Opening scene: the awards ceremony for a four-person team event contested at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail's Hampton Cove site near Huntsville, Alabama. Golfers standing around, generally looking cheerful as they await the announcement of the winners.
"And with a winning score of forty-six..." the pro shouts, before he's drowned out by sarcastic laughter that turns to boos. One of the winners gives a sheepish wave and collects an envelope, likely containing a few hundred bucks in pro shop credit.
Next scene: our intrepid smartphone videographer drives by the winners in the parking lot. "Hey, they took a picture of all the winners," he says. "Why'd y'all leave? You afraid to take a picture after shooting a 46?"
Some quick math: a 46 would be 26-under par in a single round. This winning team carded an ace on a par 4, a deuce on a par 5, four eagles and a dozen birdies.
Why are the winners trying to escape, rather than bask in the congratulations? Because their score is suspect, and they probably know it. It could be legit, of course; only four golfers know for sure. But a 46 is borderline-unfathomable on a regulation-length golf course...except, perhaps, in a format that breaks basic golf principles, creating an anything-goes, borderline-amoral atmosphere.
I'm talking, of course, about scrambles, specifically four-person scrambles.
What is a scramble in golf, and why is it an awkward format?
A scramble is when all members of a team hit a tee shot on a hole, then they select one of the shots to play from next. All players play from that spot and then repeat the process until the ball is holed. You shanked your approach shot into the water? No worries if one of your partners finds the green.
And to be fair, two-person scrambles can be fun to play in or watch. No one will be complaining too loudly about the PNC Championship format this weekend (although best-ball would be better); the opportunity to watch Tiger and Charlie Woods play golf is entertaining enough.
Three-person scrambles can be alright, too, as long as a tournament puts two teams together per hole, to make sure scoring is on the up-and-up.
But four-person scrambles are where the trouble happens.
Tournament organizers argue that scrambles are inclusive of new and casual golfers. A novice can feel like part of the team by contributing a few putts to the cause at the least. Fair enough, but anyone who has played in a few four-person scrambles has seen some version of the scene from the Reddit video play out: one team toddles in with a very low winning score and then slinks away with the winnings.
Four-person scrambles tear down one of golf's pillars: verification. There are too few barriers keeping bad actors from reporting a dishonest score. Not only can a team simply sign for a lower score than they made on a hole (or several), the constant picking-up and placing of golf balls prior to hitting a given shot creates practically unlimited opportunities to fluff up lies.
Other junk further muddles the competition. Optional team mulligans, pieces of string that can be exchanged to turn a near-miss putt into a hole-out (e.g., if you leave a putt three inches short, cut off three inches of the string and consider the putt made) and even the ability to throw a ball to gain extra distance on a particular shot are all common add-ons to the scramble experience.
At the risk of sounding like a wet blanket, I want to be clear that I am not opposed to spicing up the game occasionally, especially to help less-experienced players feel welcome. But if there is anything to be gained by winning, when four-person teams go off on their own, bad actors will spoil the fun for everyone. If you find yourself in a four-person scramble with some decent prizes and no accountability, the phrase "If you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin'" sadly will apply. Play at your own risk, and get ready to see some groups come in with crazy-low scores.
Personally, I'm good for maybe one or two four-person scrambles per year, if invited. In the past, I used to try and get my team into the competitive spirit of the event in the hopes of winning "the right way," but I've seen enough antics that I've pretty much given up. I've learned to embrace the farce.
Alternatives to four-person scrambles
For all my complaining, even scramble golf outings are fun. But I've found they're even more fun when using another format. Scramble outings at nice private clubs feel like a particular downer. It's just better - it feels more like "real" golf - to play your own ball.
My favorite annual outing is a one-gross-and-one-net best-ball format. The pace of play moves well because people whose scores aren't going to count for a particular hole will get out of the way quickly, but everyone still has the chance to contribute. Plus, they get to play their own ball. That aspect is crucial because the tournament takes place every year at TPC River Highlands in Connecticut on the day before the course shuts down for the Travelers Championship.
Pro-am events often use a "shamble" format, which mixes scramble and best-ball play. In most shambles (a.k.a. "Texas scrambles"), the team chooses the best drive of the group, then everyone plays their own ball into the hole, with the team selecting the best score. Even though I prefer best-ball, I like shambles as a compromise.
Anything but a four-person scramble.