The History of Sandbaggers

Recently I was engaged in some friendly email banter with a fellow golfer I’ll be playing a match against this spring. As is typical with the posturing of fools, the conversation turned to “trash talk” and the topic of exactly how the handicap strokes would be distributed came up. Naturally, I thought I should be receiving strokes from him and he thought we should be playing even or he should be getting strokes from me. We each questioned the authenticity of the other’s posted handicap and debated about who would be coming out of their winter hibernation versus whose game would be peaking. Predictably, the word “sandbagger” was bandied about as we each accused the other of the heinous act at various points in our exchange. Of course our conversation was all in good fun, but after the fact I couldn’t help but wonder exactly why the word sandbagger was used to describe a golf con artist.

Every game has them and they’ve been around since the beginning of time . . . hustlers, sharks, grifters, swindlers. These are people who represent themselves to be something they are not in an effort to take advantage of others. In golf we call them sandbaggers.

So, where did the term sandbagger come from? Did it stem from guys putting sand in their golf bags to make them heavier for some reason? Did it have to do with golfers intentionally hitting bad shots from the bunkers in order to downplay their ability? Maybe it has something to do with the bags of sand that early Scottish golfers carried for making tees? I had no idea and my curiosity was piqued. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how little sense the term made so I decided to do a little research.

A quick look on the internet yielded the following definition:

sandbag: verb – To fell with a blow from a sandbag

Interesting . . . not really what I was expecting to find. It appears that the term originated in the 1800s and was used to describe an attack that consisted of one person bludgeoning another with a small bag of sand. The related noun, sandbagger, is a name used for the street thugs who would perpetrate these attacks. Ok, that makes sense, but how did this term find its way from the mean streets of the 19th century to the fairways of golf?

It would appear that before sandbagging became part of the golf lexicon it was a commonly used term in cards. A common sandbagging scenario in poker would be a player with a great hand who holds back on raising the stakes in order to fool his opponents into thinking they had a chance to win. After luring his fellow players into a high stakes pot the sandbagger would strike big and pummel the other players with his “sandbag”, i.e. his great hand. I’m not much of a poker player, but I believe that today in the 21st century we would call this tactic a great strategy or a good “poker face”.

While the term sandbagger may no longer apply to poker is certainly does to golf. Here is a definition I found that is a bit more in line with what we think of when it comes to golf sandbaggers.

sandbagger: noun – one who conceals abilities or assets at first in order to gain tactical advantage later.

Today we use handicaps as a system of checks and balances to help reduce sandbagging. That said, the system inherently relies on the trustworthiness of the people using it so, in the end it still comes down to honesty.

So what happens to people who are caught sandbagging? I believe everyone is familiar with the infamous scene from the 1961 Paul Newman classic The Hustler where Eddie the pool shark gets his thumbs broken after swindling his opponent out of $100. If not, take a moment to google it and find the clip on the internet.

While I don’t necessarily see anyone getting their thumbs broken in the grill room at Cypress Point Club there certainly are repercussions for hustlers found sandbagging in golf. Surely, a serial sandbagger will be found out at his home club and over time will find a significant decrease in the number of invitations he receives to play. Sandbagging guests are likely to never receive a return invitation, and for those golfers who are foolish enough to take their chances hustling strangers at public courses . . . well, if they should cross the wrong guy, the scene above is not out of the realm of possibilities.

So that’s the story folks. The term sandbagger is derived from the 19th century thugs who would clobber their victims with bags of sand. Seems fitting. I’ve watched a shot or two in my day that felt pretty similar to getting whacked with a bag of sand. Now, next time you call your buddy a sandbagger you will know why. Feel free to leave some comments about sandbagging below.

  • Rob Graham

    I think your partner is working on a professional sandbag of the Ridley last year. As bad as my game is these days, I’m wondering if my handicap should be adjusted.

  • The Itinerant Golfer

    Spoken like a true sandbagger Rob!! If that was a sandbag job from my partner last year, he’s going to have some explaining to do. Sandbaggers are supposed to win, not lose!

  • Joe Love

    sandbags or “bags” are also used in the game spades to prevent someone from underbidding their hand– it’s the same concept. In general you don’t want people bidding a minimum bid with a strong hand in order to trick the other team into overbidding.