Sandbagger's Hell at the World Am
Along a back hallway of the Myrtle Beach Convention Center, past the ballroom as the evening’s entertainment goes through a sound check and around the corner from the hitting bays where the Dave Pelz Short Game School has set up shop, five guys sit in a room—putty colored walls, busy industrial carpet, fluorescent light. Their faces lit by the glow of computer screens, they speak not in any recognizable language but instead sound like they’re auditioning for the lead role in “A Beautiful Mind.”“Flight 10 we got one who played to a 10.4 differential though she’s a 13.6, one in 21 probability.” The one man standing on the other side of the table takes this information in, nods thoughtfully and shuffles through a stack of papers. This is Boot Hill for sandbaggers.
With 3,100 golfers spread over 59 golf courses and major pride on the line, there are always a few wise guys who will try to game the system. These six number crunchers, the tournament’s Handicap Committee, are there to make sure no one gets away with it. Their weapons are live scoring updates and something called the USGA Tournament Scoring Probability Table, which was devised by Dean Knuth, who’s known as the Pope of Slope, and lists the odds of any golfer of a particular skill level shooting a certain number of shots below his handicap index for the course he’s playing on, a.k.a. his differential.
Since golfers are grouped by flights according to their index, the outliers are easy to spot. On Monday night, one golfer who came in as a 19.4 posted a score 10 shots better than his differential, a feat that hit the chart at 37,000-to-1 odds. “We don’t want to discount the round of a lifetime, but that definitely raises a red flag,” says one committeeman. Golfers who shoot too far below their index differential on the first or second day will get a thorough background check that includes verification of their index, their last score posted, their lowest posted score, their tournament history and even a call home to the head pro that signed their handicap verification form. “We’ve had pros tell us right off the bat, ‘Yeah, I was expecting to hear from you.’ That’s a pretty good sign of a problem,” says Tyler Hahn, the committee head.
Most will likely have their handicap adjusted, and Hahn estimates that about three percent of players in all will get adjusted during a typical week. But if the suspect scoring continues or hits certain predetermined mathematical parameters, the player gets called into the conference room and DQ'd. “Those are never happy conversations,” Hahn says.
The committee tries to let players continue until Thursday, figuring anyone who’s simply having a few good rounds will return to the norm, but by Thursday night there’s no more leniency. The line outside the conference room will be long, and a security guard will be stationed inside.
“It’s tough,” says Hahn. “Nobody comes out of there happy. There’s a lot of gray area, and it often comes down to a judgment call, but we have to protect the rest of the field, too.” As he speaks, Mr. 37,000- to-1’s round-two score comes in. His handicap has been adjusted down to a 17.4 based on a mathematical formula that was also devised by Knuth. He’s played two shots better than his differential. The odds of that are 121 to 1. The committee members look at each other but don’t say anything. Someone may be making the long walk down that back hallway tonight. Photo: The World Am Handicap Committee hard at work. (Erick Rasco/SI)