History, Part 3: The USGA leads the way
By the dawn
of the 20th century, the rapid growth of golf - on both sides
of the Atlantic Ocean - outstripped the capabilities of existing
handicapping methods, which lacked a centralized system that offered
the same standards for all golfers. The biggest source of inequality
was the lack of a uniform procedure for determining par, bogey
or scratch scores.
A letter to
the editor in a British newspaper in 1898 summed up the frustrations
of the club golfer: "In the absence of any authoritative
legislation on the subject, most golf clubs have made Bogey laws
for themselves. The net result is hopeless confusion, and it seems
time that some attempt was made to indicate the lines on which
the laws for Bogey should be laid down."
In Great Britain
and Ireland, the various governing bodies attempted to make handicapping
more uniform and widespread, but their efforts hardly covered
all courses and golfers. Whether you were part of an equitable
handicapping system often depended on where you lived and your
a smaller pool of courses and golfers, the Ladies Golf Union (LGU)
achieved early success in standardizing handicaps, largely due
to the efforts of Issette Pearson. In the 1890s, she assigned
course ratings to member courses instead of relying on them to
determine their own standards.
it was uphill work at the start," wrote Robert Browning in
A History of Golf, "but within eight or ten years
the LGU had done what the men had signally failed to do - established
a system of handicapping that was reasonably reliable from club
As the game
made the leap across the ocean to the United States, so did handicapping
- both the good and bad. But unlike the way golf developed in
Great Britain and Ireland, there was one central golf authority
in America. And after years of study and experimentation, the
USGA adopted the first nationwide handicap format at a meeting
on October 11, 1911, at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J.
Much of the
credit for developing the USGA Handicap System goes to Leighton
Calkins, a member of the USGA Executive Committee and the pioneer
of handicapping in the United States. In March 1905, Calkins introduced
his methodology, which adapted the British system of averaging
the three best scores, in a work titled A System for Club Handicapping.
the system to the USGA, Calkins tested his ideas, first at Plainfield
Country Club in Edison, N.J., then on wider scales with the Metropolitan
Golf Association and the New Jersey State Golf Association. Calkins
was the chairman of the Handicap Committee for both organizations.
By using the
three best scores of the season as the basis for determining handicaps,
the USGA made clear from the start that its Handicap System would
be a measure of potential, not playing ability. Since better players
are much more consistent and have a smaller range of scores than
high handicappers, they have a much better chance of matching
their best rounds.
wrote: "The principal feature of this system is that not
only is the good player handicapped because he is a good player,
but the bad player is also handicapped because he is a bad player.
reason is this: The object of handicapping is to put all players
on the same level, and if an allowance of a certain number of
strokes is to be made to the less skillful player because he cannot
play as well, some allowance ought to be made to the more skillful
player because he cannot improve as much."
Calkins was responding to the disadvantages that better players
were enduring at the time. "It is fairly well proved by actual
results in handicap events," he wrote, "that the scratch
player and the player with a low handicap has not, under the usual
methods of handicapping, as good a chance to win as the player
with the high handicap."
several visionary concepts that survive to this day. He was adamant
in insisting that each club "have a Handicap Committee which
is willing to work." Calkins also introduced the concept
of a par rating, which later became known as the USGA Course Rating,
the baseline from which all players would receive strokes. When
established in 1912, the par rating was based not on a theoretical
standard but the ability of an actual player, Jerome "Jerry"
Travers, who won four U.S. Amateurs (1907, 1908, 1912, 1913) and
the 1915 U.S. Open.
Now as then,
the USGA uses a player's Handicap Index to determine eligibility
for championships. Introduced in 1912 and encompassing 324 member
clubs, the first handicap list identified the players who were
eligible to enter the U.S. Amateur, which required a handicap
of 6 or better. (The current maximum Handicap Index for entry
into the U.S. Amateur is 2.4.)
the USGA allowed clubs to set their own par or course ratings,
a decision that Calkins protested vehemently, calling the practice
"useless" and a "farce." The USGA soon changed
its methodology, and the golf associations began issuing official
Ratings, establishing a system that is still in place today. Without
an accurate USGA Course Rating, it would be impossible to determine
More than a decade later, in 1924, the British and Irish golf
unions formed the British Golf Unions Joint Advisory Committee,
which developed a uniform, definitive system of handicapping and
course rating in Great Britain and Ireland. Later known as the
Council of National Golf Unions, the committee took over the responsibility
of assigning handicaps to players and Standard Scratch Scores
As the overseas golf unions were launching their course-rating
systems, the USGA was refining the calculation of handicaps and
Course Ratings, the backbone of the USGA Handicap System. During
the first several decades of the USGA Handicap System, the improvements
came from various regional golf associations, which had a close
working relationship with courses and players.
Golf Association, for example, recommended using decimals to make
Course Ratings more accurate. Similarly, the Chicago District
Golf Association adopted a fractional rating method.
suggestions from coast to coast eventually came to be incorporated
into the Course Rating system in place today. For years, while
ratings for individual holes were determined to within a tenth
of a stroke, the overall rating for the course as a whole was
rounded to a whole number. In 1967, the USGA began to issue Course
Ratings in decimals, the way they are still presented today.
been alterations to other aspects of the Handicap System. In 1947,
the USGA increased the number of scores used to determine handicaps,
from the three lowest scores to the 10 best rounds ever - with
a minimum of 50 scores needed to obtain a handicap. The change
was a welcome one for average players, who now had a better chance
of playing to their handicaps.
that increase triggered a confusing landscape, as regional golf
associations could not agree on the number of rounds from which
to take the 10 best scores for handicap purposes. During the middle
of the century, Tom McMahon of the Chicago District Golf Association
wanted to count 10 of 15 scores. Richard Tufts, later the president
of the USGA, called for using 10 of 50 scores.
For a while,
both systems, in addition to a third method introduced for women,
were sanctioned by the USGA, causing further chaos. The USGA finally
ended the confusion in 1958 with a compromise that computed handicaps
using the best 10 of 25 scores. In 1967, the USGA reduced the
requirement to 10 of the last 20 scores, which remains operative
other sources of perplexity over the years, including handicap
allowances that varied according to whether players were competing
at stroke or match play. While players always received their full
allotment of strokes for stroke play, they could receive between
two-thirds and 85 percent of their handicap allowance, depending
on whether they were playing a singles or four-ball match and
the calculations, which were ever-evolving over the years.
When it comes
to adjusting numbers, the USGA instituted other variables that
have remained in the System to the present time. One is the little-known
"Bonus for Excellence" multiplier that determines a
player's final Handicap Index by taking 96 percent of the actual
figure. This percentage rewards better golfers by giving them
a slight edge over higher-handicap players in matches. (When first
instituted, the bonus was 85 percent, which was deemed too advantageous
for low-handicap players.)
Equitable Stroke Control, which sets the maximum number a player
can post on any hole depending on the player's Course Handicap.
For years, the USGA opposed stroke control; in 1966, USGA Executive
Director Joe Dey explained the USGA's stance. Among his thoughts,
he argued that stroke control violated the Rules of Golf, discriminated
against players with high handicaps and artificially lowered handicaps.
In the end,
math won out. Equitable Stroke Control was instituted in 1974,
and has remained in force ever since - with modifications in 1991
and 1998 that adjusted the maximum number of strokes depending
on Course Handicap.