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History 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 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.

Next Installment: Handicapping grows more sophisticated

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