An equal chance?

‘Real golfers have two handicaps: one for braggin’ and one for betting.’ – Anon

Always causes difficulty

Here’s another subject which causes great difficulty and annoyance in golf  - and always has done.

And it’s very complicated, wherever you play in the world.

And it’s under review, wherever you play in the world.

But if we’re going to come up with some sensible conclusions, there’s no option but to revisit some history.

The starting point

Let's go back to 1890, which saw the publication of “Golf” in the series known as the Badminton Library. Writing in 1952, the game’s senior journalist, Bernard Darwin, says “ That, for me at least, and I think for many people, marked an era. I doubt if any subsequent book on golf has contained so much good writing.” He defined 1887 as the year golf really took off in Britain and Ireland, so 1890 is as good a starting point as any. Horace Hutchinson’s chapter 11 in Badminton is headed “On Giving Odds and Handicapping”.

Not a happy life...

Most of it is given to handicapping for match play. The rest is devoted to the qualities needed by the handicap committee. He was keen to point out that “Match play…is the true primary form of the game”. Handicapping for match play was somewhat subjective, left in the hands of the club’s handicap committee, whose “life is not a happy one”. Should a “stranger” appear to play in a meeting at the club, the handicappers had a “duty to take care that he does not win. Handicap the new comer out of it and after a day or two’s play he will soon settle down and his place will be found”. That may strike a familiar chord with modern golfers who play society golf or take trips away with a group of friends.  “Official” handicaps will often be subjected to temporary change, to the amusement and enjoyment of the majority.

An equal chance

The difficulties of handicapping for medal rounds were, even then, becoming apparent – Hutchinson cannot bring himself to focus on any one system, observing only that “ The essence of good handicapping is that everyone should have as near as possible an equal chance, quite irrespective of his wins in the past”.

Quite so. An equal chance. Professional golf achieves that result perfectly by ensuring that each competitor has the same handicap i.e. none at all. ( And then shoots itself in the foot through its obsession with fairness in the Rules ).

The first systems

The first British handicap “system” really began in 1898, by averaging the best three scores over two years of medal scores, coupled with a better way of establishing the “scratch” score. But note the reliance on “medal scores”.

Into the 20th century, golf continued its expansion into many other countries, not least the USA. For reasons not fully understood, in the USA stroke play became “ the primary form of the game ” – so increasing the need to find an effective way of handicapping based on strokeplay. It took until 1911 for the first USGA Handicap system to appear.

Each system had problems in taking into account the differences in difficulty between each course. Both countries came up with different solutions over a long period of time : Standard Scratch Score, Course Rating, Slope system and so on.

These are all aimed at securing the “portability” of a handicap, a particularly important consideration for good golfers who want to play competitive golf at many different courses. Or even in different countries.

For much more information on this, check out :

The fundamental question

However, time to focus again on the REAL golfer - who does not play just for the sake of measuring his or her performance against an unforgiving scorecard.

Many of us play almost all our golf on one course, often with the same people, so portability of handicap is not very relevant. But the fundamental question is surely this : How often do we play and in what format? Matchplay? Or strokeplay? Or Stableford?

The answer to that question has a great influence on the type of handicap system which might best apply on the day. The lesson of history – on which many experts down the ages seem agreed – is that “it is hard to believe a single handicap system can be used equitably for both stroke and match play...”( William O. Blaney, former USGA Handicap Chairman ).

Six systems

As things stand, we have six different Handicap systems around the world, all of them - in essence -  designed to assess the ongoing performance of TOP golfers. Golf authorities are currently pursuing a project to see if these six can be fitted together into a uniform system to “enable golfers of differing ability, gender and nationality to transport their handicap to any golf course around the world and compete on a fair and equal basis”.

Who competes around the world?

We are all for equity, but the history of handicapping ( and Rules ) shows the expense and difficulty of chasing this Holy Grail. The actual giveaway here is the word “compete”. Golf authorities focus on competition around the world for TOP amateur players, which doubtless would be helped by uniformity in handicapping. But how many REAL golfers "compete around the world" ? Surely the REAL need is for handicaps which allow enjoyment in one's own favoured form of golf. Perhaps one for braggin’ and one for betting... Clubs could still set handicaps for matchplay, and national bodies the handicaps for strokeplay?

Whatever the answers, please let them not be tangled up with the needs of TOP golfers. That has proved to be too much of a handicap. says:
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