I was at my local muni the other day and heard some guys in the grill griping about golf sandbagging – the sad but not uncommon practice of someone pretending to be a worse golfer than they are in order to get strokes and win a bet or prizes in a competition.
It took me back to my own first-hand experience with golf sandbagging, when an undercover TV news exposé I had concocted nearly blew up in my face.
My last job in news after 40-some years in the business, mostly in newspapers, was as the investigative news producer for a local station, KOB-TV 4
in Albuquerque, where I still live. It was fun for a while. Where I once would tell my wife I was on deadline, I’d tell her I was on a stakeout, lying in wait with a photographer and my on-air partner to jump some scam artist or other ne’er do well for the obligatory on-camera confrontation.
I was half of the “4 Wants to Know” unit. Nowadays, I tell people that my on-air partner, Conroy Chino, an Acoma Pueblo member and veteran TV journalist, and I worked well together until the day “4 didn’t want to know any more,” which is true.
After a new news director replaced the guy who’d hired me, “live, local, late-breaking” became the station’s motto. Overnight, Conroy and I became unwanted, overpaid stepchildren whose salaries could be better spent, the new guy thought, covering truck crashes on Interstate 40 or standing by the side of the highway telling people, “It’s snowing.”
A golf sandbagging exposé comes together
In June 2000, for the July book (one of the TV ratings periods), I proposed a piece on golf sandbagging at the three-day Albuquerque City Men’s City Championship, a flighted event played across the city’s three 18-hole municipal courses each year over the 4th of July weekend.
It was summer and things were slow, with not much happening in city or state government, from which we drew most of our 4 Wants to Know story leads. So, focusing on cheating in an amateur golf tournament wasn’t the waste of resources it might have been, say, in November, the year’s most important ratings period.
I had played in the city’s men’s championship on and off over the years, never coming close to placing in my flight even when I shot better than my handicap. People would win with outrageous back-to-back-to-back scores like net 62, with no adjustments from the organizers. “I’m tired of being cheated by sandbaggers who claim to be 18-handicappers but shoot in the 70s,” I told Conroy, who wasn’t a golfer but who knew Notah Begay III, who was.
I told him I knew a potential sandbagger we could enlist. We’d set him up with a fake GHIN number, enter him, and them follow his progress over the course of the three-day tournament, with me wearing our “Glasses Cam” rig, a pair of thick black Elvis Costello-like frames with a cord that ran to a camcorder concealed in a fanny pack. Video was recorded at the point where the glasses sat on the nose and audio was captured at one of the hinges. Early on, Conroy had warned me not to sniff or cough while wearing Glasses Cam or I’d ruin the audio.
Our sandbagger gets a fake handicap
I approached Jon Little, a golfer I had played with quite often who carried a 7 handicap but played a stroke or two better than that. He agreed to be our sandbagger. Not that he needed much persuading. Once, he won his flight in the San Juan Open, a tournament in Farmington, in the Four Corners, using only a 7-iron. He had the kind of short game I could only dream about.
Jon was always a bit of a hustler. He and his partner at a local country club played for serious money almost every weekend. It got so serious that his partner, a lawyer, confessed that golf had become like a second job. As an advertising salesperson for the local alternative weekly, Jon once confided to me that he’d pose as a customer to call his advertisers’ businesses to lead them to believe their ad was working its magic.
Jon was game for the story. We set him up with a GHIN number and loaded enough scores into the GHIN machine at the local university course over a couple weeks to give him a 15 handicap, then paid his entry fee into the Albuquerque City Men’s Championship.
On the first day of the tournament, I instructed Jon to play somewhat better than his claimed handicap to try to stay in contention., then I followed him around the course getting video. He shot 81, laying off strokes on botched chips, which he complained ran counter to his DNA. After the scores were posted, we realized he wasn’t even close to the lead. On the second day, he shot 79 and found himself within sight of leader — but sitting well back in fifth place.
One sandbagger among many
On the third and final day of the tournament, I got to the course late. Wearing Glasses Cam, I caught up with Jon’s group early on the front nine, where he told me the guys he was playing with were playing unbelievably good golf for their claimed handicaps. “Then go for it and shoot lights out, too,” I told him. When the round was over, Jon had posted a 77 and finished in third place.
“You can’t win anything,” I told my sandbagger after pulling him aside outside the scoreboard pavilion. “Go in there and DQ yourself. Think of something,” I said, as I followed him inside, Glasses Cam rolling. He explained to the scorer that he had signed for a wrong score and requested to be DQ’d. You could have heard the jaws hitting the floor as he walked away from what I recall was a couple hundred dollars in golf merchandise.
After he walked out, I panned the scoreboard with his flight’s unbelievably low scores. We had the story and the video to back it up. The premise had held — that the Albuquerque City Men’s Championship was a haven for sandbaggers. It wasn’t all that deep or important a story but it was a story that every golfer in the region would want to watch.
We put the piece together for airing on a Thursday night, which was the night that the popular NBC hospital drama, “ER,” led into KOB’s 10 o’clock newscast, traditionally a really good night for us. The promotions department used some of our video to put together a promo for our upcoming 4 Wants to Know story, starting the Tuesday before that Thursday.
And then, bad news
That Wednesday morning, I got the call from Tom DeFrancesca, the manager of the city’s standalone 9-hole course, which wasn’t part of the city championship rota. Tom had seen the KOB-TV promo the night before. “Dan, you know that your sandbagger played in a men’s association best-ball tournament here last Saturday. “Yeah?” I replied, warily. “And he won. He’s not a 15, is he?”
Oh no. I’d created a Frankenstein’s monster and had unleashed him on an unsuspecting golfing public. I could imagine the blowback to the station — the switchboard lighting up with calls from angry golfers, city officials and tournament organizers, the news director calling me into his office, me begging for forgiveness. Something had to be done. And right away.
I called Jon. WTF, I asked. Well, it was too easy, he said. He had this perfectly good handicap and figured he’d put it to use at a course where no one knew him. “You just can’t help yourself,” I yelled into the phone. I browbeat him into calling Tom and renouncing his winnings — not that they would have let him cash out his gift certificate knowing what they knew, especially after the piece aired.
The story ran as scheduled and was well-received. The organizers of the tournament promised to better police sandbagging in the future (it did not happen). A year or two later, after I’d left TV news, I was running Sun Country Golf, the state’s amateur golf magazine and I interviewed Jon on the psychology of golf sandbagging. He described it as a thrill, like robbing a liquor store or shoplifting on a whim and getting away with it, then later feeling dirty, ashamed, but doing it again and again and again.
As a knowledgeable, avid and talented golfer, I included Jon in a short golf documentary, “Why I Play,”
about why people play golf, that I made for the local PBS station. On camera, he talked about the mental side of a game that he said he hoped to continue playing well into old age, long after he couldn’t play softball or basketball. He was engaging and thoughtful, talking as he chipped ball after ball tight to the pin.
Last I talked to Jon, he was up in Denver, selling granite and quartz countertops and, if I remember correctly, he had a wife and a new baby. Once a heart attack waiting to happen for much of the time I’d known him, he’d gone on a health kick and lost weight. He’d moved on from regular golf to speed golf, an organized offshoot of the sport in which players run from shot to shot over 18 holes, striving for the fewest strokes taken over the shortest amount of time.
I didn’t ask him if there was sandbagging in speed golf.
Dan Vukelich is the online editor of Alabama Golf News. He lives in Albuquerque, N.M.
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