When I was younger I usually played golf with guys very close to my own age. I played with coworkers or people I went to school with 99% of the time, and they were seldom more than 10 years older or younger than me. Differences in physical abilities weren’t all that large.
Now that I’m 61 I’m playing with groups that vary a lot more in age, strength, and health. The groups I play with these days range in age from around 50 to over 90, although there aren’t many past their late 80’s. In my youth I would have considered my 61 years to be approaching old fartdom, but now I’m one of the young bucks. It’s funny how things change.
Handicaps in my current crowd vary as much as age, and there is by no means a perfect correlation between the two. The challenge for us is arranging matches that give everyone a decent chance without making the low handicappers feel taken advantage of and the high handicappers feel like either freeloaders or losers, depending on their worldview.
We’ve come up with a few systems that seem to work pretty well. One large group I play with uses a modified stableford format. A player’s performance over their first three rounds with the group establishes the number of points they need to earn to be in the money on their next round. A double bogey on a hole earns 0 points, a bogey one, a par two, etc. There are no negative point values, so you can pick up at double. If your play improves you’ll earn more points than your target score, and your target score will also increase for your next round. Play worse than your target score and you’ll need fewer points next time.
Sandbagging is impossible in this system, or at least it’s stupid because you pay your entry fee each time and intentional poor play to lower your target will likely cost more than you’ll win when you play better. Players of a wide range of abilities can compete equally because you’re competing against yourself. It doesn’t matter how much better or worse you are than anyone else. All that counts is how you do relative to your own prior performance. The play of other players only affect point value. If a lot of people make points, points are worth less as the pot gets divided more and more finely.
Another group of us plays a regular skins game. There is a gross and a net competition in each game, and players can choose to enter either or both. The low handicappers sometimes enter only the gross and the high handicappers often enter only the net, but entering both is common and profitable if you play well. The net game is played off the low handicap entered that day, which usually ranges from 5 to 8. The only restriction is that no more than one handicap stroke is allowed on any one hole. There are no carry overs. We just get together and compare scorecards after the round and divide the pots by the number of skins made.
One good hole can make your day worthwhile, and a high handicapper has a good shot at a win in the net game. If a low handicapper doesn’t like giving strokes, they can stay out of the net game and only play in the gross. I typically get few or no strokes in the net from my handicap (currently a 7), but I’ve found that playing in both the net and the gross works well for me. The same hole will often pay off in both, especially if it’s a birdie on a tough hole.
In addition to the larger skins or stableford tournament, we often have a wolf game going in my foursome or fivesome. Handicaps in my group range from around 6 to the mid 20’s, with ages ranging from mid 50’s to late 70’s. We give a few strokes to the high handicappers in the wolf games, but not many because the best ball system washes a lot of the differences out. Some of us may also have a nassau going against players of roughly equal abilities in some other group.
It can get pretty complicated when someone is your opponent in the wolf game and your partner in a nassau, and you are trying to cover up their birdie to keep a skin alive. But it’s fun and the answer is always the same anyway – try to make the stupid birdie.
Just in case you’re adding up the money rolling around, don’t bother. At the stakes we play for a big day pays enough to buy the other guys a beer. The only advantage is you get to do it with their money.