Ultimate guide to golf handicaps – All you need to know

Ultimate guide to golf handicapsHave you asked: what exactly is a golf handicap, and how do I get one? It’s a question which many of us have thought about but feel embarrassed to ask when we start out playing. Yet the golf handicap is a beautiful thing. It enables players of different abilities to play together, and it tells everyone you play with how good, or not, you are and how much better you are getting.

In this article, I will tell you everything you need to know in our Ultimate Guide to Golf Handicaps.

Let’s start with the basics. What is a golf handicap?

A golf handicap rates your skill level using an established formula, and in the United States is overseen by the US Golf Association (USGA), and there are other systems in place in the countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia, and Argentina. Moves are well advanced to a world handicap system, and there is more about this further on in this article. In the United States, the USGA governs the system, and the awarding of handicaps is administered by affiliated golf clubs.

A handicap is a number. The lower your handicap number, the better player you are.

The system applies to all amateur golfers, including the very best. These super players are called scratch golfers and have a handicap of zero. The USGA rates scratch golfers as men who can hit a tee shot 250 yards on average and can reach a 470-yard hole in two shots. For ladies, the standard is being able to hit a tee shot an average of 210 yards and taking two shots to reach a four-hundred-yard hole. Scratch players are the baseline for determining handicaps. A course will calculate how many shots a scratch player will need to get around a course. Your handicap score will be how many extra shots you need to get around that same course. Of course, you may not always achieve that. Sometimes you will be better and sometimes worse, we all vary in our game from day to day, but it does provide the baseline by which you can measure yourself.

To get a handicap, you must play at least three full rounds of golf (that is, eighteen holes) with a playing partner who already has a handicap. You must score the rounds (your partner signing your scores), and it is from these scorecards that your handicap will be calculated. (more on calculations below) The maximum handicap for a man is 28, and for a woman, it is 36. Handicaps are then split into the following categories.

  • Category One – less than five
  • Category Two – less than 12
  • Category Three – less than 20
  • Category Four – less than twenty-eight (maximum handicap for a man)
  • Category Five – (ladies only) Less than thirty-six (maximum handicap for a woman)

What is a handicap for?

A golf handicap can help both you and your playing partners. If you have a handicap, you will know how many shots any hole you play on any course should take. You can also level the odds if you are playing with a player who is better than you. As well as helping you measure your own progress (and that of your buddies of course!), a handicap can also be very useful in some games. For example, ‘scramble tournaments’ where handicaps can mean players on different levels to compete with each other. It works like this; each player deducts their handicap from their score at the end.

How the golf handicap system developed

A rudimentary system to ‘even up the skill level of different players was in existence back in England and Scotland in the late nineteenth century. At this stage, the system was not that accurate as it just averaged three scores. This was not very satisfactory, especially for the better players, as it did not account for the fluctuations in play.

A significant advance was made in the USA. The United States system, developed by the United States Golf Association, started in 1911 and was the first nationwide system anywhere. One thing the USGA took on immediately was the difference in the difficulty of different courses. It wanted to develop a system that could be fair to those players who were on a challenging course and those playing on easier courses. So right from the off, the USGA handicap used a course rating when calculating handicaps, and to do this, they worked with clubs, courses, and member organizations around the country. This rating has evolved over time. At first, it mainly used the course length, and although that is still a crucial factor, other factors have been added over the years. These include hazards on the course, position, and geography (which takes in things such as altitude and wind speed on the course). This system was then supplemented by the slope system, which was developed to help golfers below the scratch level (bogey golfers).

It’s worth looking at a bit of history at this point, as it shows what thought and good work has gone into developing the handicap system.

In the United States, the system is governed by the United States Golf Association, the USGA. Founded in 1894, the USGA built on the informal and rudimentary handicap systems already in existence in local clubs and standardized them. It set up a system of authorized clubs and associations that would administer the system and issue the handicaps. With updates and developments, this system is still in place and still working well today.

The handicap system inspires much trust because of the close oversight which the USGA gives it. Any golfer will tell you; the system is very well trusted. Wherever you are playing, and whoever you are playing with, you can be pretty sure that their handicap well reflects their playing ability.

