July 27, 2007
This whole thing started ten years ago, all because of a short par five at Shawnee Country Club.
The white tee box at the second hole is set at about 465 to 470 yards. A thick mix of trees defines the left side of the rough all the way to the hole. Until you reach a pair of fairway bunkers set 80 to 90 yards from the generously sized green, the fairway’s right side is edged by a parade of oaks and pines. A tiny pond gathers pulled approach shots just short of the greenside left. The green is guarded by three more bunkers to the rear and left.
Even with all those features, this hole is really not all that difficult, compared to the others at the popular Cape Region course. It’s a routine par or birdie for good golfers.
For me, it’s not the same story. Par is a pleasant surprise. Birdies are a distinct rarity. Making a six is the norm, and a seven is an annoyance.
Even so, the scorecard ranked it as the 18th handicap hole. I could never receive a stroke there in any match play contest, even though I could have used the help.
That just didn’t seem right, so I asked around about why and how this hole deserved this ranking. Eventually, a long-time member told me that shortly after Shawnee expanded to 18 holes in the mid-80s, they gathered up a bunch of scorecards and simply ranked the holes from hardest to easiest.
Of course, that was also long before those trees on the right side grew to their current size. The second hole really was a lot easier when it first opened for play, but it certainly wasn’t anymore.
The rest of the course wasn’t the same, either. Why should the handicap allocations stay the same, then? More to the point, what were my options?
I soon learned about the United States Golf Association’s handicap allocation principles, part of the golf organization’s handicap manual. The club’s golf committee and golf pro supplied me with hundreds of scorecards. I figured out how to use some golf software installed in my home computer to apply the USGA guidance to the actual playing experience of Shawnee’s golfers.
The results were startling. The second hole should have been ranked third among the 18 holes for routine match play. On the other hand, some other holes I thought would be low-ranked came out much higher than expected.
The club eventually adopted the new allocations, and a few months later I decided that this experience might present an interesting sideline to my regular work.
In the summer of 1997, I officially began Hole By Hole, the golf course handicap stroke allocation service. The new business venture even included its own website, originally created by my next-door neighbor Phil Wilson, who happens to be Sussex Tech’s computer guru. I eventually taught myself how to create my own web pages, and have kept it up ever since. It’s now one of the oldest golf-related websites.
Since then I’ve consulted with golf courses throughout the country, in Pennsylvania, the Midwest, Colorado, and California. One Ohio golf course that has used the service has hosted several major events, including U.S. Opens and PGA Championships.
On the other hand, Shawnee’s handicap committee membership changed, and so did their attitude about following the USGA’s recommendations on how best to distribute stroke allocations. In addition to the preferred method’s results, I had also given the committee a ranking based on the relative difficulty of the holes for each set of nine holes. They adopted that arrangement instead.
In effect, they proved that old adage about an expert being the guy from out of town.
The second hole is now ranked 12th, and once again I’m not usually given a stroke there during any of my matches.
I’m still glad that hole started me down this path, however, as it has been both rewarding and a lot of fun.
It also led to the creation of this golf column. That’s a story for an upcoming anniversary later this year.