English golfers who don’t belong to a club are about to get a fresh lease of life with the announcement of England Golf’s iGolf initiative. For £40, clubless golfers can get what’s been denied to them for so long – an official handicap.
Oh, how I wish such an initiative existed 30 years ago.
I arrived in England with a bit of a quandary when I moved here from Canada in 1987. I faced a classic Catch-22 situation. I didn’t have a handicap and, without belonging to a club, I couldn’t get one. That made playing the game in my new home incredibly difficult.
Playing golf in Kitchener, Ontario, was fairly simple for a new golf aficionado like me. I was spoilt for choice. There were numerous clubs from which to choose within a 10- to 15-mile radius. All I had to do was make a phone call, book a tee time for me and my pals, pay the green fee and off I went at courses likes Merry-Hill, Rockway, Doon Valley, Brookfield, Beaverdale, Elmira, Conestoga, Dundee, Foxwood and Innerkip Highlands. All good courses. All in excellent condition.
There weren’t many golf courses near Maida Vale, my first abode upon arriving back in the United Kingdom. No problem, I thought. I scanned a map to familiarise myself with clubs within driving distance, got out the phone book and made a few calls.
Two issues stopped me in my tracks. One, private clubs didn’t allow visitors on weekends. And a handicap was required.
Not once was I asked for a handicap certificate playing in Canada. My mates and I didn’t really talk in handicaps, more scores: Could you break 100, 90, 80? We were all low- to mid-90s players aspiring to break 90, 80. We took the game seriously, replaced our divots, repaired our pitch marks, raked bunkers properly, kept up with the group in front and adhered to golf’s etiquette.
I’m in favour of handicaps for nomadic golfers. All golfers, whether club members or not, should be afforded a handicap to track their progress.
I tried to point out the above facts to one snooty secretary at a private club to the West of London, but to no avail. He talked to me as if I was a little bit of dirt on the bottom of his shoe.
These were the days of waiting lists, when golf seemed a closed shop for people like me. Without a handicap, my golf options were severely restricted.
I spent the best part of 18 months reduced to driving range golf, sneaky visits to a quiet corner of Regent’s Park to hit short, 30- to 40-yard wedge shots. It frustrated the hell out of me that I couldn’t get a handicap because I didn’t belong to a golf club.
Thankfully, my options changed when my knowledge and enthusiasm for this great game got me my first golf magazine job. Amazing how many doors open when your official title on a golf publication is assistant editor.
Within a few months of starting my golf writing career, I returned to the same golf club where the snooty secretary had spoken to me with such contempt. I played with a former captain and told him of my frustration of trying to play in England without an official handicap (diplomatically leaving out the encounter with the club secretary). To my delight, he said he would be happy to propose me for membership. Unfortunately, I had to turn him down because I’d moved out of London by that time.
It seemed patently obvious to me back then that golfers who chose not to belong to a single golf club were not being catered for. Thankfully, due to technology and the new World Handicapping System, those who don’t want to join a club now can get a handicap index that reflects their ability.
There are those who say people will abuse this new system but, as one golf secretary pointed out recently on Twitter, there were those who abused the handicap system before the WHS came into play. Cheats are cheats, and will find ways around systems no matter what. Same goes for the Rules of Golf. Besides, the vast majority of those who play this great game do so honestly.
Others say giving nomad golfers handicaps will undermine golf club membership. Why would anyone need to join a club now when they can get an official handicap without belonging to a club? Others argue the opposite, that affording everyone a handicap, especially newcomers, will only encourage people to join clubs.
Only time will tell on that front.
As with all matters relating to handicaps, polarisation on this issue is almost a given. I’m in favour of handicaps for nomadic golfers. All golfers, whether club members or not, should be afforded a handicap to track their progress.
I just wish it was available before now, but better late than never.
For information on the new iGolf scheme, visit England Golf's designated webpage.
Top: Golfers no longer need to belong to clubs to be able to maintain handicaps.