Ron Kroichick, Chronicle Staff Writer
Feb. 11, 2009Updated: Feb. 10, 2012 4:02 p.m.
Masashi Yamada holds a dubious place in the lore of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. Yamada, a Japanese businessman, teamed with Bruce Vaughan to win the pro-am competition in 1995 – until tournament officials belatedly learned Yamada’s handicap (15) was well north of accurate. They stripped him of the title.
Fourteen years later, the event still grapples with suspicions of “sandbagging,” golfing vernacular for a player who inflates his handicap to gain an edge in competition. That was evident this week, when Ollie Nutt – president of the Monterey Peninsula Foundation, which runs the tournament – walked into a conference room and plopped a thick, blue binder on the table.
The binder contained detailed information on all 180 amateurs in this year’s field. They range from scratch golfers to 18-handicappers, from players who smack the ball straight and pure to those who represent a genuine threat to gallery members crowded around the tee.
Nutt and his staff merely want an amateur’s handicap to match his or her actual ability. That’s not always a simple quest, but it’s one that consumes more and more time each year.
“We’ve been more diligent,” Nutt said. “We pull up everyone’s scores; 98 percent of them look totally fine. If we see an unusual pattern – if someone hasn’t posted scores in awhile – we’ll dig around.”
First, the brief background: An amateur’s handicap is determined by the scores he/she posts and the difficulty of the course where each round is played. Those numbers are fed into a computerized system to reach a player’s “index.” The index then is adjusted for the AT&T, based on the considerable challenges of Pebble Beach, Spyglass Hill and Poppy Hills.
The handicap of each amateur directly affects the outcome of the pro-am, because the number determines how many strokes the player will receive during the tournament. It’s a system designed to level the playing field by accounting for golfers’ various skill levels.
Still, whispers of sandbagging inevitably surface. They did two years ago, when businessman Harry You, an 18-handicap, made a fabulous par save in the final round, on the same hole partner Phil Mickelson made double bogey. Mickelson and You won the pro-am at 39-under-par (Mickelson won the pro side at 20-under).
Then, last year, alarms went off when Fredrik Jacobson and Las Vegas golf-company owner Bill Walters won the pro-am by 10 strokes. They shot 38-under in the better-ball format, an eye-catching number because Jacobson finished at 4-under on his ball.
The suspicions grew when Walters’ background came to light: A Golf Digest profile in 2002 detailed his history as a gambler and “golf hustler.” He claimed he once lost a $2 million bet and another time made a 40-foot putt for $400,000. The story also described Walters as a “3-handicapper disguised as a 16.”
Walters, in a phone interview last week, acknowledged his handicap fluctuated between 3 and 6 when he was younger. But because of age (now 62) and three shoulder surgeries, he said, his index of 9.6 last year was genuine. He carried an 11-handicap in the AT&T.
“If anyone wins a tournament with a handicap involved, there are always questions,” said Walters, who is not in this week’s field. “One thing is difficult to dispute: Pebble probably does a better job of protecting the field than any tournament I could imagine.”
As for the possibility of a player inflating his handicap, Walters said, “The way the handicap system is set up, I’m sure some people do that.”
Nutt and tournament director Steve Worthy ultimately concluded Walters had not cheated. (Nutt and Worthy personally inspect amateurs’ handicaps, and at least three members of the tournament committee sign off on every player’s final number.) They would have welcomed him back, but Walters didn’t do business this year with the sponsor that invited him in 2008.
Tournament officials were not as understanding in 1995, once they discovered Yamada owned the golf club where he had the 15-handicap – and his handicap was 6 at other clubs where he played. He did not return to the AT&T.
Written By Ron Kroichick
Ron Kroichick has worked at the San Francisco Chronicle since 1995, when he came from the Sacramento Bee. In spring 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic, he has temporarily moved to Metro to cover higher education and general-assignment news. In normal times, Kroichick is The Chronicle’s golf columnist, covering the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and all major championships in Northern California (including the 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach and 2020 PGA Championship at Harding Park). He also writes features on the Warriors during the NBA season, and on various other topics – ranging from the 49ers/NFL and major-league baseball to college football and basketball – the rest of the year.