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of Handicapping, Part 1: The Roots of the System
By USGA Staff
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.
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 Associations 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
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.
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 Scotlands 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
There is another reference from one of golfs most revered
clubs the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers
nearly 100 years after Kincaids 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
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 wasnt nearly so exact. In The Golfers
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 wasnt
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.
Next Installment: Handicapping grows more sophisticated
Hunki Yun is a senior writer for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.