How to negotiate matches with golfers who don’t keep handicaps

golfer talking on first tee with foursome

Golf matches raise all kinds of questions, especially if your opponent doesn't keep a handicap.

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Dan from San Diego writes: My golf buddy, Rich, doesn’t keep a handicap but always wants to play a match. How do you handle someone like that?

Dear Dan:

The World Handicap System was designed to let players of differing abilities compete against one another on a level playing field. 

It was not designed to grapple with the oddities of human nature, which are endless. Quirky birds abound. As the Etiquetteist’s late father was fond of noting, a normal person is someone you don’t know very well.

It has never been difficult to obtain and maintain a handicap, and it’s only gotten easier in recent years. (You can register for one right here.)

Still, many golfers don’t bother with the practice, with only about 17 percent of golfers in the U.S. carrying an official index.

Why? The reasons vary. Laziness, disorganization and an inclination toward dishonesty rank among them. But there are others.

The Etiquetteist has a friend who played competitive golf through college and got burnt out. When he plays these days, he likes to keep it low-key, and he doesn’t keep an index because, he says, he doesn’t want to put any added pressure on himself.

As this same friend readily concedes, the logic of this thinking doesn’t quite hold up. Keeping a handicap doesn’t inherently ramp up the pressure. It all depends on your perspective. But as we’ve already established, the human mind works in mysterieous ways.

There’s nothing you can do about that.

And, sorry to say, there’s not much you can do about your friend, either.

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If you have the energy and interest, you might try to  convince your pal of the many benefits to keeping a handicap — how doing so, for instance, allows you to measure your progress and grants you access to all kinds of fun events.

But the Etiquetteist wagers that won’t get you very far.

In this case, better to focus on the things you can control, like your own conduct and the positions you put yourself in.

Given you call Rich a “golf buddy,” you have, presumably, played enough rounds together to have a decent handle on his abilities. With a bit of conversation and compromise, the two of you can probably agree on equitable terms for a match. Just be sure not to play for anything that matters to you, whether it’s money, beer, pride or bragging rights. Nothing can go wrong if there’s nothing on the line.

Your other option is to tell Rich that a match isn’t in the cards until he starts plugging in his scores. Or if he’s not quite up to your ability, tell him you’ll play him but only straight up. Maybe that’ll help light a fire under him.

The same guidelines apply if you find yourself paired with a stranger on the first tee who wants a match but, like your buddy, doesn’t have an index. He’s not required to do so, but if he thinks that you’re required to take him up on his offer, well, that’s the definition of insane.

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