I have a question about a passage in The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan. In Chapter 10, "Various Parties Converging on the Sea", Richard Hannay watches two people playing tennis, after which one of them says to the third one, who is carrying golf clubs:

“I’ve got into a proper lather,... this will bring down my weight and my handicap, Bob. I’ll take you on tomorrow and give you a stroke a hole.”

What does he mean by "give you a stroke a hole"?

It seems to me that he refers to golf but I don't know the rules well enough to understand the meaning of his phrase.

3 Answers 3


Firstly, in golf, 'strokes' are how you score the game:

What is a stroke

tl;dr: every time you swing the club at the ball, it's a 'stroke'. When the game is over, the player with the least strokes wins.

In this instance, 'a stroke a hole' means the 'better' player is handicapping himself to give his opposition a better chance.

Stroke hole, handicap hole or handicap-stroke hole

So, over 18 holes, the better player is giving the opposition 18 'free' strokes.

  • 4
    Incidentally the story set in a time old enough that 18 holes wasn't completely standardized.
    – Joshua
    Jun 14, 2021 at 18:52
  • Might be worth mentioning that "a stroke a hole" might be more properly phrased "a stroke per hole". Jun 16, 2021 at 13:35

While the other answers given are correct to a point, they are only correct to a point.

Golf can be scored in one of two way: stroke play (which is currently the most popular method, counting the cumulative number of strokes taken by each player over the entire course), or match play, which was once more common in tournaments, and is still the most popular form of one-on-one competition involving wagers. In match play, a player wins by winning the largest number of holes played, and each hole is scored by strokes individually. Anyone whose golf game is not strong enough to play "scratch" (likely to play the course at or near par) is given a "handicap" of one or more strokes, which they are allowed to deduct from their total strokes on a given hole (and on most courses, the order of holes on which handicaps are to be applied is usually provided - you can't simply use your handicap strokes where they would give you the best advantage). In this case, the handicap being offered is one stroke on each hole rather than, say, eighteen strokes over the entire course, so the stronger golfer is betting that he can beat the weaker by at least one stroke on more than half of the holes on the course.

  • 1
    Match play also leads to another obscure expression: "I won by three and two". That means a player was three holes ahead after the 16th hole, so the opponent cannot catch up on the two remaining holes. As holes can be drawn, the match winner may have won 7, lost 4 and drawn 5, with the last 2 not played. Jun 15, 2021 at 17:52
  • @Paul_Pedant Interesting! I'd never heard that expression. So the last number is a measure of how "quickly" they won by the first number?
    – chepner
    Jun 16, 2021 at 13:17
  • @chepner It is not a very meaningful scoring method: because the scoring is reviewed after each hole, the difference can only be due to the last hole, so the numbers can only differ by one or two, depending on whether the number of halved (drawn) holes is even or odd. There are analogous scoring methods in cricket (where you can win by "wickets", the number of players you didn't even need to put in to bat), or motor racing (where you can win by "laps" and the lapped drivers do not complete the race, mainly because there are now cars slowing down ahead of them). Jun 16, 2021 at 16:00

Golf is scored by taking the total number of times that a player hit the ball, which is called "strokes". Whichever player has the fewest strokes wins. When people of different skill levels play, often the lower skill player is given a handicap to allow them to play on a more even footing. The speaker here is saying that they'll give Bob a handicap of 1 per hole, which if they're playing a full 18 holes means a total of 18 strokes. This means that at the end, the speaker will add 18 strokes to their score, and Bob will only need to beat this higher score to win.

  • Are you sure they would be betting om the total accumulated strokes over 18 holes, rather than making a separate wager on each hole? (I don't play golf.)
    – user14111
    Jun 14, 2021 at 21:23
  • @user14111, the dialogue does not imply that any wagering is to be involved in the first place. If there were wagering then it is of course possible to wager on golf on either a per-hole basis or a per-round basis, among others. But any per-hole bets would effectively be side bets, because with conventional golf scoring, it is of only minor significance which player does the best on any particular hole. For the most part, it is aggregate performance over the whole course that people care about. Jun 15, 2021 at 2:22
  • 1
    By the way, a stroke a hole is a significant handicap. The speaker is implying that they think they are much better than Bob is. Jun 15, 2021 at 2:26
  • @JohnBollinger Thanks for the explanation. I had supposed wagering must be involved because I have trouble seeing the point of bothering with a handicap if nothing is at stake. But like I said I'm not a golfer, so there's a lot I don't understand.
    – user14111
    Jun 15, 2021 at 4:47
  • @JohnBollinger I don't think it's so uncommon as you say - "skins games" are common even in pro golf (as promotional events), where each hole's winner is separately tallied. Certainly amateurs could easily bet on the hole by hole results, that's very common.
    – Joe
    Jun 15, 2021 at 19:33

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