The Great Equalizer

If you were to receive only one handicap stroke against an opponent, where would you want it? Envision the course you play most often and pick the hole where you want that one stroke.

You're probably picturing the hole you mess up on the most. We all equate a big score, like an 8 or a 9, with the hole where we want the stroke. It might not occur to us that where we actually need the stroke is at a hole where we experience far fewer problems.

Many golfers assume that the No. 1 handicapped hole means it is the most difficult. Yet the hole that is toughest for all players is not likely to be the toughest for high-handicap players. They need their strokes to equalize an opponent in match play, the game's most prevalent form at the club level. The emphasis on handicap stroke allocation should be on where strokes will erase unequal abilities, whether the lesser-skilled player receives one stroke or 30.

Let's compare a scratch player and a bogey player on two holes. The first is 435 yards and has several greenside bunkers. The scratch player's medium-iron shot of 185 yards often misses the green, resulting in an average score of around 5. The bogey golfer comes up 65 yards short of the green in two, also meaning an average of around 5. Although they both consider the hole difficult, they generally walk off the green halving the hole.

The next hole is 365 yards and is perceived as much easier. The scratch player's second shots average 115 yards but the approach for the bogey player is from 165. The scratch player, often putting for 3, holds an advantage over the bogey player, who frequently misses the green. The disparity in ability is more apparent here, as is the need for the handicap stroke. That would run counter to the intuition of most players.

The USGA suggests comparing scratch and bogey players because it is easier to see the gaps in ability. Even though we are comparing extremes, this concept still applies when players are separated by a single handicap stroke in a round.

Section 17 of the USGA Handicap System manual provides guidelines on the computation of handicap stroke allocations. A handicap committee begins the process by collecting about 500 scorecards from play over the most commonly used set of tees. It then culls out for study the players who fall into two distinct groups: low-handicappers (ideally those with course handicaps of 8 or below) and players 15 to 20 strokes higher than the average of the first group.

Next, the committee crunches the individual scores to determine each group's average hole score. It then computes the difference in the average score for each group on each hole, and ranks the holes with the greatest average score difference first. Finally, in order to equalize the distribution of strokes over 18 holes, odd-numbered handicap strokes are assigned to the front nine and even-numbered ones to the back nine. Throughout the process, the committee should review its mathematical results and make sure they reflect actual playing conditions.

While the USGA provides recommendations for how to allocate handicap strokes, the final decision belongs to a club's handicap committee. There are no set rules, but the committee should work the math for men and women every five years or after widespread renovations to the course. There again are no absolutes, but the committee will probably notice a pattern of allocation with the long par-5s ranked as the lowest stroke holes to the par-3s ranked as the highest.

Handicaps allow the worst golfers to play on an equal basis against the best - and against everyone in between. The key to allocating strokes is erasing the margin in scoring difference, whether a player gets 30 strokes or needs just one.

Click here for a searchable version of the Handicap System manual.