Why You Want “Inverted Stableford” Scoring

It makes the game faster, and more fun. What’s not to like?

Originally published 2014

For any tournament that doesn’t have large monetary payouts for the first 10 places (and maybe some that do), you really want something like Stableford scoring. But to make it really useful — and to overcome the objections of its detractors — it needs to be inverted.

Medal Play vs. Match Play

Medal play is great for pros. Every single stroke counts, and if you get a big number, it can take a lot of birdies to make up for it. Really separates the supermen from the rest of us. With hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake — or millions, at times — why not? Why not ensure that the money goes to the absolutely best golfer in the field, without question?

On the other hand, match play is far more fun to play, and to watch. Screw up a hole? Pick up and move on. It’s a foot and a half and you’re way ahead or behind? Concede it and move on. Guy just sank his birdie putt from outside your par distance? Pick up and go. MUCH faster. You spend less time watching people agonizing over putts, and more time watching shot makers (or taking shots.)

The U.S. Amateur championship is one example. I love watching that event. I don’t mind watching pros putt once in a while — when it matters. But watching it all day long? Man, that is one long day.

Stableford Scoring

Stableford scoring is closer to match play. You don’t concede as many putts, but when you’re out of a hole, you can pick up and move on. That doesn’t make much difference to the pro game — a double bogey there is about as bad as it gets. But in amateur tournaments, forget about it. The same person who marched down the fairway to a decent score on the 1st and 3rd holes is equally liable to have been laboring over his putt for 11 on the 2nd.

As well know, the time a round takes is directly proportional to the number of strokes you take. Play par golf, and you play fast. Play big numbers, and it takes forever (plus, it seems longer). A bunch of amateurs in a weekend tournament is a perfect recipe for one very long, very slow day!

Want to see amateur tournaments come in at less than 5 hours a round? Go to some variant of Stableford scoring, which is the closest possible thing to match play. With the Stableford system you score 1 for bogey, 2 for par, 3 for birdie, and so on. For a double-bogey, you score zero, and anything over that doesn’t matter. (Already at double bogey? Pick up and move on! No need to agonize over the situation. And your entire day isn’t demolished by one bad hole — so you can afford to be more aggressive.)

Stableford Scoring

Eagle Birdie Par Bogey Double Bogey or Worse
4
3
2
1
0

The Modified Stableford system is a hybrid that gives larger rewards for a good score and bigger penalties for a bad one (+8 for an eagle, down to -3 for a double bogey). That system rewards aggressive play (to a degree), because you get +2 for a birdie, and only -1 for a bogey. (But you still get -3 for a double-bogey, so there is a limit to how agressive can you afford to be.) So the Modified Stableford system is an interesting variation, but it doesn’t solve Stableford’s really big problem.

The one thing I don’t like about Stableford, at all, is that it completely inverts the scoring system. Suddenly, high numbers are good! And you’re trying for the biggest number you can get. That’s a big change. I mean, “how high is up”? With standard scoring, players are shooting for a known value (par), and trying to do slightly better than that, if at all possible. Stableford as it was originally defined makes it hard to compare your score to par in the ways you are used to doing it.

Inverted Stableford

But Stableford could be inverted, to make it work the same way (and in the same direction) as normal scoring. All that happens is that you start with a value of +2 for each hole, and then subtract your Stableford value to get your score in relation to par. Scored a bogey? That’s one more than par (or 2 minus 1 for the Stableford score) So score one. Had a birdie? You’re one under. Score -1. Your running totals would then be the same as they are now. You’d have a zero on the third hole if you’re at par, a plus score if you’re over, minus score if under.

Another way to look at it is this: You start with a double bogey on every hole. The better you play, the more you subtract. So if you’re playing par golf, your plus/minus score would be zero — or 72 for a full round on a normal course.

