What hole is No.1?

By Lorraine Thies

How many times have you played a golf course and questioned the way the holes were handicapped on the scorecard? “I can’t believe they’ve ranked this par 3 as the easiest hole on the course! It’s over 200 yards long with bunkers everywhere! Most of the time I can’t even get there from the tee,” you say. Should the toughest hole on the golf course be ranked number one? The answer is sometimes yes, and sometimes no.
The traditional stroke allocations found on most score cards today are intended for use in match play formats. Believe it or not, match play is still the most common form of play. Certainly the PGA Tour would lead you to believe that stroke play is predominant. Most club play-days and invitationals are stroke play. In the millions of casual rounds played among friends, however, match play rules—the most common being the Nassau format. Players keep track of their standing on a hole-by-hole basis instead of overall score.
Philosphy of Allocation Strokes 
The basic principle behind the handicapping of stroke holes is to equalize the abilities of players at different handicap levels. In other words, determine the holes on which the higher handicapped player most needs strokes from the lower handicapped player in order to tie a hole. In many instances, this need for strokes does occur on the most difficult holes, but not always.
Typically, strokes are most needed on long par 5’s where the lower handicap player usually has a distance advantage. Interestingly, par 3’s are most often the highest ranking holes because distance isn’t as critical as accuracy and the ability to get the ball up and down in fewer strokes. That 200 yard par 3 may be equally difficult for the low and high handicap player, so it would disadvantage rather than equalize.
Determining Scoring Differences
The best way to determine where the handicap holes should fall is to compare scoring records of lower versus higher handicap golfers.You should analyze at least 200 scorecards for each group to ensure a reasonable sampling. Scores should not be adjusted for Equitable Stroke Control. A good rule of thumb is to have the average handicap of the low group about 15 strokes less than the average handicap of high, although it really depends on handicap ranges of the entire group. You may have a group of low handicappers that always play together, so analyzing scoring records of this group alone would also be appropriate—especially if they’re all good golfers and distance may not be an issue.
Once the information is gathered you can compare the difference in the average scores of the groups for each hole on the golf course. The larger the difference in scoring, the more the higher handicap player is likely to need a stroke to tie the hole. Difficulty of making PAR on any given hole is irrelevant. It’s all about the differences in actual scoring. Remember, in match play you just want to have a better score on the hole than your opponent.
Applying the Rankings in Match Play
You’ve gathered the data, now what? Rank the scoring differences from 1 – 18 to get your starting point. Now, assign the oddnumbered stroke hole assignments are used on the front nine and even numbered ones on the back nine. In instances where the back nine holes significantly rank more difficult, the odd and even assignments can be reversed. The purpose is to even out the allocation of strokes over the entire 18 holes. If you’re giving up five strokes to someone, you wouldn’t want to give them over the first five holes. Conversely, if you receive five strokes, you wouldn’t want to wait until the last five holes to get a stroke— the match could be over by then.

Special care should also be given to avoid the assignment of low numbered strokes near the end of each nine. In many instances, a 9- or 18-hole match could be completed before this pivotal stroke comes into play. Likewise it is best to avoid a low-numbered stroke to the first couple of holes on a golf course. In the event of a sudden- death playoff, this crucial stroke would be awarded too soon.
If you have holes where the difference is equal or very close, the committee would be justified in looking at specific obstacles on the holes (water hazards, deep bunkers, trees, etc.) to determine the order of ranking.
Applying the Rankings in Stroke Play
We often have clubs request allocations for stroke play events where scoring is done over all 18 holes but individual net scores on each hole are based on the handicap allocations. Examples include Four Ball Stroke Play (better ball of partners) and individual or team Stableford formats.

With stroke play you do want to analyze scoring relative to par. If you’ve already determined the average score per hole for each group as described above, simply add the average scores on each hole together and subtract two times the par to determine the difficulty in relation to par. Again, rank the differences in order from 1 to 18 to determine the ranking. In this case, no modifications are necessary because it doesn’t matter where the strokes fall—everyone is playing all 18 holes and will have the benefit of their strokes
Who Determines the Stroke Allocations
The stroke allocations are not a part of the USGA Course Rating System nor are they automatically provided by the Arizona Golf Association. A committee at the club should be set up to do the analysis and decide where the strokes should fall. Good judgment is of prime importance because no formula can cover all the conditions on a golf course.

The AGA does provide assistance to member clubs in determining the stroke allocations on their golf course. In order to utilize this service, we request at least 200 score cards from two different ranges of handicaps with all scores from the same set of tees (usually the most common set of tees played). Each score must also include the golfer’s handicap. Recommendations based on the final results are forwarded to the club committee for review and final allocation.
If you would like to take advantage of this valuable service, contact the Handicap Department at 602-944-3035 or 800-458-8484.