Ivan Morris Column - Being a scracth golfer is now easier than ever

Limerick Leader golf columnist Ivan Morris
In this week’s Limerick Leader column, Ivan Morris hits out at a system that lets too many golfers play off scratch.

In this week’s Limerick Leader column, Ivan Morris hits out at a system that lets too many golfers play off scratch.

It’s easier than ever to become a scratch golfer. Plus golfers are ten-a-penny, which tends to undermine their status. Because there are so many plus players, they no longer receive the respect they deserve. Some may manipulate their handicaps by picking and choosing where and when they play but I would not wish to impugn the honesty of scratch men in general. They are simply ‘willing victims’ of a faulty system.

Some scratch golfers are demon putters around their home courses and break par regularly in domestic competitions but they can play like duffers ‘away’ under more stringent circumstances. The CONGU Handicapping system allows scratch golfers to get away with confining their activities to ‘home ground.’ As a result, some get their handicaps down to plus figures far too easily.

As well as the usual requirements, a scratch golfer should also have to produce say, 5 ‘away scores’ in championship conditions annually (i.e. in scratch cups) to be eligible to play in a provincial or national championship. If you can’t perform in a one-day scratch event how can you expect to play well in a championship? Honest golfers have nothing to fear from being ‘incentivized’ to play in scratch cups and alliances more often. If they did, it would be good for them and good for golf.

In 1970, a scratch player was expected to return scores equal to or better than the standard score of the day at a variety of courses in open competitions; a minimum of six scores, three at one’s home course and three at three different away courses. A player could only be given or retain a handicap of scratch if his performances in general were thought worthy by his provincial branch. That meant figuring in the later stages of championships and Irish Senior Cup as well as representing one’s province. It was very rare that a player who wasn’t a current inter-pro would be granted scratch status.

Scratch golfers were rarities in the 1970s, rarely rising above fifteen or sixteen in number. In a good year there might be five in Munster. Scratch was intended to represent a very high and consistent standard of play. Even if a player met the required standard, it did not follow that a scratch handicap would always be granted. Times have changed; more ‘proper’ athletes are playing golf. The game is easier due to high-tech equipment and there is the once, unheard of phenomenon of FULL-TIME amateurs.

That the game was more difficult forty years ago is without doubt. That there was less competition was balanced by the fact that the scratch man enjoyed the clear advantage that if off form for a lengthy period the .1s would not mount up and count against him. The big difference today is that turning in sufficient scores on ‘easy’ home courses will automatically entitle one to a scratch handicap.

Under the most benign conditions imaginable at this years West of Ireland Championship at Rosses Point only 16 golfers out of a field of 144, all with handicaps of scratch or better, managed to break par. At the other end of the spectrum there were 15-scores in the 80s returned, which compared with days gone by (even allowing for the ‘perfect’ conditions) was not, by any means, a poor effort. In many respects the 2014 version (won by a name to remember, Jack Hume of Naas) might have been the best ‘West’ ever! The scourge of slow play was controlled and the innovation of pre-qualifying helped to eliminate the ‘no hopers’ and kept the standard high while also giving the ‘dark horse’ his chance.

It’s overdue that the South of Ireland at Lahinch instituted a similar ‘pre-qualifier’ approach. It would weed out the no-hopers and boost the quality of the entry. A fixed number of four or five byes into the match play draw for current internationals would be ‘The South’s’ saviour and bring it back to its former glory.

Every week there are players in the 80s on the professional golf tours. Any amateur who manages to break par on a championship course deserves our respect. But, scores in the mid-to-high 80s that are regularly returned at this level are indefensible for plus-handicap golfers even if the courses are set up to play as tough as any of the professional majors with slick greens, high rough and ‘tucked’ pin positions.

To avoid further scandal, the GUI should be noting the names of those who never come close to playing to their handicaps in open competitions because it reflects badly on themselves and CONGU. Too many ‘uncompetitive’ scratch men highlight a flaw in the system rather than failings in character, if it is allowed to go unchecked. To call somebody a ‘bandit’ because he cannot automatically match par away from his home course in a championship is unfair. Wasn’t it the great Bob Jones who once said: There is golf and then, there is championship golf!”

The tearing up of a card is generally regarded as a discreditable business, showing at once vanity and pusillanimity. I must say that I do feel more of a man when I have gone on to the bitter end and handed in the horrid thing - Bernard Darwin