All You Need To Know About Handicaps!

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The word handicap gets tossed around a lot in the golf world. But for a newbie, it can be a pretty confusing term. But don’t worry, Scratch is here to de-mystify it all! (And for you Rock Head who’ve been golfin’ a while, think of this as a refresher course)

What is a handicap?
A handicap is a number representing a golfer’s potential playing ability on a course. To be official, the United States Golf Teachers Federation (USGTF) defines handicap as “a measure of his current ability over an entire round of golf, signified by a number.” Basically, the lower the number, the better the golfer relative to those with higher numbers. A 2 handicapper is better than a 10 handicapper who is better than a 20 handicapper. Now, take note Rock Heads, that this isn’t simply an average of a golfer’s score, but represents their potential. It signifies how many strokes above or below par a golfer should be able to play. The maximum handicap for a male golfer is 36. For female golfers, this number increases to 40. The number can change over time as a golfer gets better.

How is handicap determined?
Handicaps are based on the difficulty ratings of golf courses that a golfer has played. Not all golf courses are the same difficulty and the handicap equation takes this into consideration. To determine a handicap, a golfer needs to have played a minimum of five rounds but no more than 20 and have those scores cards saved. The course rating and slope rating(these indicate the course difficulty) are also required and both can be found on any score card. The more scores used, the more accurate the handicap.

You can figure out your own handicap online with any number of free handicap calculators such as this one. However, an official handicap – aka a “handicap index” – can only be given by an USGA affiliated club. Do you need an official handicap index? Of course not! However, many tournaments require certain handicaps to enter, and a handicap can only really be proven with an official handicap index card. If you’d like to acquire one, contact your local club!

Why is handicap useful?
The USGA implemented the handicap system in the early 20th century in order to provide a level playing field between golfers of all abilities. It wouldn’t be any fun for a new golfer to play a seasoned pro. Remember when I said that handicap represents a golfer’s potential? By using handicaps, golfers actually compete against each other based on their own expected performance.

For example, say Tom and Mark are playing against each other in stroke play. If Tom has a handicap of 20 and he is playing against Mark with a handicap of 16, Tom would get four strokes over that particular round. That means at the end of the round, Tom would be able to subtract four strokes from his score (because his handicap is four strokes higher than Mark’s), and that would be his total. So if Tom shot a 91 and Mark shot an 89, Tom would win the match by two strokes.

In match play, the overall score the golfer gets for 18 holes does not matter. Each hole is scored, and the golfer who has the lowest score wins each hole. If Mark and Tom are involved in a match play competition and handicaps are being used, Tom would get a stroke from Mark on the four hardest holes on the course. The difficulty of each hole is noted on the scorecard with a “rating” number. Under the rating category, the hardest hole has a rating of 1 and the easiest hole has a rating of 18. So if the 7th hole is 525-yard par 5 and is rated as the No. 1 handicap hole on the course, Tom would get a stroke on the hole. If Tom shot a 7 on that hole and Mark shot a 6, the hole would be “even” because Tom was allowed to subtract a stroke from his score on that hole. He would also be able to subtract a stroke on the No. 2, 3 and 4 handicap holes on the course.

What is course rating?
Not all courses are created equal and a simple handicap does not account for this. Once a handicap index is established, it is then used to determine a course handicap. Course handicap adjusts a golfer’s handicap up or down depending of the difficulty of the course they’re about to play. It tells a golfer how many strokes he is allowed to take on a specific golf course; that is, a course handicap of 14 means the golfer will be able to deduct 14 strokes from his score throughout the round. The calculation is this: Your Handicap Index multiplied by Slope Rating Course divided by 113. So if Tom’s handicap is 20 and he’s playing a course with a slope rating of 127, the formula is 20 x 127/13. The answer to this example is 22.4 meaning Tom’s course handicap is 22. Notice that because the slope of the course in the example is higher that 113(the average course slope rating), Tom gets extra strokes. Tom’s handicap has increased from 20 to a course handicap of 22. Course handicap is useful when playing a new course or one away from home.

Odds and ends

  • If you have more questions about handicaps, go here to for a great FAQ section.
  • Also check out the USGA’s official Handicap System Manuel!
  • By the way did you know that Bubba Watson posts a +7.7 Isleworth Country Club in Florida and Phil Mickleson maintains a +4.6 at Whisper Rock Golf Club in Scottsdale, Arizona?! Check out this article to see more handicaps of the Tour Pros!
  • Hope this cleared up any questions you might have had about handicap Rock Heads. Post your handicap in the comments below!

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