Post a suspicious score at the World-Am Championship and you’ll end up in Room 204

January 25, 2012

When a slight, middle-aged man from Tennessee named Robert walked into Room 204 of the Sheraton Myrtle Beach convention center last fall, he was entering a banal hotel room with sage green carpet and bare beige walls. But as he was told to take a seat on a plastic chair flanked by a clunky brown desk — with a grim-faced, Bluetooth-wearing twentysomething towering over him — he must have wondered if he'd stumbled into an episode of NYPD Blue, with its gritty backroom confrontations and confessions.

"Who is Bill Franklin?" the kid asked.

"He's the pro at my club," Robert said without hesitation.

Pause. Silence. Another committee member sat to the kid's left. Both wore all black.

Robert had to sense trouble. To get to this room, this eye in the sky, he'd had to walk past a security guard, up an escalator and past another guard.

"Here's the thing, Robert," said the kid. "When I called your course, they said Bill Franklin is dead."

"He's not dead," Robert insisted.

"They said he hasn't worked there since 1999," the kid pressed on. "And yet he signed your handicap sheet."

Robert would be DQ'd from the event, but not for forging a dead pro's signature. (In fact the pro was alive but had left the profession almost 10 years ealier.) His sin: failing to post all his scores back home, a no-no for a tournament in which the accuracy of the handicap is everything. He nodded, seeming to understand, and left. The only thing missing was a reality show catchphrase like "You're fired!" Robert of Tennessee never had a chance; he'd been voted off the island.

If you're one of the roughly 4,000 contestants in the annual PGA Superstore World Amateur Championship this August, Room 204 is the last place you want to be, pleading your case before the tournament's black-clad, four-man handicap committee. It means you've been red-flagged. Perhaps your "handicap" is a 14 and you've just shot two straight 73s. Or some digging by the committee has revealed that you keep two handicap cards, a 13 and a 22. Or your gross score is lower than the net score of anyone else in your flight. Or the guy who signed your handicap sheet is dead.

Golfers from 48 states and 31 countries entered the 2007 World Am, which since its inception in 1984 has provided nearly 75,000 men and women with competition and an excuse for a Myrtle Beach vacation. Anyone with an official handicap and $500 can enter. Most who enter are honest everyday golfers. They keep a faithful handicap and record every score, even the nine-hole marks, or rounds that get rained out after 13 holes.

It is for those Honest Abes that the handicap committee toils, for Rule 6-2 says that every player is responsible for giving an accurate account of his or her handicap, which sounds simple enough. But at the World Amateur it is anything but simple, because as the handicap committee's Dave Harbaugh says, "Everybody wants to be a winner."

The World AM consists of 72 holes of flight play on 55 courses throughout Myrtle Beach, followed by an 18-hole playoff for flight winners, complete with PGA Tour-style electronic scoreboards, at the famed Dunes Golf and Beach Club. The committee does most of its work early, sidelining suspected sandbaggers well before the Friday finale. Disqualified contestants aren't eligible for the prizes but may keep playing.

Then again, you never know when a player will balk at being bounced, which is why the tension-filled Room 204 may be the last, best unmade reality show. Tears flow nightly. One year a man threw a beer at the handicap committee. Another time, a woman was so furious that at night's end the men in black required a police escort to exit the building. Another incensed player rode the escalator to the convention floor and, quite possibly the result of being over-served, punched a concrete post, shattering his arm and requiring a trip to the local ER.

Then there was the bomb threat.

"I remember sitting under a palm tree by the 13th tee at the Dunes and hearing on my walkie-talkie, 'Come in, Bill! Come in!' " says Bill Golden, the incoming president of Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday and a former World Am tournament director. "I'm thinking, What could be so important? Did we run out of food? We had to make the decision whether to go on with the tournament or evacuate the golf course," Golden says. "We pressed on, like Hubert Green. It was a big deal. Somebody came from the fire department. The guy called in the threat to the pro shop. We thought it was a guy who'd been bounced the day before, but we didn't have any evidence."

"I remember one guy came in with his lawyer," says Golden, a Conan O'Brien lookalike. "But you can't question the handicap committee. Decisions are final."

Harbaugh, a 36-year-old pro and director of golf at a South Carolina club, plays the good cop. If he looks unimposing, that's by design. He doesn't want to give a player an excuse to fly into a rage. So Harbaugh doesn't go there. He likens himself to the Patrick Swayze character in the movie Road House, who's nicknamed "The Cooler" for easing the exits.

Not that he doesn't wish his job were easier. "We should just bring in Lou Ferrigno and put him in an extra small shirt, sit him down and say, 'Look, Lou doesn't want you in the tournament anymore,' " Harbaugh says. "That'd be it."

Three other Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday employees, all men in their 20s, make up the committee: Tyler Hahn, a no-nonsense former tournament player with a nose for the kill (and the aforementioned Bluetooth wearer); Dave Macpherson, a buttoned-down straight-arrow; and Ric Freeman, who at 21 is still in college. They're assisted and supervised by affable tournament director Steve Mays.

"You need to be decisive, firm and able to look someone in the eye and deliver bad news," Golden says.

