Editor's note: This article was published in "The Playbook," a special publication from the Record-Eagle previewing the fall 2021 high school sports season. Click here to read The Playbook in its entirety online.
TRAVERSE CITY — Imagine what a game of basketball would be like if players had to call their own fouls and keep score.
What you’d get is the reality high school golfers across the nation face — a game where players police each other, score each others’ rounds and act as their own referees.
“Golf really brings out your honesty and integrity. It’s all you out there, and it’s important for you to be truthful and honest,” said Traverse City West senior Ainslee Hewitt.
All Michigan high school golfers this fall and spring will be required to use the “MHSAA Golf” live scoring app powered by iWanamaker at Michigan High School Athletic Association sanctioned competitions.
How it got to that point was a three-year path to accountability accelerated by a pandemic and led by 20-year Traverse City resident Cody Inglis. The former athletic director at Suttons Bay and Traverse City Central joined the MHSAA as an Assistant Athletic Director in 2013 to oversee golf, hockey, cross country and bowling.
Just a few years into the job, Michigan high school golf made national news, but not for a good reason.
Three downstate schools that served as each others scorekeepers, or “markers”, were accused of colluding to qualify for the 2018 state finals by shaving strokes off the rounds they scored.
The teams carded season-low team scores — by far.
New Baltimore Anchor Bay’s 284 (an average round of 71) broke the MHSAA regionals record. Harrison Township L’Anse Creuse set a school record with a 296. Fraser carded a 313 and was accused of being involved, but took fourth and didn’t advance to states after Lake Orion’s 308.
Those scores were more than a 45-stroke improvement over each team’s respective season averages, meaning each player would have had to shoot 11.5 strokes better than usual.
The incident revealed systemic flaws to the way the game is scored.
U.S. Golf Association rules required the game to be scored on paper. Scores were added up at the end of the round and a winner was declared. No officials could have possibly been aware of the incredible rounds the players were having, and there were no eyewitnesses or videos of the golfers.
Anchor Bay and L’Anse Creuse advanced to the state finals — both finishing dead last after carding 100 strokes higher than their qualifying rounds on just the first day.
“There have always been concerns about scoring integrity when we’re basically putting players and teenagers in charge of scoring — and even officiating — these high school contests,” said Todd Hursey, a longtime golf coach in the TC area. “We were always looking for a better way to do it, but that was clearly a slap in the face that something had to be done.”
Enter Doyle Heisler, CEO of the Colorado Springs-based Wanamaker company.
Heisler was invited to attend the MHSAA’s December golf committee meeting following the infamous regional. He presented the benefits and advantages of using the iWanamaker system to Inglis, then in his fourth year overseeing Michigan golf. The app already had two states on board, Arizona and Colorado.
“I was sitting beside (Brother Rice coach) Leon Braisted ... and he said ‘I was at this tournament.’ If these scores would have been posted live for the public can see them, he (Braisted) would have never strayed away,” Heisler said. “After the first two holes they would have stopped it. They would have sent someone out to all of those groups.”
That point convinced the committee the app was the long-term solution to preventing the cheating scandal from happening again, but according to Inglis it wasn’t the only reason why the MHSAA decided on iWanamaker.
“The main reason why we went to iWanamaker was simply the desire to get a scoreboard for high school golf,” Inglis said. “When you think about golf it’s one of the only sports that we have that you don’t know what the score of the game is during action. … It added an element we didn’t have in high school golf, and we needed.”
It only was a matter of time from then on.
The USGA approved a rule change allowing for the game to be officially scored “on paper or digitally” effective 2019. That marked a new era at the youth level for the sport with a 400-year history.
Hursey acknowledged that first switch wasn’t easy, but soon enough he signed on to have the Traverse City Junior Golf Association start using the app regardless of what the MHSAA decided to do.
Fourteen junior golf associations in the U.S. have joined since.
“I probably saw a little more in the realm of the old timers who said ‘Hey. Wait a minute. Scorecard and pencil is the traditional way to do things,’” said Hursey, the TCJGA’s Executive Director. “When kids are using their phones every green and tee box, that’s a little tough to watch.”
The MHSAA officially launched the app powered by iWanamaker ahead of the 2020 girls golf state finals in East Lansing.
Inglis said the benefits were two-fold:
- It allowed administrators to be more expedient with the tournament logistics of scoring a match.
- It allowed the MHSAA to put on a contact-free girls golf state finals in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Without the use of iWanamaker, I’m not sure we could have or would have had a tournament last fall for the girls,” Inglis said. “We were trying to limit contact of golfers and make it be the physically distant sport that golf is and can be.”
It was a huge test, and Inglis said iWanamaker passed with flying colors.
Traverse City Central senior Grace Maitland was among the ones using it at states, as was Hewitt.
“The app was a great chance for the girls to have a little bit of accountability on each other because you had to enter in someone else’s score, and you still had to talk with everyone you were playing with before you moved onto the next hole,” Maitland said.
The app was used for the entirety of the spring 2021 boys golf season, including postseason tournaments. The Board of Directors then voted after the season’s conclusion to mandate the use of it in all regular-season and postseason tournaments for the upcoming girls and boys season, beginning in August of 2021.
Twenty states including Michigan are now using the iWanamaker platform in an official capacity, but Heisler is only aware of one state, Arizona, with such a mandate as the MHSAA’s. Florida mandates the use of the app for its state tournament.
The way the app works isn’t complicated.
Golfers report to their scores to their marker. Once that score is entered a screen pops up on the golfer’s end to either acknowledge or attest the score. If that’s correct, it’s locked, and only an official can change it.
Scoring integrity is just one of the app’s benefits.
Arizona doesn’t have playoffs for golf. Instead it uses a bid system for the state finals where the lowest team scores qualify regardless of their geography. The app centralizes all school’s regular-season scores in one place.
“I have seen it happen many times where were three of the kids might be competing for the team championship, or the individual championship, and they know whether they do or do not need to make that putt,” Heisler said.
The app hasn’t been the only thing the MHSAA has changed since the 2018 scoring integrity incident. It required a rules official to be present at each regional. Most have two.
However, Inglis said there’s a balance between having referees officiate every hole with ‘by the book’ golf (Quite literally; The 2019 edition of the USGA rulebook was 528 pages) and making sure kids are enjoying the game.
“You got to be really careful that you’re providing the proper direction to a student athlete so that you don’t point them down the wrong direction. Because if they follow your advice, and do something that’s against the rule, in golf, the only conclusion is a disqualification or a stroke penalty. And that’s a pretty stiff penalty for a kid that’s just asking an adult for questions,” Inglis said.
Hursey isn’t sure if there’s a fool-proof solution to end scoring integrity issues in high school golf, but the iWanamaker app has been a big step in the right direction.
“We’re more about teaching life skills than we are about shooting scores,” Hursey said. “It’s still competitive, but honesty and integrity are our first two life skills. We teach it, we preach it, we expect it and we emphasize it.
“It’s tough to be perfect when kids aren’t monitored at all times. But you just hope that your messages get across and they understand that getting the score right is more important in the scheme of things than shooting a good score.”