If you are new to golf, you might wonder why so many golfers are concerned about their golf handicaps. On the other hand, many experienced golfers know about the golf handicap system but might not know how or why it’s so important. So we decided it’s time to clear up all the confusion surrounding the golf handicap system.
In this article, we will be taking a deep dive into not only what the golf handicap system is and how it functions, but also how you can calculate and keep track of your own handicap. We’ll also include information regarding how handicaps are used in golf tournaments as well as ways to improve your handicap. That way you will know exactly how the handicap system works and how it can benefit golfers of all skill levels.
To begin, we are going to take a look at when the handicap system was invented and what problem it was made to solve.
Beginners Guide to the Golf Handicap System
Due to its old age, golf has had a great deal of time to evolve in relation to rules and competition. This evolution over the years has resulted in a robust scoring system that allows golfers of any skill level to play against each other. And while modern handicaps have become a very common topic among golfers today, they were also common among golfers during the early years of golf – just as a different name.
If you jump back to Scotland in the 1670s-1680s, golf was a sport that was growing in popularity, thus betting and bookmaking was quite common. It was so common that most golf clubs had bet books that recorded the odds for any given match. Through the making of odds, golfers were essentially giving each other handicaps. This continued until the 1880s when a handicap system that used an average of a golfer’s best three matches was created.
Again, handicaps went under more refinement when golf grew even larger and spread to new places like the United States. This time, in 1905, the USGA would settle on a modern handicap system that could be used at any golf course around the world. Over time the USGA handicap system was tweaked into the robust system that we golfers use today.
What exactly does a handicap mean?
In short, a golf handicap shows your average skill over eighteen holes of golf in relation to an average golf course. So if you are a 10 handicap it is assumed that, on average, you will be ten strokes over par during a complete round of golf. So if a golf course has a par of 72, then a golfer with a 10 handicap should expect to shoot around an 82 during an eighteen-hole round. Of course, there are some other things to take into account with golf handicaps like course rating and slope, but this is the generally understood explanation.
Another meaning behind the handicap system is equal matching among golfers with different skills. So if an 8 handicap (above average) golfer wants to play a match against a 16 handicap (average) golfer, it’s possible! This process usually involves stroke reductions at certain holes. So despite wide differences between the gross scores (before reductions), the net scores (after handicap stroke reductions) should be very close.
How to calculate a golf handicap
Now that you know exactly what a golf handicap is and how it can be used to help create a more inclusive scoring system among golfers, it’s time to talk about calculating a golf handicap. Despite the secrecy around the process, it is actually quite straightforward. Here are the steps required for any golfer to calculate their handicap.
1. Begin Keeping Score – Do Not Cheat!
Since the USGA handicap relies on a moving average, you need to keep score of at least ten full rounds of golf. The most accurate handicap will be after having a total of 20 completed rounds, but ten rounds are considered the bare minimum. All scores should be recorded as gross strokes per hole without any adjustments. Do not cheat yourself and drop a stroke here or there! On the other hand, don’t add any extra strokes to your game (aka “sandbagging”).
2. Adjust Your Score
To adjust your score(s) you will need accurate information from the golf course(s) you played as well as the official formula used by the USGA. This includes needing to find a golf course’s slope and rating, which are usually available on the scorecard. Then using the formula (Score – Course Rating) x (113 / Slope Rating) you can find your handicap for each round of golf you’ve recorded. Then take these handicaps and average them together for your true golf handicap.
3. Slope & Rating on the scorecard
If you are a golfer that loves to play at a couple of different courses, make sure that you keep a scorecard or two to refer to when it comes to calculating your handicap. Since almost all golf courses mark their approved Slope and Rating somewhere on their scorecards, it’s important to keep these numbers. You can also gauge a course’s difficulty through these same rating and slope numbers.
4. USGA Handicap rule per hole.
After you have calculated your golf handicap, you can start to use some of the handicap related perks. This includes the new USGA provision which allows golfers to pick up after exceeding a certain amount of strokes per hole. Of course, the max limit of strokes is dependent on your handicap, and the pickup number must be recorded on your card. This is only allowed during casual golf rounds that are unaffiliated with leagues, tournaments, or other sanctioned play.
Golf Handicap Calculator & Formula
In case you skipped over the last section, here is the full formula for calculating a golf handicap:
(Score – Course Rating) x (113 / Slope Rating)
- Score = total strokes in last 18 holes of golf
- Course Rating = Official golf course rating (Usually found on the scorecard)
- Slope Rating = Official slope rating (Usually found on the scorecard)
- 113 = Constant value representing the average course difficulty
After each round, all you have to do to find your handicap for that round is input the required numbers and do a bit of math. An example would be that you shot an 86 on a course with a rating of 74.2 and a slope of 115. So if you plug those numbers into the formula, you get:
(86 – 74.2) x (113 / 115)
Remember the rules of math! Do the inside of parentheses first!
