Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Bisques to the fore!

Golf is often cited as a game that enables players of widely different abilities to compete realistically and with broadly equal chances of winning. With every player having a personal handicap rating, based on his form and record against the theoretically perfect scratch score, someone playing off 18 could have a meaningful game with the amateur champion, who might be off plus 4, with no adjustment to the rules (illegal in golf anyway), by being in receipt of 22 strokes. The outcome would not be a foregone conclusion. Such a match would be impossible at, for instance, tennis where the good player would win almost every point unless truly handicapped, such as by having to play left handed, or in diving boots.

In everyday club golf a match between two unequal players requires the better player to give the lesser one a number of strokes equal to the difference in handicaps. This is at least an improvement on the arrangement of a few years ago which gave the lesser player only three quarters of the difference. However the strokes have to be taken at the holes specified on the card. Which holes get which stroke index is decided by the committee, under recommendations from the national golf union. Anyone who has played under this system will have noticed that two things happen in most matches: you have a stroke at a certain hole but go out of bounds and lose the hole by two strokes; or your opponent goes out of bounds and you win the hole without needing the stroke. In either case the stroke is wasted and cannot be used elsewhere. The advantage is always with the better player. Why should the committee decide which holes you get your strokes at? There must be a better way.

There is. It is so simple that I cannot understand why it is not used. You simply take your strokes when you need them. They are called bisques. I believe this is originally a device used in croquet but its adaptation to golf has been long recognised, not least by Bernard Darwin who wrote on the tactics of bisques many years ago in Tee Shots and Others. Contrary to the practice at my club on the rare occasions bisques are used, you do not have to announce your intention to claim the stroke on the tee. This would be little different from the arbitrary allocation according to stroke index. The stroke is taken after the result of the hole is known and must be claimed before leaving the green and you can, if the match has reached a critical stage or you have been too mean or too proud in using your bisques thus far, claim more than one at a time.

Clearly a stroke when you need it is a more powerful weapon than one arbitrarily allocated according to where you are on the course, so it can be argued that the higher handicap player does not need so many of them. In medal play you have to finish each hole and may have to use up some of your handicap allowance on an eight or a nine. In match play you would not normally expend bisques on mitigating such disasters. So I would settle for three quarters of the difference in bisques and would happily offer an opponent the choice between that and the usual arrangement, whether I was giving or receiving the strokes.

A mischievous variation on the bisque is the half bisque (also used in croquet, where you may take the free hit but not use it to score a point). A half bisque may be used to claim a hole that has been halved but they may not be added together, so to use half bisques effectively the higher handicap player must be able to halve a good number of holes on level terms. Bernard Darwin enthused over the tactical possibilities of this one but had only vague ideas on how many half bisques to allow. It needs experiment and statistical data and I challenge enterprising golfers to try it and report the results.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

What do we do to deserve these refs?

To the pub in the next village to watch the world cup final. Ours would probably have soccer on and about three people watching. I predicted about a year ago that South Africa would win, thinking then that England would be nowhere and not foreseeing how we would help them by eliminating Australia. That evening, with both Wallabies and All Blacks going out to less fancied sides, will remain one of the sporting godsends of my life.

I have no England shirt so wear a short sleeved red one above a long sleeved white one – the message should be clear. Can’t decide whether to sit in the posh bar with the hooray Henries or the public one with the real people but there is a seat in the posh one so that decides it. Everyone stands for a rousing rendition of the national anthem. I find myself next to a girl in an England shirt with a boyfriend in a South African one. He knows all the rules and evidently has remarkable eyesight – every England infringement instantly spotted and explained. In the interval I ask him where he is from. ‘Pritoria, South Ifrica’, he says. The South Africa part I had guessed.

The first half is close, England trailing because of a couple of silly penalties. At the start of the second we make a super break and score near the left hand corner, a good yard in from touch. A conversion would give us the lead 10-9 and anything could happen. Then the Franco-Irish ref, inappropriately English-French bilingual on this occasion, decides to refer it to the television official. This is an overworked option that should be resisted. It was clearly a try that should have been awarded without hesitation and would have been until the new technology came in. The television official now has the job of trying to find a reason not to award it because either a) he would be out of a job if he gave it or b) the endless replays that would follow and that might suggest he should have denied it would discredit him. There was nothing in the replays that proved Cueto was in touch before the ball was grounded. It was morally a try whatever the technicalities and should never have been referred. This is slavery to the technology. It happens because tacklers seem to have been trained to try to drag the try scorer’s feet into touch as an easier option than tackling him properly. If this goes on wingers will have to be trained to raise their feet as they dive for the line, and if they catch the tackler in the face, so much the better.

I find myself with a depressing sense of déjà vu. In 2003 we had to contend with a ref who kept finding reasons to drag a clearly winning side back with strange calls for scrum infringements against a scrum that were clearly on top. I have heard allegations that he was on a bonus, presumably from the television company, to extend the game into extra time and an even bigger one to take it to a penalty shoot-out. Now we have to contend with a man who had not the moral courage to take a big decision in a close game.

On then to the end and a 15-10 win for South Africa that will go down in the books as 15-6. I have no complaint with the result and am proud that England made it to the final and erased the memory of the 36-0 whitewash. We gave them a good game, lineouts apart, and made them work for it and should be able to go on from there. The team should get the same reception on coming home as they did in 2003, though they will presumably arrive on a French train instead of a BA jumbo. The whole tournament was a huge success, with a side beaten in the pool games reaching the final for the first time and Argentina for me the team of the tournament. The only bad taste is New Zealand apparently trying to renege on the deal to hold a 20 nation tournament in 2011 and reduce it to 16. If they persist with that it should be taken away from them and given to Japan.

So to the presentations and for some reason my evening was most spoiled by the sight of our prime minister in the lineup of dignitaries congratulating the teams. He probably thought it was Britain that had lost.

A quick no-hard-feelings chat with the South African supporter and then I spotted his girlfriend taking off her England shirt to reveal a Springbok one underneath. Ann Boleyn was beheaded for less.