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Letter from St. Andrews: Match Points

Casual weekend competition in the U.K. is not quite what we Yanks are used to

By: George Peper

Appeared in September/October 2006 LINKS

Competitive golf comes in two flavors—stroke play and match play. The prevailing notion is that American golfers prefer the former, British golfers the latter, but in my experience, that isn’t true. Invariably, when four golfers get together—no matter on which side of the pond—the game they play is not a mini-tournament where the player with the lowest score beats the other three, it’s an 18-hole match between two teams of two. 

I’ve come to realize, however, that casual weekend matches in the U.K.—“bounce games” as they’re known over here—have a different look and feel to those in the U.S.  Yes, Great Britain and America are two nations separated by a common format.

To begin with, in the U.K. you get fewer strokes. CONGU (Congress of National Golf Unions) recommends an allowance of only 75 percent of the difference in handicaps. Thus, if I’m a 10 and you’re an 18, the eight strokes you receive at Bethpage shrink to six at Birkdale. (I’ve yet to find anyone who can explain or defend this three-quarters thing. It seems to be a relic from the post-Victorian era when the maximum allowable handicap was 24 and the feeling was that no player should receive more than one stroke per hole.)

So invariably, a U.K. match begins with a bit of low-level math.

“Let’s see,” says one player, “I’m an eight, you’re a 22, so you get 10 strokes.”

“Not so fast, laddie,” says his opponent. “The difference is 14 strokes and three-quarters of 14 is 10.5.”

“Right, so it’s 10.”

“No, it’s 11—you round it up, not down, you arse.”

Ideally, the group will include at least one CONGU-savvy soul who intercedes before any blows are struck to confirm that the rounding is upward.

Occasionally, however, someone will say, “Why don’t we just play barefoot?” When I first received that invitation, I feared I was about to partake in some sort of manly Scottish ritual, but it has nothing to do with shedding one’s clothing. It simply means, in American parlance, that the match will be played at scratch—no strokes exchanged—because the four players are of similar abilities. 

A major difference in the tenor of the British game is that no one much cares what his individual score is—all focus is on the match. Scorecards are never marked, rarely even carried (a practice that results in the occasional moment of mass befuddlement when no one is quite sure whether the hole at hand is the fifth stroke hole or the seventh).

If you skull your fourth shot into the face of a bunker while everyone else hits the green in two, you rake the ball out and walk to the next tee. And when your partner sinks a 30-footer for birdie to win the hole, you don’t grind over your six-footer for par, you pick it up. (This is why U.K. handicaps are not established through casual weekend games, only via designated “medal” events when everyone holes out everything.) My guess is that in the course of the average British match the ball is struck only about 80 percent as often as in the average American match.

Conventional wisdom therefore holds that the Brits play faster than the Yanks. Here, once again, I disagree. The truth is, there are fast and slow golfers on both sides. Every day I look out my window and see Scots who aren’t ready to play when it’s their turn, who take multiple practice swings, freeze over the ball, etc. Granted, rounds are completed more quickly in the U.K., but the real reason for that was unveiled a few years ago by slow-play guru Bill Yates, whose company, Pace Manager Systems, works with clubs on both sides of the Atlantic: British courses are generally shorter than American courses, especially from green to tee.

During the low season—November through March—my regular group routinely navigates the Old Course in less than three and a half hours, but a big reason for that is the average distance from green to tee, just a few paces. (Remember, the original 13 Rules of Golf called for the tee shot to be played within two clublengths of where the ball was holed out.) By contrast, on some U.S. courses the green-to-tee hikes can be 100 yards or more. That adds lots of minutes.

But speaking of distance, if I’ve noticed one major transatlantic schism, or chasm, it’s in the tacitly agreed upon length of a gimme putt.  Maybe it’s because the Brits are a wee bit shorter than Americans, so everything is in proportion. Maybe it’s a reflection of the legendary Scottish parsimony. Or maybe it’s some deep-seated Calvinist need to inflict punishment. Whatever the reason, the “circle of friendship” over here seems to be about nine inches tighter than in America—just tight enough to make me choke.

However, perhaps the most aggravating aspect of matches in the queen’s realm is something known as the Sunningdale format, a variation in which the players on a team that falls two holes down are each given an extra handicap stroke on the ensuing hole and every hole thereafter until they pull back to one down. The theory is that this equalizes a match where one of the teams clearly outclasses the other. As an absurd consequence, however, the stronger team—which under normal circumstances might win say a 5-and-4 victory—can easily lose the match simply by getting two up too soon, yielding stroke after stroke and tying a succession of holes they would have won, and then losing the last three holes of the match. I’m afraid that’s a bit too much British civility for me.  

Happily, at least when the Sunningdale farce is in force, the stakes of British matches are modest. Whereas in the States I played a two-two-four Nassau—two dollars on the front nine, two dollars on the back, and four dollars on the 18—in the U.K.,  a big stake is a one-pound Nassau and a very popular bet is 25 pence on the front, 25 pence on the back, and 50 on the match. The word “press” does not seem to exist in the British golf lexicon, and when teams are all square at the turn, no one ever suggests rolling the front-nine bet over into the back nine.

In fact, more often than not, there is no wager at all. At the risk of over-extrapolating, perhaps that’s one reason why Europe’s recent Ryder Cup record has been so strong. For them, it’s not about money or personal gain, it’s about honor and pride. It’s a simple game where you respect your fellow players, respect the rules, and respect the ground you walk on,  where, on the 18th green you always remove your cap and always shake hands, maybe just a little humbler and just a little wiser than when you began.

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