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Herrmann: The importance of a golf handicap

Actor Samuel L. Jackson is a 6.9 handicap.

Actor Samuel L. Jackson is a 6.9 handicap. Credit: Getty Images

Cheech Marin is a 7.5, Jack Nicholson is a 14.7, Samuel L. Jackson is a 6.9 and Tom Glavine is a 3.4. When Joe Biden was a senator, he was an 8.4 (he is officially not anything now). Condoleezza Rice, no longer the secretary of state, is a 15.8.

So what are you?

"What are you?" is not an existential question among golfers. It is golf argot for, "What's your handicap?" And that is huge. A handicap isn't just a number, it is a definition that tells what kind of player you are. Notice that golfers don't say "So and so has a 12 handicap." They say, "So and so is a 12 handicap." So maybe it is a little existential.

Anyway, handicaps are like golf scores: the lower the number, the better the golfer. Cheryl Ladd is a 16.4, Catherine Zeta-Jones might be a "10" in Michael Douglas' eyes, but as a new golfer she still is a 27.0 in the objective view of the GHIN (Golf Handicap and Information Network), a computerized national system.

Quarterback Joey Harrington is an impressive 5.7 even if he isn't as good as his cousin Padraig, a three-time major champion. To hockey fans, Wayne Gretzky always will be "99." In golf, he is an 8.0. John O'Hurley, who played Mr. Peterman on Seinfeld, is a solid 7.9. Larry David, a co-creator of Seinfeld, is a much improved 11.6 (down from the 18 range).

The concept is simple: Golfer A is a 5 handicap and Golfer B is a 16 handicap, so when they play each other, A has to give 11 strokes to B (holes are ranked in terms of toughness, and in match play the strokes are given on the 11 hardest holes). The whole setup is one of golf's trademarks. It is designed to allow anyone to have a fair match against anyone else.

"If I go up against my brother in one-on-one basketball, I'm probably going to lose because he's taller than I am," said Kevin Kline, a Long Islander who is director of course rating and handicapping for the Metropolitan Golf Association. "Golf allows golfers of different abilities to compete against one another, they can even hit from two different sets of tees.

As straightforward as this sounds, Kline said, "before I started working at the MGA, I wasn't familiar with it. I didn't have a handicap. Now, I'll go out to play at Eisenhower Park or Lido, and I play with guys and no one has a handicap."

Jay Mottola, executive director of the MGA, which administers the handicapping process locally, said, "The MGA is often frustrated that so many people who play a fair amount of golf don't take the time to establish an official USGA handicap." About 100,000 metropolitan golfers have signed up, he said, adding, "that's still touching a relatively small percentage.

"People think it's hard to do, it's expensive or that you have to be a member of a private club," Mottola said. "Actually it is pretty simple and in most cases fairly inexpensive. With a handicap, any time you go to play a match, you don't have to guess. You don't have to say, 'I'm about an . . . ' or 'I shoot this.' "

Many Long Island clubs charge about $30 a year for a handicap. That pays for a subscription to the glossy monthly magazine the Met Golfer. Mottola said the MGA's portion of that fee helps the association (www.mgagolf.org) support junior golf, perform course ratings and continue other programs. The system depends on golfers reporting scores honestly.

Handicapping has been around for quite a while. In Scotland, golfers' handicaps were based on their best scores. The more nuanced system began in the early 1900s by Leighton Calkins, an MGA officer who also talked the U.S. Golf Association into rating courses in terms of difficulty.

In this month's Met Golfer, Columbia professor Lucius Riccio points out that having a handicap doesn't make you a good golfer. Making the effort to get one is what makes you a golfer, period.

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