Todd Hartley: Sacked again by a 6-foot-5 sandbagger | AspenTimes.com

Todd Hartley: Sacked again by a 6-foot-5 sandbagger

Golf, to those who don’t play it, can seem a frustrating and often confusing waste of time and real estate. But these people are missing the big picture: Golf can net you some sweet loot even if you’re not very good at it.

Lucky shots by anyone playing in the right tournament can win dinners for two at posh restaurants, ski passes, even new cars. And golf tries hard to level the playing field amongst competitors by using the handicap system, wherein lesser players can subtract one stroke on as many holes as there is difference in handicaps between them and better golfers. Thus, a 16-handicap golfer playing a 12 would subtract a stroke on each of the four hardest holes.

For the most part it is an equitable system, but occasionally it can create very unfair mismatches. Take, for example, the tournament I played in just last Sunday, the Golf 4 Kids fund-raiser at the Aspen golf course.

As all good tournaments do, the Golf 4 Kids affair had prizes and booze, even during the early round, which kicked off at 8 in the morning. This tournament, however, went beyond the standard prize package for longest drive, straightest drive and closest to the pin and had booty up for grabs on virtually every hole.

My group, Team Grog Shop, started the day on the 10th hole, as we were playing a shotgun start, wherein each group starts on a different hole and finishes at the same time. We were also playing a format called a “shamble,” in which each player in a fivesome hits drives, the best tee shot is selected and then each player plays out the hole from that spot. The best individual score of the group counts for the team on that hole.

This format means that each person is not particularly important on a given hole, and it frees a player up to gamble from time to time in the pursuit of prizes. For this reason, when we arrived at the 12th hole and I saw that there was a prize for longest drive I grabbed my friend’s massive Yonex driver instead of my piddling 3-wood and prepared to make like John Daly.

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This was a big deal for me because I haven’t hit a driver in about 10 years. I never could control them, and I’m long enough with my 3-wood that I usually don’t have to worry about it. But when I saw that I could win a tandem paraglide flight, I knew I had to pull out all the stops.

Once one of my playing partners was safely in the fairway, I stepped to the tee with nothing to lose, an unfamiliar club in my hands and about a 1 percent chance of hitting a drive in the fairway. My swing, which is comically fast and fundamentally unsound, leaves first-time viewers in stitches, but when I hit the ball it goes a long way, and on this occasion I really, really hit the ball.

Miraculously, I striped the ball right down the middle of the fairway and well past the marker for the previous long drive. I practically skipped up to mark my ball, giddy with the prospect of dangling from a parachute, and estimated that I had hit the ball roughly 340 yards. At this altitude someone could beat it, but the wind was starting to blow a little, and I liked my chances.

At this point, I have to bring up an unfortunate side effect of handicaps. Since golf is often played for money, it is inevitable that sandbaggers will exist. Sandbaggers are the gutless cowards who purposely inflate their handicaps to get more strokes from their playing partners. As you may imagine, given today’s society, these leeches and pirates are omnipresent, and at Golf 4 Kids, they were in line to take home a lot of ill-gotten booty.

The tournament rules stipulated that players with handicaps over 15, which can include some sweet-swinging sandbaggers, got to hit from the white tees, which on the 12th hole are about 100 yards in front of the ones I had played from.

The fivesome immediately behind mine had at least two guys over 6-foot-5, and one of these clowns hit a worm-burner that barely stayed in the fairway but managed to nevertheless dribble past the sign marking my glorious effort.

I spent the next three holes in an incensed funk, getting reassurances from my playing partners that I was the better man for not having hit from the ladies’ tees, but there was already a paraglider in the sky, and I would not be mollified until I reached the 16th tee. And there, like a gift from heaven, I encountered a cooler full of ice-cold Budweiser.

Never has a consolation beer tasted so good at 9 o’clock in the morning.

[Todd Hartley has yet to win a single prize on a golf course since he and his brother took the Converse Trophy, junior division, a million years ago in Connecticut. E-mail at todd@aspentimes.com]