It is one of the dirtiest words in the golf lexicon, a form of
skulduggery that puts one at risk of ostracism, or worse. In a
gentleman's game in which failing to say nice shot can be
construed as poor sportsmanship, to be branded a sandbagger is
just one step above the ultimate indictment: That you're an
outright cheat. As the apotheosis of the pro-am format, the
Crosby Clambake has always been dogged by whispers of
sandbagging. There has been only one documented case, in 1995:
Masashi Yamada, a Japanese businessman claiming a 15 handicap,
stormed to victory with Tour pro Bruce Vaughan but was later
unmasked as a six who had previously won the Japan Senior
Amateur. Yamada, 72 at the time, was stripped of his Pebble
Beach title, and Sandy Tatum, the former USGA president who had
won the Crosby Pro-Am in 1961 playing alongside Tour player Wes
Ellis, said, "I'm only glad Bing didn't have to deal with it."
This is an article from the Feb. 17, 2003 issue
Crosby was one of the game's most important popularizing figures
and a great champion of amateur golf. His son Nathaniel even won
the 1981 U.S. Amateur. To dishonor the charismatic crooner's
memory is considered such sacrilege that the merest whiff of
sandbagging at Pebble Beach can leave the accused with a scarlet
hue. Hall of Famer George Brett, a sweet swinger who hit .390 for
the Kansas City Royals in 1980, won the 1987 Pro-Am with a
questionable 17 handicap and has never been invited back. The
same fate befell Dean Spanos, son of San Diego Chargers owner
Alex Spanos, after his victory in 1990, during which he carried
an 11 handicap but helped his pro by 39 strokes. Hollywood heavy
Andy Garcia, playing with Tour pro Paul Stankowski, took the
Pro-Am title in 1997, thanks in large part to a magical nine
holes at Poppy Hills in the second round, during which he made
three natural birdies, shot a 36 and contributed nine strokes to
what would be a Pro-Am record score of 43 under par. Pretty good
for an 18 handicapper. Garcia hasn't lost his invitation in the
ensuing years, just a handful of strokes off his handicap. Since
'97 he has been given a 10, and his Pro-Am team hasn't been among
the low 25 to make the 54-hole cut, including last week, when
Garcia and Stankowski were 107th out of 180 pairings after three
rounds, at nine under. (Stankowski was eight under on his own
ball and tied for seventh among the pros.)
"Sandbagging is an ugly term," Garcia says. "It impugns not only
your game, but also your character. People throw it at you almost
as a penalty for playing too well. You're damned if you do and
damned if you don't."
The Crosby Clambake has yielded to a new name--the AT&T Pebble
Beach National Pro-Am--but some things remain the same for the
amateurs: Play too well and you are bound to step in the s word.
Last week eyebrows were raised when Super Bowl XXXVI MVP Tom
Brady, claiming a 10 handicap in his first appearance at Pebble,
bombed 300-yard drives and carried his team into contention
despite the desultory play of his pro. (At seven over Jesper
Parnevik missed the 54hole professional cut by five strokes, but
thanks to Brady's work their team was 20 under through three
rounds, leaving Parnevik in the odd position of playing on Sunday
in a field for which he didn't qualify.) Minneapolis businessman
Andy Hunter and fifth-year Tour pro Rory Sabbatini surged into a
tie for the 54-hole lead, at 23 under, when Hunter, a six, made
five birdies on his own ball on the front nine at Pebble Beach on
Saturday. "Who's the pro in this group--me or you?" Sabbatini
asked during the birdie binge.
In the end controversy was averted when a couple of unimpeachable
11 handicaps shared the title--Craig Heatley, a cable TV titan
from New Zealand, and Thomas Ryan, the chairman of CVS Pharmacies
who hails from Providence. Asked if his 11 will hold up to
scrutiny, Ryan, playing in his fourth straight Pro-Am alongside
Brad Faxon, said, "That handicap is bulletproof, trust me. The
number hasn't changed in four years." Heatley, paired with Phil
Tataurangi, a fellow Kiwi, let the play-by-play speak for itself.
"Listen, mate, I didn't exactly finish like a sandbagger,"
Heatley said on Sunday. "I chunked an L-wedge on 16, hooked my
tee shot into the ocean on 17 and sliced my drive O.B. on 18.
Phil had to carry a dead body home."
Heatley, who lives in Auckland but plays out of the Dunes at Mani
Lani in Hawaii, saved all of his scorecards over the past two
years in case further handicap documentation would be needed.
That kind of conscientiousness is a recent development at a
tournament that for most of its history has been pretty loose
about handicaps. Brett had been playing golf for only seven years
at the time of his Pro-Am debut, in '87, and hadn't yet bothered
to establish an official handicap. Says Brett, "I was tuning up
for the tournament in Palm Springs with [soon-to-be partner] Fred
Couples, and I asked Fred, 'Hey man, what do you think my
handicap should be?' He said, 'Oh, I don't know, about 17.' So
that's what I put down, and that's what they gave me."
