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of Handicapping, Part 2: Increasing Demand
By USGA Staff
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 players
best three scores for the year. The club would subtract the courses
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
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 wont
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)
Next installment: Americas handicapping pioneer
Hunki Yun is a senior writer for the USGA. Contact him at email@example.com.