The Hacker: Game of snakes, ladders and top dogs

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The Independent Online

No golfers in the world are braver or more hardy than those who contest the thousands of club winter leagues throughout these islands.

Swathed in layers of moth-eaten sweaters over old and crusted long-johns, they tackle the courses in weather into which few other groups of sportsmen would venture in such numbers. But even these courageous souls have been defeated by this winter.

After the disruption caused first by the floods of November and then the freeze-up of December/January – and Met men say there's more to come – clubs throughout the country are fighting to keep the leagues, which are vital to their bar takings, on track.

Courses in some of the more stricken areas have been out of play for two or three months. Happily, most were back in action last Sunday when the second half of our league got off to its delayed start.

Although it was a bitterly cold morning, the way more than 100 swarmed eagerly on to the course, you'd think they were in Barbados.

That's what a long lay-off can do for a man's appetite for the game and judging by some shock results, the better players were slower into their stride than the hackers.

One of the best aspects of winter league golf is that it tends to pair up the good with the not-so-good players. Formats differ from club to club. In ours – called the Snakes and Ladders – we play foursomes with a minimum combined handicap of 20, which requires the best players to find partners among the high handicappers.

But there's at least one club where they don't even get a choice of who they are playing with. Regular Hacker reader Andrew Frosdick, who plays at the Silkstone club near Barnsley, writes in with a very erudite account of their intriguing format in which new pairs are drawn every Sunday.

Called the Top Dog, their winter Sunday competition involves a weekly random draw in which four names are drawn at a time. The lowest handicapper of the four is paired with the highest, leaving the two middle ones to form the other partnership.

"They play better ball match play with each player from the winning side earning points towards their individual league standing," writes Andrew, who plays off 17 but who describes himself as a hacker at heart. "It can be frustrating for the low handicapper but positively terrifying for the hacker." During the winter, a hacker can play with a series of much better golfers but he does bring with him a high allocation of shots that could come in useful.

"The high burden of expectation will often prove too much for the lesser player and it will be left to his partner to grind out a result with few, if any, words spoken between them. But one decisive contribution, holing a long putt or scrambling a half, can turn the most abject display into a match-winning performance. So it is often the case that a high handicapped player can remain in the final fight for the honours," adds Andrew.

Unlike leagues in which you are obliged to play every week, you play as often as you like. As long as you are registered you can miss the worst weather and turn up in March very rusty.

Many a contender for the Top Dog title has foundered when paired with someone playing his first round for months and having a stinker.

Andrew, by the way, occupies a "modest mid-table position" and lives in hope. We wish him well.