The USGA has never been shy of updating and critically examining how the system is working. For example, in 1979, when there had been widespread complaints about how the handicap was calculated, the USGA treated this very seriously. They took ten years and spent more than two million dollars to develop a better formula for calculating handicaps. This means that now, more emphasis is put on the relative difficulties of different golf courses. The revision also smoothed out the system, so a few bad rounds do not adversely affect a golfer’s handicap.

These days the USGA employs rating teams to inspect and measure courses. (they also play each golf course to understand better the challenges it presents to both scratch golfers and bogey golfers).

Course rating and slope rating

A handicap in the golf system can only work if the golfers are measured to a common standard.

There is an obvious problem here with golf. One of the delights of the game is that no two courses are the same. Imagine this situation, two golfers playing on two different courses. They are both about the same level, but today they are playing on very different courses. Golfer one is playing on a flat, smooth course, with no wind and wide straight fairways. Golfer two is playing on a hilly, rocky course with a sharp sea wind and lots of bunkers. We would expect golfer two to take more shots to get around the course. Should this mean he gets a higher handicap? Surely not, that doesn’t seem fair, and it doesn’t reflect the relative difficulties of the two courses. The rulers of golf have considered this, so they invented the course rating and slope rating systems.

Course rating

Course rating assigns a number to a course that gives an idea of the golf course’s difficulty when played by a scratch (that is the very best amateur) golfer. The number assigned to the golf course is the number of shots that a scratch golfer would expect to complete the course’s eighteen holes.

This is not enough, though. As you may observe as you watch other golfers out on the course, top experienced amateur golfers play a very different game from new golfers or those golfers who enjoy their game but do not get out to play that often. What about some help for assessing courses as the less good golfers experience them? The rulers of golf are onto that one too. It is called the course slope system.

Course slope

Course slope refers to how the course plays for a mid-handicap golfer with a handicap of eighteen, otherwise known as a bogey golfer. You might be asking how this is calculated. Well, it’s complicated, that’s for sure. Here is a quick guide to how it works.

The USGA sends rating teams to assess courses around the country. This takes account of the course length (longer courses have higher ratings than shorter ones) and of obstacles and difficulties on the course. As the rating teams make the assessment, they consider how the course will be played by both the very best amateur golfers and golfers of a middling ability; so, a course will be rated for both the scratch (very best) and the bogey (middling) golfer.

What obstacles are out and about on the course will be taken into account from the perspective of our two golfers. The rating teams will be looking at the obstacles from both of these perspectives. So, the angle onto the green according to the skill level will be examined, for example, as will how each player will play an approach shot and what obstacles stand in the way. The rating teams will also look at the position off the tees and how the fairway seems, how near the bunkers are, for example. These factors and more will be examined, measured, and analyzed for the scratch golfer and the bogey golfer.

When looking at the length of the course, the rating team will look at much more than a simple measurement from tee to hole. It will take other factors into account to develop something it calls ‘effective playing length.’ After the length, the most important factor is how much the course goes up or downhill (if it is downhill, it will be assessed as longer, if it goes uphill, it will be evaluated as shorter). Altitude, how much the course is above sea level, is an important factor as it affects how the ball plays. The ground on which the course is built matters as well, the firmness of the fairways affects play.

Then there is something called ‘obstacle stroke rating’; this is a way of measuring the number of obstacles on the course and how severe they are. There are ten categories that the rating team will be looking at. Topography, how hard it is to hit the fairway; how easy it is to hit the green from the fairway landing area; position and difficulty of bunkers; likelihood of hitting the ball out of bounds; water and trees and how much hazard they are likely to cause; the speed of the greens and their contours. And the final thing? How all these features psychologically affect the poor old golfer as he battles away to overcome all this.

Once the rating team has assessed all this, it will then analyze every tee on the course. It then uses four standard golfing types to analyze all the findings: male scratch golfer; female scratch golfer; male bogey golfer; female bogey golfer.

After all this work, the rating team will assign the magic number to the course. The number is then certified and given to the course. That number will appear on the scorecard of that course or club. And most importantly, it is taken into account when determining the handicap of any player who plays on the course and wants to assess their handicap.

Thanks, USGA, for such a thorough job.

How do I get a handicap?

If you are going to establish a handicap, you must play on a golf course that has been rated.

These days handicaps are measured according to a handicap formula. This takes account of the scores you make and the course rating, and a slope rating of the courses you play on. You can calculate this automatically by using various apps or calculators or on the course computer.