11.8 x 0.983 = 11.6 Handicap
Not too bad of a round on a slightly more difficult golf course!
Of course, having to do this for each of your scores can be time-consuming. Thankfully many courses offer electronic tracking of your scores and handicap. You can also use one of the many online calculators or apps that can do all the hard work for you. All you have to do is select your course, the number of holes played, and enter your final score to see your updated handicap.
What is considered a good handicap?
Since handicaps are a way of representing skill the most common thought process is that a lower handicap means a better golfer. While this is mostly true, there are a couple of variables that can make a higher handicap golfer better than a low handicap golfer. Relativity also plays a factor in what can be considered a good handicap.
If you simply want to look at numbers, a handicap that is at 10 or below is considered “good”. This is based on the fact that most golfers average around a 16.1 handicap. “Scratch” golfers usually have a handicap around or below one. So with a handicap of 10, a golfer should expect to card an 82 on a par 72 golf course.
Now we’ll get into the issue of consistency and variance. Remember how we said that a higher handicap golfer can be better than a low handicap golfer? Well, that is true in a fair number of cases. Because golf handicaps are averages, it means that some rounds can be great while others are quite bad. So if a golfer with a low handicap is really inconsistent, they may end up losing to a higher handicapper, but much more consistent, golfer. This is most notably possible in handicap regulated tournaments with adjusted scores.
The final thing you need to think about when considering what a “good” handicap is, is relativity. If you are limited by physical factors or time your handicap may be higher than those who have physical advantages or play golf every day. So as long as you maintain or slightly improve your handicap, you’re doing “good”.
How do tournaments and matches work with handicaps?
Handicaps work very well at creating competitive tournaments and matches that allow golfers of all skill levels to compete. While each tournament is different, the most common setup includes per hole stroke reductions based on each golfer’s handicap. This means that if a golfer has a handicap of 18, they will get a one-stroke reduction per hole. If a golfer’s handicap is only an 8, then they will get a one-stroke reduction on the eight hardest holes on the course. This effectively makes everyone play to the course’s par.
Another popular tournament setup includes creating teams that have their member’s handicaps averaged to that of the other teams. Most times, this style of tournament is used with scrambles. Flighting can also be used to create groups of golfers with similar handicaps. Thus if you are in the championship flight, you probably have a very low handicap. On the other hand, if you are in the third flight, your handicap is probably near or above average.
Overall, don’t worry too much about how handicap golf tournaments work. Thanks to tournament organizers and electronic team creation programs, handicap tournaments are easy to set up. Most will make sure that you or your team are playing along the same lines as other competing golfers or teams.
Ways to improve your handicap
Every golfer wants to improve their handicap. And there are only two ways to truly improve your handicap – lowering your future scores and becoming more consistent. Those are the only two ways to create a lower handicap.
As you know by now, the golf handicap system uses a moving average of your best scores. So by lowering your score, your handicap will drop in relation. Sadly, this isn’t a fast process (unless, of course, you cheat. But that will be found out quickly and can get you banned from the handicap system as well as handicap tournaments). The best way to lower your scores is to invest more time in practice. Focus on areas of your game where you’re having difficulty. We recommend working on short game and putting to help cut the most strokes.
Check out the following training guides to help lower your score:
The final way to lower your handicap is to become more consistent. As we have been discussing, because your handicap is an average, it can be a reflection of the middle of your game. Meaning that you may often have a “lights out” round immediately followed by a “casual hacker” round. So if you are able to have more “lights out” rounds than “casual hacker” rounds your handicap will improve. Working on your mental game can also help you keep from blowing up in a round and ballooning your score. Thus more long-term consistency is created and your handicap will begin to improve.
As you can see, golf handicaps have had a long history in creating a more accessible game among all skill brackets. This system has also helped golfers better recognize their skill and expected performance on most golf courses. Regular use of handicaps can also help golfers understand how their scores are trending – either signifying gradual improvement or worsening.
We hope that this article has helped you understand what golf handicaps are and how they are important to the game. If you do not currently have a golf handicap we certainly recommend that you try to attain one. Because by having a handicap, you can then participate in tournaments and matches that are handicap balanced.
Overall, handicaps provide an invaluable service that helps make golf one of the most accessible sports. Plus with automatic calculators and apps, it has never been easier to have a golf handicap. So the next time you hit the links and someone asks “what’s your handicap?”, you can proudly (or reluctantly) answer.
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