The handicap system makes golf a unique sport in which all players, regardless of ability, can compete on a level playing field. A handicap is a measure that typically represents the number of strokes per round a player takes more than that which a "scratch" (zero handicapped) golfer is considered likely to score. Not only are ordinary golfers able to play on the same courses as the cream of the professional game but also, armed with a handicap, any golfer could compete against the best in the world and have a fair chance of winning.
Other sports have toyed with introducing a handicap system but it is only in golf that it has been developed to underpin the competitive club game. Applied to football, for example, the handicap system could make a game between an amateur team such as Lochs and a full-time professional setup like Aberdeen FC an evenly balanced contest. By giving Aberdeen a two-goal advantage before kick-off, there is every chance that the Pittodrie club would avoid defeat. An alternative approach would be to instruct match officials to weight their decisions and thereby penalise the better team in games to such an extent that inferior sides are able to compete successfully. Apparently, a secret pilot programme based on this approach has been operating successfully in the Scottish Premier League for a number of years, at least according to the partners in one team in our Winter League: Pat Aird and Peter Grant, themselves benefitting from an unlikely handicap and an even more unlikely imagination.
The handicap system has its downside. As a continuing measure of a golfer’s ability, it is adjusted up and down to reflect the highs and troughs of a playing career. It records the gradual decrease in handicap that comes with improvement and it is relatively simple to pinpoint exactly when a golfer reaches his peak level of performance. However, it also charts the slow decline from that point until the day when a handicap is no longer enough to level the playing field, the day when the golfer wishes he was aged 28 with a handicap of 70 instead of vice versa.
Although some golfers take an inordinate interest in the handicaps of others, it is only when a ludicrous score is recorded that handicaps are really scrutinised. Last weekend was one of those occasions. While Ali Ban and Flute may sound like the name of a wandering minstrel – and many Winter League participants wish it were – it is in fact the pairing of Alastair Maclennan and Neil Macleod. Until last Saturday, no one had queried their handicap of 12. The visit of a hypnotist to the golf club may have convinced Flute that he was indeed Arnol Palmer and convinced Ali that he was indeed an accomplished golfer. Whatever the reason, the pair returned a nett score of eleven under par over the twelve holes of the winter course. Their outward six holes were solid and left them with 8 strokes of their handicap for the return leg. Pars at the Miller and Ditch were followed by birdies on the Redan, Gunsite and Manor, with a par on the Short sandwiched in between. No other team bettered that gross total of three under par for the back six and, indeed, few teams bettered their gross score of 48 for the round. Fifteen points and a cut in handicap was their reward, together with a veiled warning not to repeat that performance. To make their improbable score even more remarkable, their round was played in the morning in the worst of the high winds and driving rain although, being from the wild west of Lewis, Ali and Neil would find the weather to be no great handicap.
The morning conditions were undoubtedly more testing but, even in the afternoon, the wind remained strong. On the 160 yard Ditch, Ken Galloway resorted to using a driver to force his tee shot into the teeth of the gale to fifteen feet from the hole. He and partner John Macleod were otherwise oblivious to the difficult conditions. They began their round with three consecutive birdies on the Ard Choille, Glen and Heather. Despite birdie opportunities on almost every green, they settled for level par over the next seven holes before birdies on their final two holes, the Short and Manor, gave Ken and John a superb gross total of five under par for nett 37 and twelve points.
Bryan Geddes and Colin Macritchie matched the lowest gross score of the day set by Ken and John. Unlike Ken and John, they had a bogey on their card. That bogey, on their first hole, was immediately followed by a birdie on the Ditch. Further birdies on the outward half at the Gunsite and Manor were followed by three on the back six, at the Ard Choille, Ranol and long Caber/Foresters. Their meagre handicap of one gave them nett 41 and a share of third place with David Black and Euan Morrison.
David and Euan played the opening six holes in one below par, with birdies on the Memorial and long Caber/Foresters either side of a bogey on the Ranol. The last six holes were played in level par, a birdie on the Manor cancelling out a bogey on the Redan.
Martyn Macleod and Graeme Tait picked up another useful 8 points at the weekend to take their tally to 26 in the overall competition. They share second place with Murdo and Peter O’Brien, while Ken Galloway and John Macleod have established a lead of four points at the top of the table. A couple of good rounds could catapult any of the other partnerships into a challenging position and, while that hope remains, almost every team will be out competing regardless of what our temperate climate conjures up as a challenge.