not simply average score.

Scores normally fit into the classic bell-shaped curve. More than half of your scores should be within three strokes of three over your handicap. In other words, taking our 16-handicapper, more than half of the rounds should be between 87 and 93. The player will better the handicap -- shooting 87 or lower -- only about 20 percent of the time, or once every five rounds. Golfers should only beat their handicap by three strokes one out of every 20 rounds.

Q: What are the odds of that 16-handicapper breaking 80?
Knuth:
The odds of someone beating their handicap -- if it's an honest handicap -- by eight strokes are 1,138 to 1. For most players that represents about 54 years of golf -- a lifetime for many. The odds of beating your number by eight strokes twice are 14,912 to 1, or 710 years of golf.

Q: Are there more sandbaggers s(people who maintain artificially high handicaps so they can win net competitions) or vanity handicappers (people who think they're a lot better than they really are and whose handicaps are lower than they should be)?

Knuth: About 1 to 2 percent of golfers are sandbaggers, and about 10 percent fall into the vanity-handicap category (also called "reverse sandbaggers"). Sandbaggers typically post very few scores -- only their worst rounds -- or add strokes to their score or intentionally play a few bad holes near the end of a round. They usually play better than their handicaps in tournaments. Vanity handicappers, on the other hand, typically post only their best scores, or scores better than what they actually shot.

Of these two, the sandbagger is the more reprehensible, because that player is manipulating the system for personal gain. Vanity handicappers are just delusional optimists, though they are terrible partners to be stuck with.


Q: How can you spot a vanity handicapper?
Knuth:
Vanity handicappers are constantly apologizing for "unusually" bad play. It starts on the first tee, how they're just not playing well right now, or how they have some new equipment that they haven't gotten used to, or how they're in the middle of a swing change. For men, the reverse sandbagger typically carries a single-digit handicap but plays to a 15.

Q: Are handicap inaccuracies as common among women golfers as they are among men?
Knuth:
It's hard to generalize, but during the 16 years that I was at the USGA, and having met with hundreds of regional and state men's and women's golf associations, it's widely accepted that the vanity handicap is more prevalent in women's golf. The reason is that women's teams often set a maximum handicap such as 14 or 18, which is relatively low for women. The average women's handicap hovers at 31, compared to 16 for men. A small percentage of women are single-digit handicappers, primarily because many courses are set up to play too long from the women's tees.

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