History Of Handicapping: Part I -- Roots Of The System

By USGA Staff
October 7, 2011

The history of golf handicapping can be traced to the 17th century and a diary kept by University of Edinburgh medical student Thomas Kincaid. (USGA Museum/Illustration by Kim Barney/USGA)

This is part I in a four-part series looking at the history of the USGA Handicap System. Part I looks at the roots of the system. 

The desire to compete is innate in any athletic endeavor. But most often, a fair contest is only possible between competitors possessing similar levels of skill.

A Little Leaguer would have little chance of hitting a fastball thrown by a Major League pitcher. A top tennis player would hit serves that a recreational player would not be able to return.  


Related Content 
Part II: Increasing Handicapping Demand 
Part III: The USGA Takes The Lead 
Part IV: The Rise Of The Slope System 
Handicap System Centennial Celebration At Baltusrol 
Photo Gallery: Handicap Centennial Celebration 

Golf is the only sport in which elite athletes can compete fairly against players with less talent while both are giving maximum effort. There are no head starts, no taking it easy, and we all play by the same rules. This level playing field is made possible due to the United States Golf Association’s Handicap System™, which celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2011.

The USGA Handicap System takes into account the differences in skill level between the players as well as the difficulty of the golf course on which they are competing in order to properly allocate handicap strokes and ensure that the sides are as evenly matched as possible. 

Of course, no system is perfect; but over the past 100 years, the USGA has made numerous changes and refinements to the USGA Handicap System to minimize the inefficiencies that may provide advantages to one type of player over another. Although there are more variables and the calculations have become more intricate, the foundations of the system remain the same as when it was established a century ago. It is dependent on both the integrity of the players in posting scores and the peer review of those scores within the setting of a licensed golf club.

Early Years 

That the effectiveness of any handicap system lies with the players themselves has not changed since the first rudimentary attempts to equalize uneven skill levels, which no doubt took place soon after early golfers in Scotland recognized the competitive (and wagering) possibilities of the earliest game.

The earliest known written mention of golf handicapping can be traced to a diary kept during the 17th century by Thomas Kincaid, a medical student at Scotland’s University of Edinburgh. Kincaid played at Bruntsfield Links and Leith Links, and wrote about many aspects of the game, including equipment and technique.

On January 21, 1687, Kincaid opined about the best ways to allot strokes to gain an advantage during matches: “At golf, whether it is better to give a man two holes of three, laying equal strokes, or to lay three strokes to his one and play equal for so much every hole.”

There is another reference from one of golf’s most revered clubs – the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers – nearly 100 years after Kincaid’s diary entry. On March 30, 1782, a club official wrote: “Captain Elphinston challenges Mr. Allan next Saturday best of three rounds, half a crown a hole, that he beats Mr. Allan with the Club against his throwing and gives him half one. No running at the throw! That match was halved.”

The references to throwing indicate a certain level of unstructured informality regarding the game even at the Honourable Company, the club that drew up the first set of rules in 1744 for their competitions. By all accounts from the era, a similarly libertarian ethos guided handicapping during the early years of the growth of golf.

Whereas we now assign a USGA Handicap Index to within a tenth of a stroke (15.4, for example), the allocation during the 18th and 19th centuries wasn’t nearly so exact. In The Golfer’s Manual, Henry Brougham Farnie described the most commonly used odds, which were available in four options: “third-one” (one stroke every three holes), “half-one” (one stroke every two holes), “one more” (a stroke a hole) and “two more” (two strokes a hole).

Depending on the skill difference between competitors, the advantage could swing wildly between those giving and receiving strokes. Given the lack of precision and the absence of a standardized system, there was plenty of pre-round negotiating before settling on the terms of a game. Some say that most matches are won or lost on the first tee, and never was that statement truer than in the early days of the game.

Back then, golfers competed against a small community of other players in their clubs. Whether through actual rounds together or by word of mouth, the skill level of every player was familiar to all, ensuring reasonably fair matches among club members. To this day, that principle of peer review remains a cornerstone of the USGA Handicap System.

Hand in Cap 

It is interesting to note that among all these mentions of handicapping during the earliest decades in which the game was played, the term “handicap” itself was not used. The word did not enter the golf lexicon until the 1870s.

The term originates from a trading game, popular in pubs in the 17th and 18th centuries, known as “hand in cap.” The game required three sides: two players and a referee. Each player would have an item to trade with the other, and it was the responsibility of the referee to determine the amount that would make up a difference in value between the items.

The players would place money into a pot, then put their hands into a cap. When they pulled their hands out, an open palm would signal an acceptance of the trade, while a fist indicated rejection. If both sides agreed – either acceptance or refusal – the referee would receive the pot.

If the traders disagreed, the player accepting the deal received the pot. The key to the game was how equitably the referee would assign the difference in value between the traded items, as he would benefit only if both sides agreed. If the referee wasn’t fair, he would lose out.

“Hand in cap” became known as “handicap,” and the word transferred to other endeavors associated with betting – first horse racing in the 1850s followed by golf a couple of decades later.

Hunki Yun is a senior staff writer for USGA Communications. Email him at hyun@usga.org. 


Partner Links
AmEx image
AmEx image
AmEx image
AmEx image

The USGA and Chevron have committed to using the game of golf to encourage students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines. This commitment has led to the creation of extensive golf-focused STEM teaching tools, and has resulted in charitable contributions to support golf-related programs through Eagles for Education™

At U.S. Open Championships the Chevron STEM ZONE™ is an interactive experience highlighting the science and math behind the game of golf through a variety of hands-on exhibits and experiments.

The partnership has also produced educational materials such as the Science of Golf video series and a nationally-distributed newspaper insert which are provided to teachers as tools to enhance existing curriculum in schools. These lessons teach the science behind the USGA’s equipment testing, handicapping, and agronomy efforts.

For more interactive experiences featuring golf-focused STEM lessons, visit the partnership homepage.

Chevron image

Rolex has been a longtime supporter of the USGA and salutes the sportsmanship and great traditions unique to the game. This support includes the Rules of Golf where Rolex has partnered with the USGA to ensure golfers understand and appreciate the game.

As the official timekeeper of the USGA and its championships, they also provide clocks throughout host sites for spectator convenience.

For more information on Rolex and their celebration of the game, visit the Rolex and Golf homepage.

Rolex image

IBM has partnered with the USGA to bring the same technology, expertise, and innovation it provides to businesses all over the world to the USGA and golf's national championship.

IBM provides the information technology to develop and host the U.S. Open’s official website, www.usopen.com, as well as the mobile apps and scoring systems for the three U.S. Open championships. These real-time technology solutions provide an enhanced experience for fans following the championship onsite and online.

For more information on IBM and the technology that powers the U.S. Open and businesses worldwide, visit http://www.usopen.com/IBM

AmEx image

Lexus is committed to partnering with the USGA to deliver a best-in-class experience for the world’s best golfers by providing a fleet of courtesy luxury vehicles for all USGA Championships.

At each U.S. Open, Women’s Open and Senior Open, Lexus provides spectators with access to unique experiences ranging from the opportunity to have a picture taken with both the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open trophies to autograph signings with legendary Lexus Golf Ambassadors in the Lexus Performance Drive Pavilion.

For more information on Lexus, visit http://www.lexus.com/

AmEx image
American Express

Together, American Express and the USGA have been providing world-class service to golf fans since 2006. By creating interactive U.S. Open experiences both onsite and online, American Express enhances the USGA’s effort to make the game more accessible and enjoyable for fans.

For more information on American Express visit www.americanexpress.com/entertainment

AmEx image