The Hacker: Level the playing field and you really see the determination
Sunday 23 August 2009
One of the great things about golf is the handicap system, which enables amateur players of different standards to compete against each other without it being a foregone conclusion.
Few other sports employ it on a routine basis below elite levels; the most obvious other one is horseracing. Like golfers most racehorses are hackers at heart and once that fact is established early on, the only way that run-of-the-mill racing can be sustained is to level the playing field by making the better equine athletes carry more weight.
Though it might seem unfair that the obviously best player doesn't necessarily win, the way the shots allowance system works keeps the club game afloat by giving the less gifted a chance.
My handicap is 21, though some would say it is my swing, ha ha. But there are handicaps and handicaps. Here I enter delicate territory. Some weeks ago I played at Old Thorns, near Liphook, on a media day to promote a tournament that starts there tomorrow. One of my partners was Richard Saunders, who plays off 19.
But the routine question "what's your handicap?" as we walked to the first tee had perforce to remain unasked. You see, I was outscored all ends up that day by a man with no arms.
And therein lies the extra beauty of the egalitarianism of the game. Richard can knock a ball round a golf course in a shade over 90 shots, fewer than the vast majority out there, with or without the accepted complement of limbs. And so, with no special dispensation towards his handicap, he has a handicap, just like the rest of us.
Richard, a Thalidomide victim, does have arms, just not very long ones, and hands with three small fingers between them. He plays using specially made long clubs, which he wedges firmly under his left armpit. Using legs, shoulders and core muscles he whacks the ball 200-plus yards down the fairway or finesses it on to the green.
Never having had conventional arms, he doesn't miss them. In his time he has been involved with many sports. He's been a rock-climbing instructor and a professional football linesman. As for golf, which he's been playing for seven years, to him his condition simply means fewer moving parts to go wrong.
He will tee off tomorrow just after 10 o'clock at Old Thorns in the first of two rounds of the inaugural Disabled British Open, one of 72 competitors with handicaps ranging from three (below-the-knee amputee Duncan Hamilton-Martin) to 33. The one-armed brigade (some of them no doubt bandits) play either backhand, which apparently gives length advantage, or forehand, which is better for chipping and putting.
The tournament, covered by Sky, at a stunning pine-wooded venue (it's Peter Alliss's home course and he will present the prizes on Tuesday), offers free entry to spectators. Not all the golf will be of high standard, though some will. But all will be an example of competitive sporting determination.
The disabled golfers do not want pity; they are just keen to compete and show what can be done. But just look out for the contents of their bags. At one of the one-armed society get-togethers a member arrived with an axe slung over his shoulder. He was wearing a T-shirt printed with the words "Recruiting Officer".
Tip of the Week: No 15: Putting – setting your sights too low
Why are amateurs happy if they roll 20 to 30-foot putts within two or three feet of the hole, especially when tour players seem to hole three or four a round? If you watch tour players on the practice green they strike their mid- and long-range putts to a small white tee, while the average golfer is looking at a target the size of a dustbin lid. And you wonder why tour players are so good. If you are only looking at an area three feet round the hole, how can you expect to knock a putt in? The smaller the target you practise to, the more accurate and positive you'll become. Next time you're on a practice green, do yourself a favour and putt to a tee. By the time you go on the course, the hole will look as big as a bucket.
Simon Iliffe, Head Professional, Purley Downs GC, Surrey.
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