Perhaps you are worrying if you are good enough to get a handicap at all. Use this simple test. If you can hit a ball one hundred and fifty yards down the fairway using your driver, a three wood or hybrid, then you are up to playing a full round of golf, that is eighteen holes around the course. At that point, start to keep score. You can get a scorecard from wherever you play golf. They look like this.

There are rules about how you fill in scorecards to make sure play is fair. Your playing partner must sign your card at the end of the round. The scorecard tells you the information you need as you play around the course. On the scorecard, you will find what is called the index. The index includes the length of each hole. (Just to complicate things, this is not necessarily the actual length but what the USGA determines is its effective playing length, so a short hole that goes uphill can have a longer length) and its par (par is the number of strokes a competent golfer should take to get the ball in the hole).

You are now on the route to getting a golf handicap. You need to play three to five full rounds of golf, filling in a scorecard as you go, and ensure your playing partner signs it. These are the scores that are used to calculate your first handicap. All you need to do is report your scores at the course you usually play.

After you get your first handicap, revisions to your handicap are calculated as the average of the best ten of your previous twenty scores. Actually, it is more complicated than that, involving ninety-six percent of that figure, but we’ll leave that mystery to the calculating apps. This formula is not something you need to worry about as courses these days have user-friendly computers to feed your scores in, and the program gives you a handicap). The handicap is calculated according to a fixed formula and considers the difficulty of the course or courses on which you have played.

So now you have your first handicap. Feels good, doesn’t it? You are now a proper golfer. For most of us, our first handicap drops quite quickly as we practice and improve. It gets harder after that, but that’s for the future.

For the moment, enjoy the handicap you have.

What exactly does a handicap mean?

Let’s take this example. What the par for the course you are playing on is essential here. (The par for a hole is the number of strokes a competent golfer should take to get the ball in the hole. On an ordinary golf, course the holes are three, four, or five. The par for the course is the eighteen holes added up). So, an average course might be seventy-two, for example. If you have a handicap of twenty, then you would expect to get around the course in ninety-two strokes. If your partner has a handicap of ten (he is quite a bit better than you), then he will expect to get around the course in eighty-two strokes.

How do I update my handicap?

Having got your initial handicap, you can update it. Your handicap index is updated using the ten best scores from the previous twenty rounds you have played as you progress.

We must mention here the unfortunate cheating which does go on around handicaps. It might surprise you to know that more players cheat to make themselves seem worse players than they are than those who cheat to make themselves look better. There is more cheating to come out with a higher handicap. This is call sandbagging, and it is done to gain an advantage in competitive competitions. We mention it in passing, but one reason we love golf is that any form of cheating is rare. Nearly everyone enjoys the game and wants to play fair.

What is a good golf handicap?

This is a ‘how long a piece of string is’ question, but it is one we have all asked. You want to feel okay, confident, and proud as you go out onto the course, so here is a guide.

Eighteen is often regarded as a good handicap for male golfers. This is the point at which a golfer reaches that magical spot of moving from being a high handicapper to being a mid-handicapper. The figure of eighteen is not pulled out of the air; it is to do with the par of the course. With a handicap of eighteen, then you can expect to hit a ‘bogey’ that is one shot above par on each hole on the course. That is something to aim for. If you hear the term ‘bogey golfer,’ that means a golfer with an eighteen handicap, making one shot above par, on average, as they go around the course.

A low handicap golfer is someone with a handicap of under ten. A golfer with this handicap would be expected to make many shots on par as they go around the course. And you can go lower than this. The best amateur golfers, the scratch golfers, have a handicap of zero. At that level, the golfers are hitting par on nearly every hole on the course. Yet even these scratch golfers are still a long way from the professionals on the PGA tour. The handicap system only applies to amateur golfers. The professionals are up there in the stratosphere. PGA tour players are at least four or five strokes better than even the scratch golfers, so a way to go!

When will my handicap come down?