Do you see the important pattern yet? It’s this: You can keep score exactly the way you do now. Add 2 for double bogey. Add 1 for bogey. No change for par. Minus 1 for birdie. Etc. The only difference is that you never add more than 2 strokes for any hole. Then you keep a running total as you go from hole to hole. You were at plus one on the last hole, and you were one over on this one? Your score is now +2. And so on.

You could call that Delta Scoring (hey, trademark!), because you’re tracking your delta — the difference between what you shot and what you would have if you were playing par golf. (That’s what you do if you’re a good golfer, at any rate. As for me, I keep track of my delta relative to bogey. Forget par. I don’t have room on the card to write in numbers tht big.)

With that kind of scoring, I think that objections to the Stableford system would evaporate. Scoring would be similar to what you see in every other tournament. So instead of having a score like “27” (which means what, exactly?), the scores would be “2 over” or “2 under”. That would be a heck of a lot more familiar.

Because I have to admit: As much as I like Stableford in principle, I find myself at sea when watching a televised tournament that uses it. I just don’t have any idea how well the players are really doing — especially after a couple of rounds of play. (Oh boy, the player has 80 now. Is that good? How good is it? How well are they playing compared to the tournament I saw them in last week? Who the heck knows??)

The one drawback to such a system is that handicap calculations will not be as accurate for players who shoot big numbers. Everyone tops out at double bogey, so there is only so high your handicap can go. But come on! On a par 72 golf course, a bogey round is 90. A double-bogey round is 108! The only time a more accurate handicap makes any difference is if you’re scoring more than that, and you’re playing against someone else who scores more than that!

But how often do two players with a handicap that high square off against each other in a fight to the finish? I was such a player, once upon a time. We all were. The answer is, maybe one time in my life, when I participated in a match play tournament. And I can tell you that I would rather tie my playing partner at 108 each than be able to calculate with extreme precision exactly who played so much worse that they lost the contest! Call it a tie, I say, and make chips on the practice green to pick a winner.

Conclusion

At bottom, I think that Inverted Stableford (aka Delta Scoring) would produce scores that are both familiar, and comparable to the scores achived in other events. Consistency would still win the day, but occasional inconsistency wouldn’t hurt as much. And it would speed up play.

If a tournament is only paying the first two or three places, it makes sense to use it. You only really need medal-play scoring when you’re paying 20 or 30 places, they way they do on tour. In those tournaments, you need to distinguish 5th from 25th. But for most of the rest us, that kind of difference brings out a big yawn. And oh, by the way, did I mention: It speeds up play! The difference won’t be noticeable for really good golfers. But for the other 95% of the population, the difference will be huge.

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3 Comments

  1. KeithS Author July 4, 2017 (1:15 pm)

    Un-modified Stableford, inverted or not, is actually totally, totally, pointless except the capping at double bogey aspect! Why not use normal scores (so you keep the familiarity you desire) and just pick up when you get to double and record that as your score. The net effect is exactly the same as Stableford/Inverted Stableford (it’s simple math!). And it achieves your speed-up-play goal in a more natural and easier way.
    That’s why the few tour events that have toyed with it use a modified version. This does change the reward/risk equation and does encourage slightly more daring play.

    Incidentally the Brits play a lot faster than we do (3 hours is a long round) and one of the reasons is they play a lot more match play, including fourballs, which leads to a lot more picking up – sometimes 3 players on a single hole will pick up. They also can’t post scores for HC purposes at all unless the round is in a competition – so no incentive to keep playing if you are out of the hole.

    Reply to KeithS Report comment
    • Eric Armstrong Author July 4, 2017 (9:59 pm)

      Superb points, Keith. Thanks for posting them. The proposed rules changes will allow for tournaments that have a score cap, so it will be possible to play them a lot faster, thankfully. And that means that it will also be possible to play by more relaxed rules in regular play, and post the max for those holes — so one’s handicap should reflect their actual ability, rather their ability during the last tournament they played in!

      Reply to Eric Armstrong Report comment

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