History Of Handicapping, Part II: Increasing Demand October 11, 2011 By Hunki Yun, USGA

As the game grew in popularity, many golf clubs began adopting mathematical procedures for determining handicaps. (Illustration: USGA/Kim Barney)

This is the second installment of a four-part series reviewing the history of handicapping. This month, the USGA celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Handicap System with a centennial dinner at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J., the site where the system was officially adopted in 1911.

After the word “handicapping” took hold in the 1870s, references increased rapidly along with the growth in the numbers of golf courses and golfers in Great Britain and Ireland during the late 19th century. The popularity of the game made it increasingly difficult for club members to monitor the handicaps of fellow players, so many clubs began to adopt mathematical procedures for determining handicaps.

The most popular method was to take the average of a player’s best three scores for the year. The club would subtract the course’s scratch score from the average to determine the handicap.

Even as the three-score average formed the basis for handicapping throughout Scotland and England, the method did not receive widespread acceptance or support. The most-vocal protests came from average players, who have a wider range of scores than good players and have a much lower chance of matching their best rounds. The following letter to a British newspaper, published October 29, 1881, summed up the complaints of higher handicappers:

“Sir: I greatly fear that the system of handicapping is such as to render it highly improbable that any but the best players will win.”

Also during that period, tournaments involving members from various clubs became more popular. Players were now competing against unfamiliar golfers, whose skill could not be verified easily. The lack of transparency led to calls for a ruling body to administer a uniform, universally accepted handicap system. Another letter, from September 10, 1887, espoused this view:

“I cannot but think it might be now desirable that there should be a central authority on golf both in England and Scotland, more or less such as there is on curling in Scotland. A paid secretary for each would complete the handicaps of the various clubs … and would issue these at certain intervals.”

The third issue of the times was the portability of handicaps, as golfers played more and more away from their home courses. In 1891 H.H. Turner wrote:

“One of the advantages generally suggested as likely to result from a Golfing Association, is the possibility of ticketing players with a handicap applicable to all greens. I imagine the actual figure would not be the same in all cases: 7 at Wimbledon would mean 9 at Sandwich. The advantages of such a uniformity would be numerous … it would be possible to handicap visitors to a green quickly and satisfactorily.”

Par, Bogey and Scratch

Today, par and bogey are the building blocks of any golf vocabulary, commonly used and understood by even the first-time golfer. Par is the standard assigned to every hole – largely determined by its length – and is generally acknowledged as the number of strokes with which a scratch, or expert, player expects to complete the hole under normal conditions. Bogey is one stroke higher than par for the hole.

In the current USGA Handicap System, par and bogey have little to do with these commonly used definitions. In fact, par is used very rarely, while scratch and bogey have specific meanings. A scratch golfer is a player who can play to a Course Handicap of zero, while a bogey golfer is a player who has a Course Handicap of 20 or higher on a course of standard difficulty.   

In other words, a scratch golfer playing to his handicap won’t necessarily post a score of even par for a round, while a bogey golfer performing to expectations will be averaging higher than one over par over 18 holes.

These multiple meanings can be confusing today. But when these three terms – scratch, par, bogey – came into widespread use in the late 1800s, golfers may have been just as confused, but for a different reason: They all had similar meanings, used to measure the difficulty of a course.

Applied in cricket, boxing and racing in the 19th century, scratch was the line that marked the standard starting point for many sporting endeavors. From indicating the physical line itself, the term evolved into the metaphorical baseline from which contestants had no advantage. In golf, scratch came to be the standard that expert players – those who did not benefit from any handicap strokes – could expect to shoot on a given course.

Par is a term that came from the financial market, to indicate the proper, normal price for a share of stock. The first known reference to par in golf took place in 1870, in an article written by A.H. Doleman in a British magazine called Golf. Prior to the British Open at Prestwick, Doleman asked Davie Strath and Jamie Anderson what they thought would be the winning score that year. They responded that an ideal round over the 12-hole course would result in a score of 49.

Doleman wrote that this number was the par score at Prestwick. For the 36-hole event, Young Tom Morris shot 149, two strokes over par. (Strath finished tied for second, 12 shots behind.) In the years following, par came into wider use to indicate a standard for flawless play.

During the late 19th century, however, British golfers preferred another term ­­– bogey – to indicate a perfect round. Decades before Bob Jones battled against “Old Man Par,” there was a popular song about the Bogey Man, an elusive figure who hid in the shadows. The name gradually transferred to the score that a good player could be expected to make on a hole, and golfers were soon measuring themselves against the bogey standard. These benchmarks were determined by the clubs themselves and the criteria used varied from course to course.

As golf grew in popularity in the United States around the turn of the century, par became the accepted standard for each hole for expert golfers, while bogey represented one stroke over (worse than) par. At the time, the accepted par values were determined mostly by the distance of the hole:

Par 3 (up to 200 yards)

Par 3½ (201 to 250 yards)

Par 4 (251 to 375 yards)

Par 4½ (376 to 450 yards)

Par 5 (451 to 500 yards)

Par 5½ (501 to 550 yards)

Par 6 (551 yards and longer)

History of the USGA Handicap System™