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SAND TRAPS AND HANDICAPS

Local greens are a swingin'

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The on-course life of a beginning Boise golfer in the 1980s and 1990s was pure grassy glee. All cruel intricacies of the game itself aside, youth programs abounded, green fees and lesson prices were low for all but the stingiest parents or spouses and new equipment was hardly the bank-breaker it is today. However, when Tiger's roar gave the game unprecedented reinvigoration in the mid- and late-1990s, the opportunities available to beginning golfers were all but eliminated. Fees skyrocketed, equipment prices followed and a new kind of course began to fill Treasure Valley horizons. The three most recent—BanBury in Eagle, Falcon Crest in Kuna and Ridgecrest in Nampa—are immaculately maintained, visually stunning tracks geared toward a specific kind of golfer: one who craves the challenges and triumphs that only a championship level course provides and is willing to pay for it. In 2004, though, the tide of golf development finally appears to be turning away from the skilled and back toward the young, inexperienced and under-funded. Two new courses are set to open in the Treasure Valley in the next month and both are made specifically to lure new blood into this most difficult of sports.

Robin Hood at Falcon Crest, a nine-hole "executive" course, will be the first to open on May 1. Course designer Hans Borbonus has promised a 45-hole golf Mecca at Falcon Crest since the course's inception, and Robin Hood is the second step in that process (the third course will open sometime in 2005). Similar in its all-inclusive spirit to Ridgecrest's "Wee Nine," Robin Hood will feature four short par fours and five par threes that barely reach 2,000 total yards. While explicitly geared toward a local junior golf community which one Falcon Crest employee describes as "badly lagging," Robin Hood will also be open to adults looking for a haven from the high-brow hustle of tournament courses. Prices for adults will be $9 for nine holes and $14 for 18 holes, with inexpensive equipment rental available. Plans are also in the works for a nighttime tournament, couples only, to take place soon after Robin Hood's opening. Immense floodlights, similar to those utilized at Tiger Woods and David Duvall's famous 2002 matchplay duel, will hopefully keep tipsy grownups from braining each other or sneaking into the sand traps to make out.

The other course set to open soon is already familiar to anyone who has driven Highway 16 from State Street to Emmett in the last six months. Trellis, as it is labeled by owner and manager John Boehm, is an inviting sea of green in the midst of farmlands and prefab subdivisions, across the street from (and visually similar to) a nearby turf farm—in other words, not exactly an overpowering vertical spectacle like Ridgecrest or Falcon Crest, but that is exactly the point. "New courses opened in the Treasure Valley have targeted lower handicap players," explains Boehm, who was also responsible for bringing beginner-friendly Foxtail Golf Course into existence, "and those are all definitely impressive, but we're trying to target the 18 to 20 handicap instead." Trellis, set to open around Memorial Day, will stretch to an impressive 7,200 yards from the back tees but will also feature four shorter sets of tees to appeal to less lengthy hitters. Boehm compares the track most readily to Boise Ranch and Centennial, both of which share wide-open fairways and gently undulating slopes. The green fees at Trellis also display misgivings with the current state of local golf in which Ridgecrest and Shadow Valley can advertise $27 weekend green fees as a "bargain." "We want to invite people out here who don't feel comfortable at other courses," Boehm reports, "so [green fees] will be $20 for 18 holes and $12 for nine holes, seven days a week all season long."

The addition of these two new courses into the pantheon of places to cut one's hack-teeth skills before getting a handicap and playing in a tournament would seem to bode well for developing golfers, but alas, the hurdles don't end there. "Sandbaggers," or people who give themselves inflated handicaps in order to fare more successfully in tournaments, are more common and blatant than ever—a blight which affects high-handicapped beginners far more severely than low ones. Here's a brief overview: a handicap, by United States Golf Association standards, is the number of strokes over par 72 that a player has the potential to score (not, as is commonly thought, simply their average score), taking into account the relative difficulty of each course. A high handicap means the player needs much aid, a lower one less—although the scores used to determine handicaps are submitted by the players themselves, with no evidence required to prove their validity. Most tournaments pay out equal prizes to both gross (without handicap figured in) and net winners (handicap included), so as any single-digit golfer (and I mean age, not handicap) can tell, there is a potential flaw—namely, as soon as one golfer lies to have a better shot at winning a $400 dollar Titleist driver, everyone else must lie as well, lest they not be able to keep up.

Is being sandy cheating? With rules so vague and self-administered, the answer is an unsatisfying, "Yes, but more in spirit than letter of law." However, when asked if Treasure Valley golfers are padding more than ever, over half of club pros and course employees from 12 different local courses (when given a range-bucket of assurances that they wouldn't be named) agreed: Boise golfers are sandier than potato salad at a Bruneau barbecue. "It's just the way the system is, unfortunately," explains one Ada county assistant pro resignedly, "although I've been hearing an especially large amount of bitching recently."

"It used to be just one or two guys you could always count on," adds Boise Ranch head pro Chad Watson. "Now, you've got to shoot in the [net] fifties most weekends to win money. It's tough to pay $100 or $120 to enter a tournament knowing that you can't compete unless you're padding." To put the gravity of the baggery in perspective, a recent Golf Digest article by former USGA Director of Handicapping Dean Knuth calculated that the odds of an "honest" 16 handicap—someone whose highest "potential" is to shoot an 88 at most courses—to break 80 is 1138:1. The odds of accomplishing the feat twice in a single weekend tournament are 14,912:1.

But the timeless male (yes, men sandbag far more often than women) inability to self-regulate in a competitive setting has been a given in golf from its start. Unless the IGA drastically changes the system, such as eliminating self-submission and only allowing tournament scores to determine a handicap, sandbagging will get worse long before it gets better. Beginning golfers are advised to use the long training hours on new courses to prepare both mind and spine for the stressful road ahead and always remember: sandbaggers, like sandbags, won't learn through beatings.

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