Once upon a time, being The Club Champion was a position of some distinction, and being known as a “scratch golfer,” or one of the very best players at any golf club, was an honor that carried a little more reverence than it does today. For a long, long time, most clubs in this world regarded The Club Championship as their premier event, an eagerly anticipated annual occasion where many would line the fairways to watch their club’s best golfers square off in the culmination of a quest to be crowned the champion golfer of the year. It was a great tradition, one each club’s best players planned their golfing year around. It’s the reason why most clubs (even today) hold their championships well into their season: to give golfers ample time to round into form, providing the best opportunity for an exciting event for both competitor and spectator alike.
“Infinite striving to be the best is man’s duty; it is its own reward.”
– Mahatma Gandhi
Yes, once upon a time we respected and revered the best among us, and at least partly because of that, many more of us annually aspired to join their ranks. Unfortunately, we just don’t seem to do that as much anymore. At some point in the last century, there began a slow, but steady erosion of this long-standing tradition, and The Club Championship lost its place as most club’s preeminent tournament to handicapped events like invitationals and qualifiers, where players of varied abilities could team up for a shot at each club’s biggest prize. And as this tradition lost its relevance, a great many of us seemingly lost the desire, determination, and motivation to do the hard work it takes to embark upon that annual quest to be the best. So before this tradition completely fades from memory, I think it’s time to solve the riddle of just how, when and why this has occurred, and what we can all do if we want to go back to that place. To get there, I believe first a little golf history is in order.
The Scots are historically given credit for inventing the game of golf. A lesser-known fact, though, is that they also likely invented the precursor to the modern handicap system. Assigning the odds is what the Scots called the practice of handicapping, and the adjustor of the odds was the person who most closely resembled our modern-day handicap chairman. Their earliest attempts at handicapping golf events, however, didn’t benefit the competitors, but rather the bettors. As a result, the Scots and their nearly insatiable appetite for a wager unknowingly created a monster.
Even more so than today, it was not uncommon back then for there to be two or three golfers of exceeding ability playing in each club’s tournament, but the Scots endeavored to bring more horses into the field, and handicapping the competitors increased the number of individuals that one might bet upon, and subsequently increased the total of bettors and money in the betting pools. The natural progression of this, of course, was the idea of conducting tournaments where players would be given a certain allowance of strokes in order to compete against players of greater or lesser ability. All this aside, and even taking into consideration the rise of a unified handicap system in England during the late 1800s, the Club Tournament (played at scratch), or Club Championship, as it is more commonly called today, remained the preeminent annual event at most golf clubs around the world until the latter half of the 20th century.
So why and at what point did being the best golfer at any given club become an honor that fewer and fewer golfers annually strove to attain? Is there one thing or a host of things that have together conspired to facilitate a detour along the road to self-improvement and our collective desire to not only be the best, but to also appreciate the efforts of those who do? Fingers may be pointed in a handful of directions, but in the end, I think there is a single culprit that rises above the rest when it comes to our having settled into this comfort zone of the commonplace. First, let’s take a look at those things I believe, at best, are merely contributory.
There are some who might point to equipment and instruction as having failed the masses, but nothing is likely further from the truth. Quality golf instruction has never been cheaper or more widely available. Whether it’s on the Golf Channel or the internet, the best instructors in the game are literally lining up each and every day to offer free advice. Prefer a more personal approach? With close to two qualified PGA or LPGA instructors per facility on average in the U.S., it’s truly a stretch to cast the blame in that direction. And vast improvements in equipment over the past few decades, as well as the emergence of a huge and affordable second-hand market via the internet have made hitting the ball cheaper and easier than ever, while leaving little excuse for the average golfer to not have good clubs that fit properly. So in the end, I believe these are the least likely reasons that we have for our acceptance of being average.
A case can be made for the rise in coverage of professional golf events after the advent of television some 50+ years ago. We can now marvel at the talent and ability of elite golfers from around the globe almost 24/7 via TV or the internet. These are golfers who, to an extent, can make our local champions look far more pedestrian by comparison. This argument, however, is thin at best and only takes into account half of our conundrum, the drop in admiration we may feel for local champions, while failing to address the other side of the equation. With the abundance of virtual access we have to the very best players, and the even larger scale celebrity (and compensation) they are now rewarded with for displaying elite skills, you could just as easily argue their influence upon our desire to play the game at a higher level is even greater than those local champions we long admired for their ability to simply best the best among us.
