What is Stroke Index In Golf?

Stroke Index is an often misunderstood concept. So we explain how it works and how it is allocated

Close up of a golf scorecard and pencil and stroke index
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What is Stroke Index In Golf?

How stroke index works is easier to explain that how stroke indices are drawn up. So here comes the easy bit first. Each hole gets a unique stroke index number between 1 and 18. These are listed for each hole on the scorecard – sometimes as handicap or hcp rather than stroke index or SI.

These strokes indexes are designed to allow for handicap match play games. A strokeplay match between players of unequal handicaps is simple to determine – deduct each player’s handicap from the gross score and you get the net score and lowest net score wins.

But in match play when the competition is to win individual holes, on which holes should the handicap be applied? This is where we need stroke index. Andy has to give Bill 4 shots during the round – but on which holes? The answer is on the stroke index 1, 2, 3 and 4 holes.

Stroke index is also used in other competitions, prime among them Stableford competitions. Here points are earned on each hole in relation to each golfer’s net par for the hole. To work out the net par for each hole you need the stroke index. If Chris get 10 shots, he will get one extra shot on the holes with stroke index 1 to 10 inclusive. Dave gets 19 shots so he gets two extra shots on SI 1 and one extra shot on each of the other 17.

So that is how stroke index is used. How the stroke index for a hole is calculated is more complicated. It is often believed that stroke index is a simple ranking of difficulty, thus SI 1 is the hardest hole, SI 18 the easiest. Well, up to a point Lord Copper.

Stroke index was designed for match play and so it is rare that first hole has a low stroke index, in case the match is tied after 18 holes and goes to sudden death. The same applies for the 10th hole at clubs where matches can sometimes start on the that hole.

The final hole – and this can apply to the 9th as well as 18 – is often rarely of low index, for two main reasons. One is that golfers object to giving a shot in what may be a crucial hole. The other is that many matches do not get to go down 18 and so the person receiving shots may not get to use the full allocation.

CONGU guidelines for how to allocate stroke index recommend “Unless there are compelling reasons to the contrary, stroke indices 9, 10, 11 and 12 should be allocated to holes 1, 9, 10 and 18 in such order as shall be considered appropriate.”

Spreading the stroke indices out across the hole means that many clubs give all the odd stroke indexes to one nine, and the even ones to the other nine.

Another recommendation from CONGU is that “the first and second stroke index holes should be placed close to the centre of each nine and the first six strokes should not be allocated to adjacent holes. The 7th to the 10th indices should be allocated so that a player receiving 10 strokes does not receive strokes on three consecutive holes.”

From these examples you can see why stroke index is not a simple ranking of a hole’s difficulty.

However stroke index is used more often in Stableford competitions – of which clubs tend to have many – rather than match play, of which clubs tend to be few.

In Stableford it does not matter so much where the stroke indexes are allocated. For this reason, some clubs have two sets of stroke index, one for match play and one for Stableford. The Stableford ranking is more a straightforward ranking of the difficulty of each hole.

Or as CONGU says: “The ‘Handicap Stroke Index’ is also used widely for Stableford, par and bogey competitions. In these forms of stroke play competition the need to have a uniform and balanced distribution of strokes is less compelling. There is a cogent case for the Index in such competitions to be aligned to the ranking of holes in terms of playing difficulty irrespective of hole number.”

Contributing Writer Golf courses and travel are Roderick’s particular interests and he was contributing editor for the first few years of the Golf Monthly Travel Supplement. He writes travel articles and general features for the magazine, travel supplement and website. He also compiles the magazine's crossword. He is a member of Trevose Golf & Country Club and has played golf in around two dozen countries. Cricket is his other main sporting love. He is the author of five books, four of which are still in print: The Novel Life of PG Wodehouse; The Don: Beyond Boundaries; Wally Hammond: Gentleman & Player and England’s Greatest Post-War All Rounder.