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The Doctor Who Put a Smile on Golf Scores

By John M. Ross,
Dr. Frank B. G. Stableford
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Dr. Frank B. G. Stableford took his game very seriously. (.)

From time to time, during dull passages of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" - like when the contestant ponders "Who Is Buried in Grant's Tomb? - I try to dream up golf questions that might stump the panel. I think I've hit upon a sure-fire stopper.

"Who invented the Stableford System in Golf?"

I've been asked the question dozens of times over the years by ardent golfers, and most of the time I'd simply fumble my way out with, "A guy named Stableford, I guess." It was years before I finally found my way to some old, dusty books on my dusty bookcase shelves and I discovered I had been right all the time. His name WAS Stableford.

Dr. Frank B. G. Stableford, to be more precise, a wealthy retired colonel in the Royal Army Medical Corps, who had served as a surgeon in both the Boar War and the First World War. He cut a fine military figure - tall and upright, with an elegant mustache that matched his silvery, bushy eyebrows. But when he finished his round of golf at the Wallasey Club, near Liverpool, he was generally slumped a bit, his shoulders sagged.

And the reason was always the same. His score. The scoring system wasn't fair. He'd tell this to anyone who would listen. He acknowledged that golf was, indeed, a frustrating game, but it was the scoring structure that made it so punishing. A man could play a pretty good game overall, but by messing up on a couple of holes he could come in with a scorecard that was embarrassing to sign. There had to be a fairer way - a more meaningful reflection of a golfer's play.

The Doctor, as he was called, took his game very seriously, analyzed it thoroughly, and ultimately developed his own firm theories on the swing. He didn't have the appearance of a good player, although he did eventually get down to a one-handicap. He was stiff in his movements, and this, combined with his height, made him seem awkward. To make up for some of this, he waggled almost endlessly, much to the frustration of his playing partners.

While he labored over his mental drawing board for a better scoring method, his game flourished. He won the club championship of the Royal Porthcawl in South Wales and reached the semi-final of the Welch Amateur Close Championship. It was during this period he started toying with the notion of playing the game for points, rather than strokes.

He tried it out on his fellow members at Wallasey, where he would eventually become Club Captain. While Stableford was popular and very respected, the initial reaction to his radical proposal was something less than a rousing reception. After some fine-tuning, The Doctor proposed that two points should be awarded for par; three points for a birdie; four for an eagle; and five for a double eagle. There would be no points for one or more over par, and that 7/8s of the player's full handicap would be allowed.

Some of Stableford's golfing friends began to sample it regularly, and they liked it. And their enthusiasm for it soon rubbed off on the rest of the members. Finally, in 1932 - May 16 to be exact - the first Stableford competition was held at Wallasey. It was won by a five-handicap Liverpool stockbroker with a winning score of 34 points, and the innovation received a sound endorsement from the players.

Before long, the new system was being tried all over Britain, and, eventually, wherever the game was played around the world. In 1969, the Wallasey Club established its annual amateur event for the Frank Stableford Memorial Trophy, and it has received popular support over the years.

In the U.S. it has also been a popular event at many clubs, but its broadest exposure came in 1976, when The International was launched with much fanfare on the PGA Tour. With its huge TV audience, Dr. Stableford's brainchild reached more golfers than ever before and was proclaimed by most as a positive departure from the long string of stroke play events.

The International, held on the massive Jack Nicklaus-built course at Castle Pines, Colorado, plays to a variation of the Stableford format. Double bogey or worse is -3, bogey -1, par 0, birdie 2, eagle 5, and double eagle 8. The invitational field of 144 international players is cut in half after two rounds, and is reduced after the Saturday round to just 24 for the last 18 holes. It provides a lot of action on the course and good viewing for the fans. In playing for points, rather than protecting a total score, a player is more likely to attack the course.

Stirred by the marked success of The International, the PGA Senior Tour opted for a Stableford event for its Royal Caribbean Classic at Key Biscayne in early February. Playing for a $1.4 million pot, the over-50 brigade had high praise for the switch - especially Larry Nelson, last year's big money-winner. Nelson made it two-for-two in the new year, and is shaping up as the Senior's answer to Tiger Woods.

There are no statistics on how many rounds of golf are played under the Stableford system, or how many events. And there is no evidence that it will eventually replace the game's original scoring system. But the new idea put in place by Dr. Stableford some 70 years ago is now a permanent fixture in the game, and one enjoyed by millions.

This started out as a silly question for "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire." Well, the answer still is Dr. Stableford, and yes, that's my final answer.

On the heels of his display of vintage form in the Senior Skins event - especially with the putter - Jack Nicklaus-watchers say he's quietly prepping for a once-more-with-feeling go at the Masters. Shortly after the Skins match, Jack indicated that he would play in at least three regular PGA Tour events before Augusta. Considering his sharply reduced playing schedule in recent years, that in itself could be indicative of the thoughts running through Jack's head.

While not meaning to toss a bucket of water on any fanciful thinking, we must note that Jack celebrated his 61st milestone in January. When he won his sixth Green Jacket with that memorable blazing finish in 1986, some thought that was quite miraculous. He was 46 at the time.

Many think Jack's earnest prep more likely ties in with his conversations with Nike and its entry into the golf club market. There are indications that Jack will be a part of that, and some broad exposure at the Masters wouldn't hurt one bit.

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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