News & Opinion

An honest appraisal of golf’s best asset

The biggest hurdle of my first year coaching high school girls golf was in learning to talk about the game to beginners. I write about golf for a living, but with 15-year-olds, I was a little bit lost.

There’s a lesson in there about nuances of the game, but there are far more of them than I had ever considered. Golf being “a game of honor” certainly falls into that category. To a certain extent, that explains why honesty can be an issue in high school golf.

Last month, the Michigan High School Athletic Association announced the creation of a cellphone-based live-scoring app to be piloted during the spring 2019 boys golf season. It came as a response to a scoring controversy that tarnished regional play.

Two schools paired together in regionals, New Baltimore’s Anchor Bay and Harrison Township’s L’Anse Creuse, set 18-hole scoring records on their way to qualifying for the state tournament. In fact, their team scores were 45 shots better than their respective season averages. Even though officials and coaches raised questions, according to a news story in the Detroit Free Press, there wasn’t enough physical evidence to bar the teams from advancing to state.

At the Division 1 (largest schools, by enrollment) state tournament, where there are walking adult scorers, the two teams finished in the last two spots. The teams’ first-round scores (385 for Anchor Bay and 401 for L'Anse Creuse) were more than 100 strokes worse than the rounds they had recorded at regionals.

“Making scores public makes it available for all to see, for all to look at and for all to make sure that what is being put in the system actually is what the kids are shooting,” Cody Inglis, assistant director at the MHSAA, told the Free Press. “If a kid is scoring out of his mind, then you can bet that they will attract more attention and eyeballs on them.”

Given that debacle, can counting be simply a nuance? Yes and no.

To talk about golf among fellow golfers is to use a language that doesn’t necessarily make sense to outsiders. I used the word “fairway” for weeks before realizing that some of my new players understandably had no idea what that meant. You can imagine what it was like to dive into drop procedure, unplayable lies, provisional balls and hazard relief. Many seasoned golfers still don’t understand those concepts.

Here’s where honesty comes in.

Golfers are responsible for counting their own strokes – all of them, the good and the bad, the attempted and the successful. It’s the nature of the game, even if it’s totally different from other high-school sports experiences. It’s reasonable to think that this is something that should be laid out for a beginning golfer – while simultaneously instilling a little fear.

There are ample opportunities to have that conversation.

I have found that competitive players looking for an advantage often are inclined to ask the “but what if I just…” question when learning how to manage their way around a golf course or even account for something as simple as attempted strokes that never made contact (“whiffs,” if you will). When I look at the game from the perspective of a beginner, I get it. Who’s going to say but me if that practice swing wasn’t really a practice swing?

In most cases, this isn’t an inclination to cheat but rather a natural desire to gain an advantage. Kids are competitive, and the other sports they play reward that sort of thinking. (If the referee doesn’t see it, it’s fair game, right?) Coaches and parents have to teach beginning golfers to see this game differently.

I’m not suggesting that all instances of stroke-shaving – which is what the MHSAA is really trying to address – or rule-fudging can be explained away through competitive spirit and ignorance. The reality is that cheating happens at all levels, in all sorts of ways.

Take, for instance, the disqualification of LPGA tour hopeful Doris Chen – a former NCAA individual champion – at last fall’s LPGA Q-Series. Chen’s mother was observed kicking her daughter’s ball back in bounds on the 18th hole in the final round, so Chen was disqualified when she elected to play the ball anyway.

An app is no match for a foot wedge, but a pair of eyes is.

So, while I support the effort being made by the MHSAA to address cheating – let’s face it, to sweep the whole thing under the rug with the start of a new season would be a lot easier – it’s not the way to quell subtle stroke shaving. Only a human can do that. If the MHSAA, or any other state high school association, is looking to take action against instances of cheating, then a walking scorer is the answer. A lack of supervising individuals does, however, present a hurdle.

Maybe high school golf needs a pool of referees, much like those available for basketball, baseball and football. One would imagine that with all the volunteers who pull off state amateur and junior events, such a pool could be assembled somewhat easily. It’s a conversation worth exploring, at least.

Honesty is the unique quality about golf, but it’s also the maddening thing and sometimes the dark cloud that hangs over the game. There is no easy fix here, but education and a watchful eye can go a long way.

Julie Williams covers amateur golf for AmateurGolf.com. She is a former college golfer and Golfweek writer who coaches a high school girls golf team in Cocoa Beach, Fla. Email: hello@beyondthesundaydriver.com; Twitter: @BTSD_Jules