When you get your first handicap, you can aim to get it down quickly and consistently. I would advise you to concentrate on your short game. It is never more important than at this time in your golfing career. Your chipping and putting around the green will count for more than your driving shots. These short shots will make the most significant difference in the number of shots it takes you to get around the course. Remember that most of your shots in any game are not the long drives but the chips and the putts. Also, pay attention to getting out of trouble. Practice your wedge shots, so if you get stuck in the sand, you are not wasting shots trying to get out. Finally, at this stage of your game, try to avoid getting into trouble in the first place. When you are playing a full round, be careful; play a cautious, conservative game. Make avoiding those bunkers and water hazards your main priority. That will keep the number of shots down as you get that handicap down.

Some myths about golf handicaps

A bad round is going to send my handicap soaring.

No, it won’t. Even a few bad rounds can be overcome. This is because your handicap is based on a range of scores, based on the lowest out of that range, one out of five, three out of ten, or ten out of twenty. You can put that awful round out of your mind. It doesn’t have to count.

The USGA gives a golf handicap.

No, it does not. This is done by the clubs and golf organizations locally, which the USGA licenses.

Your handicap is just your average score.

No, it is more complicated than that and fairer for it. Your handicap will take account of the course you play on, its course, and slope rating.

Is it worth getting a handicap?

Some players happily play a regular golf game year in year out without bothering to get a handicap. They are quite happy without a handicap. Perhaps you are like them and asking, is it worth it? I would say it is. Most golfers find having a handicap does help them improve. You have a publicly verified and generally understood mark of how good you are. It makes it possible to play in scramble tournaments or competitive matches with players at all levels, which can be great fun and improve your game even more.

The future of handicapping systems

At present, handicap systems are nationally based. This has become more and more of a problem in a world where we travel about all the time and play golf in countries worldwide. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be sure that we were on a level playing field if I am playing in Australia or the United Kingdom, or France?

Well, the good news is that this is going to happen. Just this year, in February, the body which governs golf in the United States, the United States Golf Association (the USGA), and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews (the R & A), which governs golf in the rest of the world announced that they were working on a world handicap system.

This is due to come into force in a couple of years, hopefully by 2020. It includes the system already used in the United States of rating individual courses (the course and slope ratings). This enables handicaps to be calculated, taking into account the difficulty of the course for both scratch (the very best) amateur golfers and bogey (an average) amateur golfers. This should ensure a transparent and fair way to calculate handicaps.

What we know about the system so far sounds excellent. It will allow recreational and competitive rounds to count towards the handicap. High handicappers especially have welcomed this as it opens up the opportunities to get that handicap down.

A new handicap will be calculated on fifty-four holes played, and a combination of nine and eighteen holes will be allowed. Again, this is welcomed by high handicappers and by golf coaches, organizers, and course owners who want to get more people involved in the game. They know it is often difficult for the casual golfer to get in the four or so hours necessary to play a full eighteen holes. Nine holes make things much more accessible to more golfers.

There is provision to consider adverse weather conditions, or other abnormal course factors, on performance on the day. Anything which can stop that heart-sinking feeling when the wind gets up and the ball sails off to the right is fine with us. The new scheme will allow for daily revisions of the handicap to account for the weather conditions that may have on a golfer’s performance on that day.

A new handicap limit of fifty-four will be introduced, which will apply to men and women. The idea of the governing bodies is to allow players to go for a handicap earlier on in their golfing career. The USGA and the R & R&A believe that this will encourage beginner golfers to get a handicap earlier and increase their commitment to the game. I love this idea and look forward to seeing more early golfers getting their handicaps. Just imagine how quickly a committed new player who is enjoying their game can get that handicap down. I can see a lot of competition amongst the newbies opening up on courses around the world.

From what we know already, these changes will take golf forward in a very positive way. The USGA and R&A have said their ambition for the system is:

  1. To encourage the maximum number of golfers to get a handicap and then to maintain it.
  2. To reflect our changing global world and make it easier for golfers of different nationalities, and gender, and abilities to play with each other.
  3. To make it easy for any golfer with a handicap to transport it to any course anywhere in the world.

A truly global game.

When it comes into force, the system will be overseen and governed by the two international bodies, the USGA and the R&A. It will then be administered by the six national authorities, which already maintain a golf handicapping system. Once up and running, it will cover eight countries and upwards of fifteen million golfers.

The Ultimate Guide to golf handicaps – enjoy yours

We hope we have given you a better idea of what a golf handicap is and how you can get one. It can mean you enjoy the game even more, so go ahead and then get that handicap down. We can see another scratch golfer on the way!