If You’ve Got a Scratch, Itch It


Driving to work this morning and talk on the radio was of playing against a ‘scratch’ golfer. I got the general gist – he was better than you or I (this particular ‘scratch’ golfer was a ‘he’, but it could just as easily have been a ‘she’, or indeed, a three-toed sloth carrying a crooked stick if it was about to play me) – but how much better? Where does ‘scratch’ rank in the hierarchy of being good at stuff? Where does it rank on the shit / shit-hot continuum? It was time to investigate.

It transpires that, in golfing terminology, ‘scratch’ is “a player who can play to a course handicap of zero on any and all rated golf courses.” (United States Golf Association). Furthermore, “a male scratch golfer,” according to the USGA, “for rating purposes, can hit tee shots approximately 250 yards at sea level, while reaching a 470-yard hole in two shots. Meanwhile, a female scratch golfer can hit an average of 210 yards off the tee box while reaching a 400-yard hole in two shots at sea level.” So, there you are. Raises more questions than it actually answers, doesn’t it? Let’s start with ‘handicap’. My handicap on a golf course is me. Whilst a ‘scratch golfer’ has a handicap of zero, the maximum handicap available is now fifty-four. The rules for calculating golf handicaps are complex enough to make Marvin blench, so we won’t even start to consider those. The application of a golf handicap is, thankfully, somewhat more straightforward. A scratch golfer (having a handicap of zero) taking seventy shots to complete the eighteen holes of a golf course would score seventy (70 – 0 = 70). A golfer with a handicap of fifty-four taking one hundred and twenty four shots to complete the same eighteen holes would also score seventy (124 – 54 = 70). Following this logic, I feel that, in order to be competitive, I would need a handicap in the region of three hundred and a written statement from my doctor stating that I was able to ignore all of the times that I missed the ball completely.

The definition of the word ‘handicap’ did, however, lead me on to the origin of the word ‘scratch’ as used in golf. Apparently, in times gone by (some time pre-New Labour) a line was scratched into the sand at the start of a race. Those of lesser abilities stood ahead of the scratch whilst those of greater ability stood behind it: the ‘scratch’ itself indicating an expected level of proficiency. In order to be competitive, some of us would, however, have to stand at a designated distance from the finishing line – eg within falling distance.

I then became intrigued by the ‘average driving distance’ bit. Do they, I wondered, have official measurers, or are you expected to pace out all of your own drives in order to arrive at an average? Wouldn’t this seriously disadvantage people with long legs? I have, myself, in the past swiped wildly at the odd golf ball and I am intrigued to know whether the ‘average’ includes all of the balls that do not move at all; the balls that merely trundle a few feet along the ground but do not fall off the end of the tee box; the balls that balloon off sideways and land on top of a picnicking couple on nearby parkland? If a golfer’s handicap is assessed or tested, surely there is great advantage to be had from playing really badly on the day that it occurs. Or am I being cynical? Cheating is not even a thing in golf, is it?

Anyway, curiosity satisfied, I was just about to shift my attention onto something else (Why, for instance, are plimsolls [‘plimmies’ when I was at school] so called? Why is cheese on toast called ‘Welsh Rarebit’ when it is neither Welsh nor rare? Why do people qualify as ‘celebrities’ simply by appearing on the celebrity version of a TV game show?) when I noticed the phrase ‘at sea level’ and, yes, as you ask, the ball really does fly further at higher altitudes which means, I presume, that a basic club plodder in Scotland could well be a pro in Mexico. (I now have a vision of Speedy Gonzales in my head, flying around a Mexican golf course with a motley collection of ahead-of-the-line hackers trailing behind him as he attempts vainly to count out his tiny little paces before playing his next shot.) Unless, of course, the fiends simply make high altitude links longer. That really would be par for the course, wouldn’t it?

Golf is a game whose aim is to hit a very small ball into an even smaller hole, with weapons singularly ill-designed for the purpose. – Winston Churchill