In addition to DQ-ing the worst offenders, the committee will adjust a player's handicap based on exceptional play as early as day two, and a player may be adjusted more than once. Although the drama typically takes place at night, the committee does most of its work in the light of day, making calls, scouring online handicap systems and punching calculators, all while the World Am plays out.

Thursday night is usually the bloodiest, which is why committee members wear black-on-black. One year in the late '90s there was a mass execution: 21 players were called into the room at once, and all 21 slumped out, their heads hung. After tweaking handicaps all week the committee is in no mood for negotiating. It wants Friday to be free of any fudged handicaps.

For the integrity of the field, some players simply must go. Harbaugh usually begins with, "First, let me congratulate you on a couple of great days," and never raises his voice from there. Even as the guillotine falls, it's paired with a pleasantry: "The good news is you're a lot better than your handicap says. The bad news is you're out of your flight. You're welcome to keep playing — you're just not eligible for prizes."

The most common violation is failing to record enough scores leading into the tournament. It suggests no foul play and leaves everyone's pride intact. Such was the case for Robert Lang of Winter Haven, Fla. (not to be confused with Robert of Tennessee). Lang's back-to-back 77s alerted the committee, which discovered that he had posted few scores relative to the number of times he'd played (he played a regular scramble, making it impossible to figure out his own score).

Lang's time in Room 204 was without argument, and he said upon being DQ'd, "Hey, I could give a s—. Let's have a drink!" He admits fault, but he's not bitter. "The handicap they gave me was a 9.5, and I should have told them that I played as a 2.3 [the previous year]. But hey, I've had both my parents die in the last two years. I wasn't too worried about handicaps. My mom always said to have fun, and I'm going to have fun."

Like many others, Lang had clearly violated Rule 6-2 by failing to keep a strict accounting of his handicap. But other cases are more complicated. What if a player simply has a career week? How is that a crime? That's when it gets interesting.

Of the seven players marked for death on Thursday night last fall, a long-hitting, 50-year-old Kentuckian named Steve was the most borderline case. Kentucky Steve, who also competed on an amateur circuit called the Louisville Golf Tour, had faithfully recorded every score coming into the tournament and was a 3 handicap. The problem was he'd shot 67-69- 73-67. In his flight, his gross score beat everybody else's net.

Said tournament director Mays, preparing in Room 204 minutes before the committee would begin summoning players: "I'm a 3.6, and it would be extremely difficult for me to shoot those scores."

Hahn: "But he's putting lights- out. On their [Louisville] tour they play the back tees."

Mays: "He's won his flight every year here. He blew away the field by 12 shots. He shot 5.6 shots better than his handicap index would indicate. How many times has he broken 70 on that score sheet?"

Hahn: "Never. Not since March."

Mays: "The thing is, I don't mind one 67 — but then the 69, 73 and [another] 67? Call this guy up here. There isn't any way he's a 3 handicap."

Steve, a large man, lumbered into the room. He put up a spirited defense, faulting the World Am's cupcake, course-shortening tournament tees. "We played the [de facto] ladies tees," he said. "Every course was 6,100 yards. I'm used to [a longer setup]. And I didn't even make any putts. A guy said the first day, 'If you could putt you'd have shot 60!' And I would have!"

Kentucky Steve wasn't exactly helping himself. It was like telling a highway patrolman, "Hey, if you think 90 is fast, I could have gotten this baby up to 110!" But Steve, who maintains that his handicap was legitimate, had a point about the courses being too short. Lang said the same thing.

But Mays had the final word, so the committee delivered the bad news. They had no hard evidence, save that his scores were closer to an aspiring Champions Tour pro, not a 3 handicap. They told Kentucky Steve he was free to try again next year, but that didn't seem likely. He was angry at being penalized for good play.

"Come back? No!" he said. "Why would I?"

His elite senior flight was led not by Kentucky Steve but by Henry Jackson, 52, and Bobby Talley, 59. Both were surprised to find their names atop their flight Thursday night and had mixed feelings the next day at the Dunes.

"It was entirely possible for [Kentucky Steve] to shoot 67 on that course," Jackson says. "I played with him on the fourth day, and you can tell he's a legit 4 or 5. I mean, God, that's what you live for, a day like that!"

In the end, the big star at the Dunes was neither Jackson nor Talley but June Wang, 45, of Huntersville, N.C. She shot a gross 93, net 63 with her World Am handicap of 30, good enough to win. And what was her secret? Posting only her bad scores leading up to the event? Keeping two handicaps? Forging Bobby Jones' signature on her handicap sheet?

"Before I got here," Wang says, "I practiced four hours a day, 7 to 11 am, for four weeks. I said to my husband, 'I signed up, I paid my $500, and I will do my best.'"

Wang, who had dominated her flight by 11 shots, had only kept a handicap since July. She'd almost ended up in Room 204 herself, but in the end she was simply new to golf and on a steep learning curve. Her handicap would soon fall, since tournament scores receive extra weight. It seemed like a validation of the handicap committee's work that after all the number-crunching, the phone calls, and the palm-dampening moments in The Room, the way to win the World Am was the same way you'd get to Carnegie Hall.