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Centralised  Handicapping Comes To Britain!

Centralised handicapping is dominant in America, gathering momentum in Australia, and just starting in Portugal - and it is soon to arrive here in Britain!  England, Scotland and Ireland are all planning to launch their schemes during the 2001 golf season: Wales is waiting to see which system works best before joining them.  So - what's it all about?

The principle is very simple: each Home Union will hold a record of scores returned by every golfer in every competitive round in their Union, and access to this information will be available over the Internet to every Club, and to every golfer with the necessary password.

The Way It Will Be Done

Every golfer will be issued with a handicap card (either a ‘smartcard’ with a microchip, or a magnetic stripe card) containing name, Club and handicap.  To enter a competition, the players will insert their cards in a card-reader, thus automatically compiling an entry list within the computer.  After the round, the card will again be placed in the card reader and each player will enter their score (either hole by hole, or as a final total) using a keypad on the card-reader.  Once all scores are in, the result will be calculated, and entrants’ records and handicaps updated.  (Many golfers will be familiar with this because it is widely used, generally described as "Player Score Input".)  The new feature is that the competition data are passed over the Internet to the central computer at the Union HQ.

This modus operandi maintains an important principle: control of the handicap remains with the Club, the record at the Union being no more than a duplicate. Adjustments for general play must still be made by the Club, under Clause 19.

The Advantages

Advantages to the golfer

  • the opportunity to check their handicap record over the Internet
  • no need to get an up-to-date handicap certificate when playing away from home

Advantages to the Club

  • ability to check the handicap record of any visiting golfer
  • data on members’ away scores fed to the club by the Union computer (instead of relying on the competition organisers to do so)

Advantages to the Union

  • genuine up-to-the-minute data on club competitions throughout the Union
  • ability to spot fast-improving players (particularly Juniors)
  • opportunity to monitor how handicapping rules actually work, and the effect of rule changes
  • facility to communicate rule changes quickly and directly to clubs

It is clear that the advantages for golfer and Club are minor: not perhaps valueless, but worth very little.  The Unions, on the other hand, will gain quite considerably, and should therefore bear the cost of introducing centralised handicapping.  However, since their primary source of funds is the golfers themselves, there is a risk that, having little to gain, club members may object if their Union fees were raised for this purpose.  The Golfing Union of Ireland is accepting this risk - but the Scottish and English Unions have followed the Australian G. U. by seeking commercial sponsorship.

The attraction for sponsors is the possibility of making direct contact with all golf club members in the country - a hugely valuable mailing list of affluent credit worthy customers. For credit card companies, the situation is ideal, since every golfer is to be provided with a card, and they might be persuaded to use it as a credit card.

The number of people involved is impressive: including women (for in every case the Ladies Golf Union has joined in), the total is:

England                 850,000

Scotland                250,000

Ireland                   225,000

Deals are therefore being struck in England and Scotland whereby all the costs involved in setting up the schemes are to be borne by commercial businesses, not the Unions.  This means that golfers’ cards will be free, clubs will be provided with the necessary computer hardware and software without charge, and the large computer installations at the Unions will cost them nothing.  Such is the value of the mailing list!

There is, of course, the question of confidentiality: members' names and addresses are subject to the Data Protection Act, and must not be passed directly to the commercial businesses putting up the money. But the law will not be breached because contact between golfer and sponsor has to be initiated by the golfer.  The attractions on offer (special deals, discounts, etc) are, however, likely to be worthwhile, and the sponsors are expecting a high take-up.

Many clubs already use cards in their own clubs for access control, bar purchases, etc, and it is intended that the new cards be capable of covering these functions in due course. It is obviously an advantage for members to have only one ‘golf card’.

Introducing these schemes will accelerate use of the internet in every participating club. One likely development is internet tee-booking; when organising visits to several neighbouring courses, golfers and tour operators can work from their computer instead of making a series of separate telephone calls. The SGU is proposing to set up an on-line tee-booking service which, besides arranging the tee-times, will also be able to suggest alternative courses nearby should the original choice not be available. Clubs may also introduce tee-booking for their own members, with access to outsiders denied by password control.

The approach adopted by all three countries varies little so far as golf usage is concerned – but considerably more on the commercial front. There are no sponsors behind the Golf Union of Ireland, and so its ‘golf purity’ is intact. In Scotland, golfers will earn “Golf Yards” (akin to Air Miles) which can be exchanged for discounts. The English scheme, if it finally emerges as planned, will be highly commercial, with special buying terms for golfers and for the participating clubs. In fact, you could describe the EGU centralized handicapping scheme as no more than a vehicle for commercialism! EGU Secretary Paul Baxter referred to it as “the most important development ever”, adding that “commercialism is here to stay, like it or not – if the EGU had not taken over this commercial opportunity, then someone else would have”. Lately, however, the scheme has received a body-blow: British Telecom, a major sponsor has withdrawn. Just how this will affect the scheme is not clear, but the EGU is definitely still going ahead.

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