Date: June 28, 2016
Author: Robert Crosby

The whys and wherefores of handicap stroke index

A topic that often causes much debate in Clubs, both at Committee level and amongst the Members, is the Handicap Index.

Before we delve into the ‘whys and wherefores’ of how this is done we firstly need to refer to the Rules of Golf – Rule 33-4:

 “Handicap Stroke Table – The Committee must publish a table indicating the order of holes at which handicap strokes are to be given or received.”

So, as far as the Rules go, that is where it starts and ends. Both The R&A and Golf Australia have provided guidance to assist Committees in establishing a Stroke Index. Traditionally there has been no one basic principle for fixing the order of the Stroke Index. Some have based it on the order at which it is considered most difficult to achieve par, whereas others have based it upon a mathematical formula. Some also separate the stroke index for match play and stroke play. The upshot being that there is no hard and fast rule for a Committee to work on.

I will discuss indexing for both Match play and Stroke play separately, as the reasoning is quite different.

(a) Match Play Index

One of the main factors that should be taken into consideration is that the very early or very late holes should not be assigned to a low Stroke Index. The reason being that if a game were to finish all square and the players were required to go on to the 19th and subsequent holes to determine the winner, a player in receipt of very few strokes would gain an unfair advantage if he were to receive a stroke at the 19th or 20th. Similarly, if a low Stroke Index were assigned to a hole at the very end of the round, a player in receipt of very few strokes may not have the opportunity to use them as the game may be over by that stage. In general, therefore, Stroke Index 1 to 4 should not be on holes 1, 2, 17 or 18. The other important factor to be taken into account in fixing the order of the Stroke Index is that strokes should be fairly spread out over the 18 holes.

Golf Australia has provided a generic Match Play Index as an option for Clubs, which provides for a fairly even distribution throughout the round. It also disregards hole difficulties. It is fair to players on all handicap levels, and it has proved satisfactory in use. This option can be found on the GA website under Rules & Handicapping – Handicapping & Course Rating – Competition & Course Management Resources – Course Management, Marking the Course, & Course Set-Up Procedures – Part 1 – Course Management. Or at the following link:

(b) Stroke Play Index

Well, that was the easy part! Establishing a Stroke Play Index can be far more complex and there are various ways to formulate it.

Some Committees would have arrived at the Stroke Play Index for their course based on someone’s ‘expert’ opinion, others by extracting data from competitions over a period of time. Two methods that are detailed in the above GA website link, which I will try to briefly summarise, are:

Standard Statistical Method for Determination of Stroke Index

One method is to analyse all players’ results in an eclectic competition which has been conducted over a reasonable period of time. Another is to analyse the hole-by-hole scores from an elite competition.

Comprehensive Statistical Method for Determination of Stroke Index

For Committees who have available to them someone who is willing and able to perform detailed statistical projects, it is recommended that a more granular analysis be conducted.

With such an analysis for example, players are split into handicap groups, and the ‘average over par’ score calculated for each hole within each group.

Some considerations that support the pursuit of such an approach are:

· Will a 15-marker and a 1-marker both agree on what is the hardest hole on a course? Not necessarily as they have quite different skill levels and will play the game in different ways. But does it matter what hole the 15-marker will find the most difficult? Not at all because whether a given hole is the hardest on the course or the sixth hardest, the 15-marker will still receive a handicap stroke – for them it is simply an interesting point of discussion. But it is critical for the 1-marker because for them it is the difference between receiving a handicap stroke on a hole and not.

· Is there likely to be a notable difference from low to high markers as to the degree of difficulty that will be ascribed to a hole? There certainly can be, and it is a particularly common occurrence with par 5s. Par-5 holes are relatively easy for low markers, but can become harder the higher the handicap of the player. This is because a longer marker must hit three relatively good shots on a par-5 hole to be near the green. Given longer markers’ inconsistencies, this can be a challenging proposition (particularly on a course that features many obstacles). On the other hand, when a low marker stands on the tee of a par 5, their standard thought is “good birdie chance”.

A more detailed explanation of how to conduct this granular analysis is in the abovementioned GA website reference.

Other things to be considered:

Even Distribution of Handicap Strokes

Ideally, the indexes should be spread evenly between the front and the back nine.

Indexing Holes for Players on Handicaps Above 18

A common practice is for the distribution of indexes to replicate the order used for players on handicaps of 1 – 18. eg. 1/19, 2/20, 3/21 etc. However, whilst holes with Index 1 and 2 may be the most difficult hole on the course for 1 and 2-markers, they may not be the most difficult holes for the 20-marker. Therefore, a split index may be more appropriate. Consideration of par 3s is the typical reason for a Committee to decide to use a split index. Generally, a high marker will find it relatively easy to make a bogey on a par 3 and therefore it would be too generous to allocate two handicap strokes on those holes. Analysis confirms that second strokes should not be given at the par 3s, except they could be allocated 33-36 in the handicap group 19 – 36.

Indexing Holes for Players on Plus Handicaps

Many times the easiest hole on the course may be a par 3, and therefore, a Plus Marker would require a hole-in-one to have a ‘win’ on the hole in Par or to have 3 points in Stableford. It may be more appropriate for Committees to consider par 5 holes for these players. Perhaps, there could be a note somewhere on the card to the effect:

“Plus markers will give strokes in the following order – eg holes 6, 13, 2 etc.”

Indexing the difficulty of holes is an intriguing subject and once completed should not be set in concrete. Conditions change over time and it is recommended that the Stroke Play Index be reviewed periodically to ensure any changes to the local conditions and changes to the course are accounted for.