Golf – Settling old scores

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The Stableford system is familiar to all golfers, but who invented it?  Dermot Gilleece traces the remarkable life of one  Dr Frank  Barney Gorton Stableford

In one of his many enlightened moments, the distinguished scribe, Henry Longhurst, once observed: “I doubt whether any single man did more to increase the pleasure of the humble club golfer.”  He was referring to Dr Frank Barney Gorton Stableford, inventor of golf’s Stableford scoring system whereby a player, when finished a round, could proclaim without shame that he had scored 25 points, rather than having to admit to the embarrassment of carding 104.

For those unfamiliar with the system, it offered a lifeline to the less competent practitioner who invariably fell foul of the established strokes process. As in a player who could cover five, six or seven successive holes in one or two over par, only to plummet at the next to a horrendous 10, or even worse. Effectively, Dr Stableford removed the fear of such disasters, without compromising the overall merit of a player’s performance.

Most golf historians would have us believe that the Stableford scoring system was launched at the Wallasey club on Merseyside in the 1930s. In fact, the good doctor unveiled his brainchild as far back as 1898, though it was 1990 before the information came to light. And it happened when a yellowed cutting was unearthed during research for the centenary history of the Glamorganshire club. The “South Wales Daily News” was reporting on the club’s first autumn meeting on September 30th, 1898.

A golf-writing friend of mine and former sports editor of “The Observer”, Peter Corrigan, had been engaged as the club’s historian when he came across the cutting. In the event, a footnote to the scores in a club bogey competition read: “A special prize was given by Dr Stableford in connection with the foregoing event, the method of scoring being as follows: Each competitor plays against bogey level. If the hole is lost by one stroke only, the player scores one; if it is halved, the player scores two; if it is won by one stroke, the player scores three; and if by two strokes, the player scores four.  To the score thus made, one-third of the player’s medal handicap is added ….”

Though the inventor never admitted it, there we had the first Stableford competition which, incidentally, was won by a certain W Hastings with the splendid score of 42 points. The good doctor, who was a very capable golfer in his own right, didn’t play, but the newspaper report proved that he had come up with a prototype of his scoring system, 33 years earlier than he had asserted at Wallasey GC.

As a consequence of Corrigan’s endeavours. Glamorganshire GC promptly announced itself as the birthplace of the Stableford system. “When they read my record,” he said, “Wallasey members were indignant, and the relationship between the two clubs was feisty.”

However in 1998, on the 100th birthday of the tournament Stableford held using his scoring system, the two golf clubs declared peace. Each took partial credit for Stableford’s scoring method which, it could be said, was conceived at one and tweaked at the other. And as a measure of that bonhomie, members of both clubs meet each year in a tournament named in Stableford’s honour at which they toast the innovator’s health.

It is not known whether the system, which crucially recognised that one bad hole could ruin a round in most other forms of scoring at that time (V-Par had yet to be adopted), was tried again before it was resurrected decades later. Either way, its objective remained unchanged.

As captain of Glamorganshire GC in 1995, Bob Edwards made an exhaustive study of Stableford and his family.  In the process, he commissioned a portrait of the doctor which now hangs in the grand Tudor clubhouse. He also organised a memorial plaque at the first tee, with the high cliffs of Penarth in the distance.

Meanwhile, on the reintroduction of his system on May 16th, 1932, the only change Stableford made was that competitors added their full handicap to the points gained off scratch, which meant that it no longer favoured the better player. Initially, Wallasey officials were sceptical about what had been described as “the crazy doctor’s new system.” But the players loved it, so much so that Wallasey members elected Stableford their captain in 1933.

As a lasting tribute, Wallasey introduced “The Frank Stableford Open Amateur Memorial Trophy” in 1969. Naturally, it is played as a Stableford competition and has become a major event in the amateur golfing calendar.

On a broader level, the system gained huge popularity through Britain and Ireland to the extent that it would be difficult to find a club these days where at least one regular weekly competition is not played under the Stableford system. The Americans, however, needed a lot more convincing.

In the early 1980s Jack Vickers employed Jack Nicklaus to design him a course at Castle Pines in Denver, Colorado. And when Vickers petitioned the PGA for an annual professional tournament, he was told the response would be positive, provided he came up with an attractive format. That’s when the owner’s brother, Bobby, came up with a variant of the Stableford system.

The International tournament was launched in 1986, with a scoring system slanted heavily towards aggressive play. Under the so-called Vickers system, carding a double-bogey or higher meant the loss of three points; one point was lost for a bogey and a par delivered no point.  For a birdie, however, the player received two points, and an eagle brought five points. The ultimate reward was eight points for an albatross. “He would have adored the tournament,” was the verdict of Royal and Ancient member, John MacDonald, who had met Dr Stableford. “He talked about how The Open should try his scoring system.”

Born in 1870 in the English midlands, Stableford became a doctor when he was 24 and moved to Cardiff where he joined Glamorganshire Golf Club before going off to the Boer War. Tall and handsome, he was described as having “penetrating blue eyes which had a habit of focusing attention away from companions”.

He was an excellent golfer and played off a handicap of plus-one in 1907 when capturing the club championship at Royal Porthcawl. Earlier he had served as a surgeon in the Royal Army Medical Corps, and spent some years in South Africa. When his medical career brought him to Wallasey, he joined the golf club in 1914.

During the 1914-18 War he served in Italy and Malta as a major with the RAMC and after receiving several commendations, was later promoted to colonel, though his golf handicap had eased out from three to seven. He returned to Wallasey after the war, and records of 1922 show that his handicap had risen to eight. There, he became a familiar, flamboyant figure, driving a yellow Rolls Royce and wearing bright bow ties.

At the grand old age of 89 in 1959, he was shocked to learn that he was going blind. So it was that on a September evening, having played his customary round of golf at Wallasey, he returned home and settled with pipe and brandy into a leather chair in his study. He then wrote a note, took out his gun and shot himself in the head.

Having decided years earlier that golf’s scoring system wasn’t fair, he appears to have come to the same conclusion about life itself. But not before leaving club golfers with a wonderful legacy.

 

 

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