Is it the sandbaggers? Sure, at one point or another, we’ve all become tired of losing to bandits who’ve managed to acquire an allowance of strokes that seemingly exceeds their ability. That so-called level playing field the handicap system was designed to provide can often feel like it’s tilted in favor of the less honorable among us, but so much so that we have en masse adopted the mentality, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em? Well, I hope not, but just in case it’s notoriety you’ve been shooting for, let me be the first to break a little bad news. There is no honor in being infamous, and there are no books being written, movies being made, nor legends being told about Joe Bogey, the best 18-handicapper who ever lived.
So if it isn’t the instructors, the equipment, the prevalence of better golfers being broadcast, or even the sandbaggers, where exactly can we point the finger of blame for our long slow descent into comfortable mediocrity? Well, let me give you my theory, and what I hope we will all consider so that we can at least begin to walk things back a bit. You’re free to disagree, of course, but if you, like me, believe our game has somehow, at some point, taken a wrong turn, it just might offer a bit of direction for how we can find the way back.
The game of golf in and of itself is not always fair. Just like life, there are bad bounces and breaks that we all suffer, while fortune and her golfing mistress, The Member’s Bounce, often smile upon those we deem the least worthy among us. We struggle to improve, while others can seemingly make this incredibly difficult game look easy with what we perceive as little comparative effort. Fair or not, that’s just life. At the same time, the goal of the handicap system is to facilitate fair competition among players of every ability. It mostly does that. Inadvertently, however, this leveling of the playing field — and the opportunity it affords players of all skill levels to win what we now consider our club’s most prestigious events — may have robbed us of what was long our biggest incentive to improve. And while we often bemoan the creeping pervasiveness of policies of “fairness,” in everything from politics to athletics, insisting everyone should earn their fair share (or their trophy), we mostly continue to lean on our handicaps when it comes time to compete. Is all that moaning and complaining just talk?
Most club champions work hard on their games, play to scratch, and are consequently some of the finest amateur players in their respective areas. They typically compete beyond the local level, often testing their mettle in high-profile amateur events against other players of similar abilities and on other courses. Despite all that, how many of you out there reading this would even recognize your club’s own champion if he or she were hitting balls next to you on the driving range? Better yet, how many of you are honing your skills as we speak so that you will be ready to answer the bell when it comes time to challenge him or her for that title this year? Anyone?
So this is my call to arms (or irons, if I may), because whether we realize it or not, we’re in a struggle for the collective soul of our game. Will we fight, or fold up our competitive tents and crawl back under the warm blanket of low expectations? Have we become so addicted to our allowance of strokes that we no longer entertain the idea of ultimately playing without them? I’m not suggesting we do away with handicaps, they serve a purpose, but could they be responsible for at least some of us falling into the habit of settling for smaller victories that could and maybe should be viewed as mere stepping stones? Let’s hope not, but we’ve at least wandered far enough down that path that it’s time to reassert the values of self-improvement and a greater appreciation for the practice. Because, as Gandhi said, if “infinite striving to be the best” is really man’s duty, then it’s time we start walking all that talk. And if it really “is its own reward,” let’s not use the Bandits, the Baggers, or even that infamous Joe Bogey as excuses for not pursuing it.
Vince Lombardi once said, “The only place that success comes before hard work is in the dictionary.” So it’s time to dust off that shag bag, file those wedges, and head to that lonely place called the practice tee. Because whether it’s golf, education, business, or anything else truly important to us in life, success and being considered the best are things that should be earned, and the surest path to them runs through hard work.
Obviously, being your club’s next Club Champion isn’t a goal that’s realistically on everyone’s radar this year. But that doesn’t mean we can’t all at least commit to some small goal of self-betterment, while promising anew to value and appreciate the efforts of those for whom it is. And if we do, we might just find ourselves having turned back the clock to a time when The Club Championship held it’s rightful place among each club’s traditions, and a place where we all used our handicaps as more of a measuring stick of our improvement, rather than a convenient excuse for not seeking to.
See you on the practice tee.
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