If you keep your handicap on the Internet, you should probably consider who else might be watching
Michael Wite GHIN Game
| Credit: 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.

GHIN records are routinely subpoenaed in court cases and disability claims. Some golfers live in fear of the notion that their wives might check the GHIN website to find out precisely where and when their husbands have been playing golf. "But, darling, didn't you say you were going to Monterey on a business trip?"

Aware that weekday golf might be frowned upon by bosses, co-workers or investors, some wary businessmen began to massage their submissions. "I often turn weekday rounds into weekend rounds," admits a New York investment banker. And a weekday player from California confesses: "There aren't enough Saturdays and Sundays in a month to accommodate all the golf I play."

The USGA recommends that golfers post the name of the course on which they play, but it is not generally required. Although many golfers might want to broadcast the news that they played, say, Cypress Point, others are less forthcoming in this area. "I am sensitive about all the wonderful golf courses I get the opportunity to play," says the CEO of a commercial real estate company. That's why his scoring record includes a generous sprinkling of the discreet phrase "Away Score Posted at Home Club."

As the manipulations multiplied and the muttering grew louder, the USGA could not help but sit up and take notice. According to O'Connor, there was "a concern expressed by many golfers about the necessity of having such detailed information available to anyone." And so, as of January 1, 2008, there are two small but significant changes to the public display feature on GHIN: (1) Course names will no longer be on view for all the world to see, and (2) the exact date of a given round will no longer be displayed, just the month and year in which it was played. (Course names and exact dates will still be displayed when subscribers log in with their own personal GHIN number.)

Fear not, GHIN fiends, plenty of satisfying sleuthing can still be accomplished. Although the course name will no longer be available for general consumption, course rating and slope will still be on view. For the truly dedicated GHIN tracker, that's often good enough. A course rating/slope combo of 72.7/153 can only mean one thing: Pine Valley.

One avid denizen of the GHIN mill is the Revision Day Magpie. Sitting at his desk, he is poised like a bird on a wire, ready to swoop down on fresh crumbs of handicap data. The moment GHIN sends out word of an index revision, "everything else stops," says a graphic designer from Connecticut, so he can madly tap into the GHIN website, check out friends, arch nemeses, future opponents in the club championship. When my index underwent a dramatic 3.6 jump last summer from one two-week period to the next, it was only a matter of minutes before one of these Revision Day Magpies gleefully informed me that my index was "more volatile than the bond market."

The GHIN system has a sense of humor, too—unintentional perhaps, but there nonetheless. Submit a score that is more than three standard deviations from your mean and you will trigger what's called a "sigma check." (It's a complicated formula, but if your average score is, for example, ninety, three standard deviations is usually about ten strokes.) I received back-to-back sigma checks a few years ago, underscoring the Jekyll and Hyde nature of my game. An appalling performance during a driving rainstorm at Lighthouse Sound on Maryland's Eastern Shore led me to card an unspeakable 104. When I dutifully went to enter the score, GHIN promptly responded, "This score is higher than usual." To paraphrase: "You're kidding, right?" Nope, not kidding. My next score, registered on a sunny day at Winged Foot West, was a sterling seventy-nine. Ever the skeptic, GHIN came back at me with another one of its "Is this for real?" messages, this time substituting the word "lower" for "higher." "You bet it's for real!" I shouted at my computer screen. "And you better get used to it!"

A popular feature of the GHIN website can be found under "Latest News." There you will see an entry headed "Most Rounds (Seasonal)." Atop the list in 2006—for the third year running—was sixty-five-year-old John Furin of the Minnesota Golf Association, with 638 rounds. The golf season in Minnesota runs from April 15 to October 15, a span of 184 days. That's three and a half rounds a day, every day. In Minnesota!

Trolling GHIN, I find, is a delightful tonic, an excellent way to pass the time between paragraphs. At this very moment, I see that my last twenty rounds date back to August. My lowest scores are a pair of eighty-threes, which are about to be knocked out, and my highest is a ninety-five. Since last May, my index has been as low as 9.8, as high as 15.1 and is currently 13.2. But why am I telling you all this?You can look it up yourself.