But in the wake of the Yamada scandal, tournament organizers have
taken great pains to root out sandbagging (a term that dates to
medieval times, when farmers, paid by the pound, would come to
market with bags bulging with more than just produce). An amateur
who accepts an invitation to play at Pebble is asked to provide,
along with a $9,500 check, month-by-month documentation of his
handicap for the preceding year. The amateurs' backgrounds are
then scrutinized the same way that Supreme Court nominees' are
because numbers can lie--during the investigation of Yamada the
Japan Amateur Golf Association reported such inconsistencies in
handicap reporting from his home course, the Magijyo Country
Club, that the JAGA had banned Magijyo members from participating
in sanctioned tournaments.
"We call around and check up on them," says Ollie Nutt, the
executive vice president of the Monterey Peninsula Foundation,
which runs the Pebble Beach Pro-Am. "You have to understand, the
ownership group and the management group at the Pebble Beach
Company are very well connected in the world of golf. Clint
[Eastwood, the tournament chairman] knows everybody, and there
are plenty of others like that."
Once tournament organizers are satisfied that they have
identified an amateur's true handicap, they often adjust it
upward, traditionally up to two strokes. This so-called bump is a
nod to the difference in difficulty between the Pro-Am courses
and a player's home club. In 1997 Garcia carried a 16 handicap at
Lakeside Golf Club in Burbank, Calif., but because it is a par70
of only 6,536 yards, he was bumped to an 18. (In the years since,
he says he has worked his Lakeside handicap down to "nine point
something.") Conspiracy theorists note that the celebrities
almost always get the maximum bump because it helps them make the
cut, and their presence is good for the ratings of the Sunday
The bump may also be a factor in why the most controversial
winners--like Yamada, Garcia and Brett--were all first-timers.
Players with more established track records have more bulletproof
Last week the second-round Pro-Am leader, at 17 under, was
American Express vice chairman Jonathan Linen, a 10 who had
considerable help from his longtime partner, Davis Love III, the
eventual winner of the pro tournament. "Will my handicap hold up
to scrutiny?" Linen asked last Friday, parroting a reporter's
question. "Bring it on."
"Jonathan is one of those guys who is of golf," says Love,
pointing out that Linen is a member of such leading clubs as Pine
Valley and Seminole. "He couldn't fudge his handicap if he tried,
because too many of these guys have played with him."
Likewise, fifth-place finisher Hunter spent last week warming up
at nearby Cypress Point Club, where Eastwood is a fellow member,
as are a number of other Pro-Am participants. "I'd love to be
accused of sandbagging," Hunter said following Saturday's round,
while standing in the cramped pro shop at Cypress Point. "That
means I will have won the tournament."
The irony in being labeled a sandbagger is that it's a slight
that must be earned with good play. Brett wintered in Palm
Springs before the '87 Pro-Am precisely so he could prepare for
the tournament, and he remains so proud of his victory that he
keeps the trophy behind his bar at home in Kansas City. Asked if
he recalls many details from that week, he says, "Are you kidding
me? I remember every shot." Brett then proves it by providing a
blow-by-blow of the sudden-death playoff, including the shot he
skulled out of a bunker on the 2nd hole at Pebble, forcing him to
pick up, and then his big drive around the corner on the 3rd
hole, which led to a clutch two-putt for par (net birdie) that
earned the trophy. "It was like the seventh game of the World
Series," says Brett, who is now a six handicap. "I mean that."
Garcia keeps his trophy in his dining room, and he too feels the
hardware was well-earned. "In the two weeks before the tournament
I practiced every day, and I never practice," Garcia says. "My
game really accelerated."
A feel player with a strong short game, Garcia says his 36 at
Poppy Hills was "the best nine holes I have ever played and
probably ever will play." Instead of the hearty round of
congratulations that he expected, "the next morning everyone got
on my ass," he says. "It got in my head--like maybe I shouldn't
win--and I played terrible during the third round. The final
round at Pebble, I told myself, They're going to criticize me
anyway, so I might as well go ahead and win."
Of the struggles that have followed, Garcia's longtime partner,
Stankowski, says it boils down to simple math. "He was a 16, and
they gave him 18. Now he's a 10, and they give him 10. But these
courses are easily five shots harder than Lakeside, so he really
has to play like a five. He's behind the eight ball from the very
beginning, so he tries too hard. They call him a sandbagger to
this day. I'll tell you what: He's legit, and his handicap was
legit back then. It's a shame the way it's all worked out."
After catching his breath, Stankowski offers some counsel that
this year's champs, Ryan and Heatley, would be wise to take to
heart. "I give Andy the same pep talk every year: Don't worry
about what people say. Even if you never make the cut again, they
can't take away your victory. You're a champion, and everybody
else can go shove it."
in my head--like I shouldn't win--and I played terrible."