It would be nice if we could choose the stroke holes and their order, especially if we could do that as play proceeds! But no. The handicap stroke hole order is determined by a handicap committee. Lest the word “committee” prompts you to envision a tree swing with the left and right rope tied to branches on the opposite side of the tree, there’s a method to what you might consider their madness.
If you received only 1 stroke for match play against an opponent, which hole would you like it on? In her article, The Great Equalizer, Teresa Saponaro of the USGA points out that…
“Many golfers assume that the No. 1 handicapped hole means it is the most difficult. Yet the hole that is toughest for all players is not likely to be the toughest for high-handicap players. They need their strokes to equalize an opponent in match play, the game’s most prevalent form at the club level. The emphasis on handicap stroke allocation should be on where strokes will erase unequal abilities, whether the lesser-skilled player receives one stroke or 30.”
Section 17 of the USGA Handicap Manual states in part:
“The Handicap Committee should review the course hole by hole, bearing in mind that the basic principle is to equalize the abilities of players at different handicap levels. Men’s and women’s stroke allocations will usually be different because their need to equalize holes will come on different holes.”
The handicap committee studies hundreds of scores on a particular course from the set of tees players most often play. They compare the scores of low handicappers against those of high handicappers. Based on this comparison, they determine where a stroke would most help the high handicapper halve – tie – a hole playing against a low handicapper. Usually, the next stroke hole is on the other side of the course. If the first stroke hole was on the back nine, the second stroke hole is on the front nine. Although the USGA provides recommendations on how to proceed in determining the stroke hole order, the final decision is up to the local course handicap committee.
The reality, then, is that it isn’t necessarily on your nemesis hole where you should want your first stroke hole. You want it where it is most likely to help you halve the hole. The stroke hole order on your course is the result of a group of people looking at hundreds of scores, the scoring trends of low and high handicappers on those holes, and based on probabilities choosing the holes on which a stroke or strokes would most help a golfer halve or tie the hole.