If you aren’t familiar with the game of golf, then the system of handicaps used during play can seem confusing. I was curious about this frequently referenced aspect of golf so I did some research and this is what I discovered.
So, what is a golf handicap? A golf handicap is a method that allows players of different skill levels to play against each other on a more level playing field. There are various ways to accurately calculate handicaps in both stroke play and match play, and official golf clubs can create official handicaps.
A golf handicap will vary from one country to another, and the exact calculation of the handicap can also differ depending on the type of play taking place. Professional golf players are not able to use handicaps, but some amateur golfers are eligible if they are members of a golf club.
How Handicaps are Calculated
In the golfing community, it’s common for one player to ask another what their handicap is, and this can prompt a wide variety of responses from modest, to boastful. Handicaps are given to those who have played enough golf for a handicap to be calculated, which is typically 18-20 holes.
A player must keep score during this time, and valid scorecards will need two signatures. One signature is yours, and the other is from a fellow golfer that helped you keep score. Many players will try to alter their scores to make their handicap higher or lower, which is discouraged since it makes for golf games that aren’t correctly matched which is a waste of all the player’s time.
Your score is calculated based on the ten best scores out of the last twenty total scores. This score represents 96% of the best ten out of twenty scores for an average that can be adjusted as you play more games. You should get a card of some type that shows your information and a score history that you can use.
It’s common for a handicap to drop quickly once a new player begins to play several games of golf, but after that initial drop, your handicap may adjust much more slowly. This reduction is because you initially will have a learning curve where you work on your golf game and make substantial improvements.
After that first leap, your adjustments to form and strategy in your golf game will be smaller. Many golfers aim to be called a “scratch golfer” which is a golfer who can shoot at or better than par on most courses. This type of golfer is considered to be quite good, and to get to this level may take several years of consistent gameplay. Scratch golfers have a handicap of zero or below, and the official definition given by the US Golf Association (USGA) is:
- A male golfer that averages 250 yards in a shot and needs two shots to make a 470-yard hole
- A female golfer that achieves 210-yard shots, and requires two shots for a 400-yard hole
- Any golfer that can play a course with a handicap of zero on all rated courses
These three definitions also include that the yardage provided for these shots is “for rating purposes.” This detail means that a course is evaluated based on how many shots a scratch golfer would require and not how many shots a lesser skilled golfer would need.
If your handicap is below zero, you may be referred to as a “plus-handicapper” which means that your score is docked a specific number of strokes to help level the playing field when you play with others that have a handicap. If you play with another scratch golfer, then there isn’t a handicap to consider in most cases.
Estimates state that there are about 1.5% of male golfers who are scratch golfers and about 0.37% of female golfers in the US are also scratch golfers according to the US Golf Association.
Are There Good Handicaps?
Having a handicap when you play golf isn’t something to be ashamed of as it allows you to play with other players that may have more skill. Playing with more advanced golfers will also permit you opportunities to observe their movements and find ways that you can improve your own golf game.
So, what is a golf handicap, and how is it calculated? If you are new to playing golf, keep in mind that you can always have a new handicap calculated later once you’ve had time to improve your golf game. Courses are also rated differently, and that will affect your handicap because the difficulty of the course directly impacts your final scores.
Scratch golfers, or those with a handicap lower than zero, have the best handicaps, but there’s no reason to be embarrassed if your handicap is much higher. The more you play and practice, the more likely it is that your handicap will decrease. When you play with others, who have lower handicaps, you have rare opportunities to learn valuable lessons from how they play.
The maximum handicap that a male golfer can have is 36 and for female golfers the number of slightly higher at 40. As you become a better player, your handicap can decrease, but if your golf game begins to suffer your handicap can quickly go up again.
It’s best not to worry about what your handicap is, and instead, you should focus on enjoying the game, trying your best, and working to improve your skills whenever possible.
Course Ratings and Slope Ratings
Scratch golfers who have a zero handicap or below are generally the ones that set the rating of a particular course, but other factors are considered. Bogey golfers, who are defined as having a handicap of 20 or below for men, and 24 for women, may want to check course ratings before they decide where to play.
So, if you’re asking “what is a golf handicap?” it’s essential that you’re aware of course ratings as this can help you avoid challenging courses that aren’t appropriate for your skill level. Even scratch golfers may struggle with challenging courses, and the most challenging holes are frequently reserved for competition.
Course ratings also take into account the yardage for each hole and any obstacles that are also present. The slope rating is different and is calculated by comparing the course rating and how challenging the course would be for a bogey level golfer who has a higher handicap.
You can also calculate the bogey rating by taking the slope rating and dividing it by what is called the “set factor,” which is 5.381 for men, and for women, it’s 4.24. Add this number to the course rating, and the result is a score that a bogey golfer should strive for and truly measures how challenging the course will be for them.
The USGA helps to set scores that rate how challenging a particular course is, and changes to the course may take place in preparation for a tournament that can increase the difficulty. The numerical rating given by the USGA represents the number of strokes needed to complete the course down to a single decimal place.
The United States Golf Association
The United States Golf Association (USGA) was founded 125 years ago and had been celebrating their historical milestones in a four-part series by dividing them into thirty-year chunks. In 2014 they celebrated their 120th anniversary and their website documents influential figures in golf since 1894.
The USGA lists three fundamental values that help to govern their initiatives: serve, lead, and inspire. The organization vows to lead by embodying the spirit of the game of golf and demonstrating candor, integrity, respect, and transparency.
The USGA is also committed to serving the golf community by listening to the diverse perspectives shared and productively collaborating on different issues. Lastly, the USGA strives to inspire current and future players through their commitment to high standards of excellence in everything they do, and by sharing the enthusiasm and passion for the sport.
The USGA has several leadership committees that strive to help make policies, oversee regular operations, and conduct various events. The Executive Committee is the primary policy creating a board that consists of 15 members who are all volunteers.
The management is contained within the Executive Leadership Team, which is who oversees normal operation activities and directs other initiatives that the association prioritizes. The current CEO is Mike Davis, who has served since 2011. Out of the nine total executives currently employed, only two of them are women.
The Women’s Committee consists of 14 members who help to plan all USGA women’s championships. The committee members are from all over the United States, and the current chair-woman is Courtney Myhrum from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The USGA also has a number of corporate partnerships including relationships with Deloitte, Rolex, Lexus, American Express, and Cisco. You can follow the USGA on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and YouTube.