Supporting and promoting golf in Northern California

Stroke Hole Allocation Guidelines

One of the most misunderstood aspects of the NCGA/USGA Handicapping System concerns the “Stroke Hole Allocation” at a golf course. That is, the assignment of the handicap stroke holes. How many times have you heard a golfer refer to the No. 1 stroke hole on the score card as the “toughest” hole on the course?

Is the No. 1 stroke hole the toughest hole on the course? Maybe yes… maybe no!

Despite the feelings of most golfers, the stroke hole allocation of a course is not suppose to represent a ranking of the difficulty of the holes. Instead, it represents the ranking of the holes where a high handicapped golfer most needs a stroke in order to tie a low handicapped golfer.

In many instances, this need for strokes does occur on the most difficult holes, but not always.

Consider, for example, a 225-yard par-3 with all sorts of difficulty around the green. The hole may prove to be a tough par for even the very best golfers at that club and may sport a high overall scoring average.

On the other hand, the higher handicapper may not be able to reach the green in regulation, but is easily able to pitch it on in two and two putt for a bogey. Even though this hole would have a high overall scoring average, clearly it does not represent a hole where the higher handicapped player most needs a stroke in order to tie a low handicapped player.

Typically, a stroke is most needed on difficult par fives, followed by difficult par-4s, easier par-5s, easier par-4s, difficult par-3s and easy par-3.

The best way to determine this “need” is by an analysis of scorecards. A minimum of 200 scorecards from a low handicapped group (eight or less for men; 14 or less for women) must be reviewed and hole-by-hole averages determined.

A similar breakdown must be computed for a minimum of 200 scorecards of higher handicapped golfers (20-28 for men; 26-40 for women). When the hole-by-hole stroke averages of the two groups are laid out side-by-side, the holes with the greatest need can easily be identified by the large gaps in the scoring averages.

Generally speaking, the odd-numbered stroke hole assignments are awarded to the front nine and even numbered to the back nine. In instances where the back nine holes significantly rank more difficult, the odd and even assignments can be reversed.

Special care must 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.

The NCGA is happy to provide software to assist clubs in determining stroke hole allocation. But ultimately, it is the handicap committee that makes the assignment, not the NCGA. When you think about it, who better than your handicap committee to determine how your golf holes play out?

Some golfers wonder why the assignments are geared for match play. They argue that most, if not all, tournaments at their club are stroke play. To a certain degree, I would beg to differ and argue that dozens upon dozens of games each day involve match play (standard Nassaus) and that the assigning of the strokes in this manner is critical.

Some clubs have taken steps to specifically address stroke-play competitions. In addition to the normal stroke hole allocations appearing on their cards, they have computed an overall ranking of the difficulty of the holes and use this for stroke-play competitions such as four-ball competitions (better balls), best-one or two-net-of-four competitions and Stableford events. Scorecards for golfers of all abilities are collected and scoring averages per hole versus par are computed to determine this alternative ranking.

So the next time you look at the stroke-hole assignments at a golf course, take a couple of minutes to appreciate the reasons for the assignments and the care that went into its preparation.

Director of Course Rating & Handicapping Jim Cowan can be e-mailed at