Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Bisques to the fore!

Golf is often cited as a game that enables players of widely different abilities to compete realistically and with broadly equal chances of winning. With every player having a personal handicap rating, based on his form and record against the theoretically perfect scratch score, someone playing off 18 could have a meaningful game with the amateur champion, who might be off plus 4, with no adjustment to the rules (illegal in golf anyway), by being in receipt of 22 strokes. The outcome would not be a foregone conclusion. Such a match would be impossible at, for instance, tennis where the good player would win almost every point unless truly handicapped, such as by having to play left handed, or in diving boots.

In everyday club golf a match between two unequal players requires the better player to give the lesser one a number of strokes equal to the difference in handicaps. This is at least an improvement on the arrangement of a few years ago which gave the lesser player only three quarters of the difference. However the strokes have to be taken at the holes specified on the card. Which holes get which stroke index is decided by the committee, under recommendations from the national golf union. Anyone who has played under this system will have noticed that two things happen in most matches: you have a stroke at a certain hole but go out of bounds and lose the hole by two strokes; or your opponent goes out of bounds and you win the hole without needing the stroke. In either case the stroke is wasted and cannot be used elsewhere. The advantage is always with the better player. Why should the committee decide which holes you get your strokes at? There must be a better way.

There is. It is so simple that I cannot understand why it is not used. You simply take your strokes when you need them. They are called bisques. I believe this is originally a device used in croquet but its adaptation to golf has been long recognised, not least by Bernard Darwin who wrote on the tactics of bisques many years ago in Tee Shots and Others. Contrary to the practice at my club on the rare occasions bisques are used, you do not have to announce your intention to claim the stroke on the tee. This would be little different from the arbitrary allocation according to stroke index. The stroke is taken after the result of the hole is known and must be claimed before leaving the green and you can, if the match has reached a critical stage or you have been too mean or too proud in using your bisques thus far, claim more than one at a time.

Clearly a stroke when you need it is a more powerful weapon than one arbitrarily allocated according to where you are on the course, so it can be argued that the higher handicap player does not need so many of them. In medal play you have to finish each hole and may have to use up some of your handicap allowance on an eight or a nine. In match play you would not normally expend bisques on mitigating such disasters. So I would settle for three quarters of the difference in bisques and would happily offer an opponent the choice between that and the usual arrangement, whether I was giving or receiving the strokes.

A mischievous variation on the bisque is the half bisque (also used in croquet, where you may take the free hit but not use it to score a point). A half bisque may be used to claim a hole that has been halved but they may not be added together, so to use half bisques effectively the higher handicap player must be able to halve a good number of holes on level terms. Bernard Darwin enthused over the tactical possibilities of this one but had only vague ideas on how many half bisques to allow. It needs experiment and statistical data and I challenge enterprising golfers to try it and report the results.

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