So, you have a tee time with a scratch handicap. Maybe it’s a teaching pro, a client, or a pairing at an outing. The details aren’t as important as the feeling you’re likely battling: nervousness. You, a perfectly average golfer, have never played alongside a guy with a legitimate chance to break par. You don’t know what to say or how to act. Above all, you just want to avoid embarrassing yourself.
We’re here to help. I’ve been scratch-ish—sometimes worse, sometimes better—since I was 16 years old. My current index is a +1.2, although that’s sure to bite me once the weather warms and I have to play to my late-season handicap despite early-season rust. I have played dozens of rounds with men and women who’ve told me I’m the best player they’ve ever played with. And, once they shake off the nerves, these have often blossomed into some of my favorite days on the golf course.
The key is knowing what to do, and more crucially, what not to.
Here are the dos and don’ts of playing with a scratch-level player.
Don’t insist on playing the same tees
You’re coming from a good place—you don’t want to be a burden, and you figure having everyone in the group play from the same tees will speed up play. Only it’ll have the opposite effect: You’ll be looking for balls and hitting so many extra shots. Always be ready to step right up to the tee when it’s your turn, and any added time will be minimal.
Be very careful with your “Good shot!” shouts
Your standards for a good shot are very, very different than the scratch players. You might be thrilled every time you make solid contact with an iron from the fairway, but I can tell you from experience that hearing “Great shot!” when a ball is flying right to a bunker gets very old, very quickly.
Don’t ask him if he’s ever thought of turning pro
The difference between a scratch golfer and a touring pro is, functionally speaking, wider than the difference between you and the scratch golfer. Unless this scratch golfer is 14 years old or younger, or a highly delusional person, there is very little chance he or she will ever turn professional.
Don’t be afraid to get some action going
There’s a reason the handicap system exists, and it’s to mitigate differences between players—even if those differences are huge. Theoretically speaking you have a 50 percent chance of winning the match. Don’t be intimidated.
Do give gimmes
Some mid-handicappers I’ve played with have assumed that I’m keeping score as though I were playing a tournament, so they’ll hesitate to pick up the 18-inch par putts after a missed birdie attempt. Unless your playing partner explicitly says, “I’m going to putt everything out today,” you should absolutely kick away anything that’s within the leather. If it’s longer than that, simply look at them. Their reply will tell you how he feels about putting that one out.
Don’t offer swing advice
You might think this goes without saying but you’d be surprised. My tempo is quick, and I’ve had legitimate 15-handicaps tell me after a bad shot to “slow down” or “that looked pretty quick.” There is nothing more infuriating than hearing advice from a non-PGA professional who is significantly worse at golf than you.
Don’t ask for swing advice
Unless they’re a teaching pro, the last thing they want to do is spend an afternoon trying to help you stink less.
Play fast, but don’t rush
I’ve had playing partners visibly rush because they’re so worried about slowing everyone down—that just makes the good player in the group feel guilty. That’s not to say you shouldn’t pick up when you’re clearly headed for a quadruple bogey or worse, because you absolutely should. But take your time when you’re in the hole.
Don’t apologise for your game
You have nothing to apologize for, so hold off on the sorrys after you slice one into the trees. It doesn’t make your bad shots any less bad, and it only contributes to a sense of imbalance that you’re trying to avoid. Do you. Play your game.
A scratch player is good at a game—they’re not some sort of freakshow. So don’t treat them as such. Be you. Don’t be afraid to talk and shoot the breeze as you would in your normal foursome. This golfer just happens to swing a club better than your buddies do. Nothing more, nothing less.