Nothing in sport polarises opinion more than unlikely victory.
In cricket, if a minnow side overcomes a top-ranked team, it is automatically assumed to be the result of match-fixing. In soccer, a disputed penalty that decided the outcome can be safely attributed to a bent referee (or VAR).
Golf, being the gentleman’s game, is immune from all this tawdry talk. Bobby Jones, after being praised for calling a penalty stroke on himself when alone in the rough, replied, ‘You may as well praise a man for not robbing a bank.’
But that was then and this is now. Any golfer who has ever played in a competition knows that unlikely victory is never something to be celebrated. And let’s be clear, we’re not talking about Brian Harman’s astonishing romp to victory at The Open at Hoylake. Unlikely it may have been, but Harman just happened to have the week of his life on England’s west coast. He drove the ball straight and, when everyone else was missing, he made 59 of 60 putts from inside 10 feet. You can’t ‘fix’ that. Case closed.
No. What we’re talking about here are the competitions that are the lifeblood of golf clubs around the world. The Wednesday betterball, the Saturday Chicken Run, the Monthly Mug, the charity day. In the clubhouses of the world, you will find men and women muttering conspiracy theories into their glasses of lemonade because the winner/s were more than a tad unlikely.
I wager that every club in South Africa has heard and passed on the surely apocryphal tale of the fourball that handed in a completed card, despite the fact that the weather precluded anyone from finishing. Similarly, is there a club that has not been invaded by four non-members who mysteriously walk off with the main prize on the biggest sponsored day of the year?
Personally, I’ve always attributed the desperate need to win a non-descript club competition as a character defect. That may be because I’ve never had a handicap lower than 16, but I don’t think so. Why would someone with no debt and money in the bank, cheat their way to a sleeve of Titleists? And by cheating, let’s be specific. It’s not just picking up the ball a foot from the hole ‘because there’s no way I’d miss that’. What we’re talking about is handicap manipulation.
Perhaps because I’ve been a hacker all my life, when my phone beeps to tell me my handicap index has been cut, it’s a cause for celebration. I’m point two of a stroke closer to being regarded as a proper golfer (some hope). For our manipulator, however, it must sound like the knell of doom. He or she has moved from 11.3 to 11, losing a whole stroke as a result.
There are times, however, when truth is stranger than the fiction of the manipulators. The other day at the humble golf club I call home, I played in a fourball, betterball competition. The lowest handicap in our group was 20. We entered halfway house in a daze, having accrued 47 points: two better than level threes, as they used to say.
The fourball ahead of us expressed astonishment, but we beat them to it. Needless to say, we went out in a Boeing and came home in an ambulance but hung on for an unlikely victory and a quartet of Chicken Flatties for the braai. Rarely has anything tasted so sweet.
– This column first appeared in the September 2023 issue of Compleat Golfer magazine.