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The GHIN Game

Michael Wite GHIN Game

Photo: Michael Wite

Ah, the Internet age. Information at your fingertips. One click of the mouse and you can learn just about anything about just about anybody—date of birth, net worth, pets' names…golf handicap. Indeed, anyone who has access to the Internet (in other words, anyone) can turn on the computer and find out not just how well you've been playing but also how often you've been playing. By doing a little cross-checking, someone could even make an educated guess as to where and with whom you've been teeing it up.

All this information is available courtesy of the Golf Handicap and Information Network (GHIN), a computational service overseen by the United States Golf Association. Of the 4.1 million golfers with a USGA handicap index, 1.9 million use the GHIN service. A quick scan on GHIN.com reveals that Rudy Giuliani (16.6) uses it, but Bill Clinton does not. Clint Eastwood (14.0) does; Ray Romano does not. Donald Trump (0.5!) does; Steve Wynn does not.

Before proceeding any further, let's clear up one important matter: How is "GHIN" pronounced?With a soft g (as in the drink) or a hard g (as in Allen Ginsberg)?Even though all words in the English language that begin with gh are said with a hard g (ghost, gherkin, ghetto), GHIN flies in the face of phonetic convention and is said with a soft g. Somehow this makes sense; after all, golf has more in common with gin than with Ginsberg. And yes, it's okay to use GHIN as a verb: "Sorry, but you were a 12.5 when I GHIN'd you yesterday."

There has been an official USGA handicap system in this country since 1912. It was computerized in 1981—GHIN was created—and updated in 1987, when a one-handicap-fits-all-courses method was replaced with the current slope and adaptable USGA index. Scores were still posted at one's home club, but in 1999 the twenty most recent scores a player recorded through GHIN became available for viewing on the Internet (the ten best of which are used to create an index). In 2002 golfers began to post scores online, and by 2006 course names had been added to the informational mix. And so, the golden age of golf snooping was born.

Is the universal availability of this information creepy?Un-American?An invasion of privacy?Definitely not. For nearly one hundred years, since handicap lists were first posted at clubs, "peer review" has been a vital part of the system. If you turn in a score that's too high or too low, or if you fail to put in a score at all, a fellow golfer may just call you on it. A form of self-policing, peer review is an important added level of oversight.

Indeed, sayeth the USGA manual on the system: "A player who decides to obtain a Handicap Index gives up privacy regarding scoring records." Adds USGA handicap guru Kevin O'Connor: "Peer review has always been at the core of the system. There is no question that the display of information on the Internet has given it a better chance to thrive."

And thrive it has, but there have been some other, unintended ramifications. To wit: Bear Stearns chief executive Jimmy Cayne was taken to task by the financial press last summer after a newspaper story revealed he had been playing golf on days when two of his company's hedge funds were sinking. The reporter's source?GHIN. Merrill Lynch's CEO, Stan O'Neal, was similarly outed when his company was losing $100 million a day; he subsequently resigned. On a more personal level, a friend of mine who was dreading a certain golf game called his playing partner the day before the scheduled round and claimed that he couldn't play because of a bad back. Then he blithely went out and played thirty-six holes somewhere else, with someone else, on the very same day. Bad idea. Busted by GHIN.

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