A handicap is the rating of a golf player, expressed in numbers. In the US Golf Association (USGA) system, handicaps range between zero and 36.4 for men and 40.4 for women.
The handicap shows a golfer's current skill level in the game. It should not be confused with a basic average of past scores. The handicap is calculated using a complicated formula and gives you a clear idea of the number of shots you will take to complete a particular hole or course.
It is a system which shows your potential as a golfer, in comparison to the highest skilled amateur golfer.
A skilled amateur will have a handicap of zero and is called a "scratch" golfer. According to the USGA, a scratch player is any golfer who can hit a drive over 250 yards long (210 for women), and reach a hole 470 yards away (400 yards for women) in just two shots.
The scratch player is the baseline for the handicap system. Your handicap score means that you will take that many extra shots to complete a course/hole when compared to a zero handicapper.
For a simple example, if you have a 10-handicap for a course, it means that you will take ten strokes more than a scratch player to complete that round of golf. It does not mean that you will always take ten more strokes every time though.
Individual performance in golf will always fluctuate, especially at higher handicaps. In fact, the USGA estimates that average golfers usually score close to their handicaps only 25% of the time. This tends to improve as your handicap improves and you gain more consistency in your stroke-play and scores.
A need for a handicap system was felt centuries ago when golf was just a game played by close friends and acquaintances at the local English/Scottish club in the 17th and 18th centuries.
People obviously had different skill levels, and without a way to level the playing field, the better player would always win. And there was no fun in that for anybody involved. And since the pool of available players was very low in those days, it was quite hard
to find players of similar skill levels.
So golfers devised a system where a weaker player extra shots every two or three holes when playing against superior golfers.
In the beginning, rules were pretty loose, and it was common for each club to have its own handicap rule used by members.
Origin of the Term
The name "handicap" came to be associated with golf only in the 1870's. It was borrowed from a popular trading game from that era, called "Hand In The Cap."
When two people had items of different values to be traded, they used a referee to decide the difference in value. That money was put in a pot, and the players played the game by putting their hands in a cap and then pulling it out showing either agreement or refusal to the trade.
"Hand In The Cap" was gradually shortened to "Handicap" and became associated with betting, horse racing, and eventually golf, for the system that settles the difference in skill levels among players.
Need for a single system
As the popularity of golf grew in the 1800s and early 1900s, and the number of players and golf courses exploded, the need for a centralized system arose.
Clubs in England and Scotland soon started using mathematical formulas to calculate handicap of members.
The most popular method was to take the average of past three scores. But that was a very limited range and not a very accurate method.
The higher handicappers were particularly affected since they tend to have scores that fluctuate very wildly.
The USGA System
Here in the US, the handicapping system pioneered by the USGA was established in 1911, the first comprehensive national system of its kind anywhere in the world.
The USGA included member organizations, clubs, and courses in this new handicap system. The concept of using a course rating in the calculation was pioneered by the USGA. This made a lot of sense since golf courses were of varying difficulty levels.
Getting a +10 handicap on an easy course will not be the same as scoring +15 on a much tougher course. In the old system of average scores, golfers playing on more difficult courses would be penalized with higher handicaps, while those playing on easier courses could easily get lower handicaps.
The USGA system removed this inconsistency and was more accurate and fair as well.
The system has evolved over the decades, with numerous changes and revisions along the way.
Among the many changes instituted, the most important were the inclusion of a slope rating to go with the course rating.
The old course rating was calculated mainly using the length of the course, and how a scratch golfer would perform. But other factors like its overall geography, the positioning of bunkers, and other hazards affect the scores of players, especially the weaker "bogey" players with handicaps above 18.
A new system was needed to measure the difficulty of courses concerning high handicap players.
So the slope system was introduced, which took into account ten different characteristics of a course to calculate its difficulty was bogey golfers.
If you want to read more in detail about the evolution of handicap system, check out this great article series published by the USGA to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first USGA handicap system.
At present, there are six main handicap systems used by golfers across the world, according to The Royal & Ancient Golf Club (the R&A, one of the oldest governing bodies of the sport).
Efforts are under way to create a single international handicap system, but right now, the two main systems are the USGA system used in the US and the CONGU system utilized in the UK and many Commonwealth nations.
Modern handicap systems use complex formulas to calculate your handicap to a high degree of accuracy and fairness. But they all evolved from a common old system whose basic principles have remained the same over the years.
Utility of Handicap System
You can't play golf properly in the modern era without knowing your handicap.
It has numerous advantages and uses, both in casual play as well as for tournaments:
It is the primary yardstick to measure your progress in the game. As your skill evolves, your scores will decrease, and this will be reflected in your handicap.
And handicap is the most dependable way to earn respect from your peers. Getting a low handicap the cherished ideal of all golfers. The lower your handicap, the more respect you get on the course.
Unless you are a very talented golfer, it is the only way to have a realistic chance of winning matches against other players. If you are a beginner playing against a mid handicapper without handicaps, chances are very high that you will lose most, if not all your games.
Many charity and corporate events include scramble tournaments, where golfers of all skill levels are welcome to compete. You need an official USGA handicap to become eligible for one of these tournaments. At the end of play, each golfer deducts their handicap from their final scores. The one with the lowest net score is deemed to be the winner.
Handicaps also enable friendly competition. If you are invited to a round of golf by your boss, business partners or friends, every player has to have a handicap for a fun, competitive playing experience to be possible. Without handicaps, it could end up being a one-sided competition for the more skilled players.
For starters, measuring a handicap and getting an official handicap are two different things. One is a casual process for personal reference, while the other requires you to follow several steps as laid down by your national golf authority, here the USGA. For both processes, you need three pieces of information. They include:
You can't get a handicap unless you have already played some rounds of golf! Fortunately, it doesn't have to be a lot. The bare minimum required is five rounds played, but only on full 18 hole courses. The courses need to have a USGA rating.
This the rating given by the USGA to the course, showing the score that a scratch golfer is expected to attain at that course.
Finding the course rating is quite easy. It is usually available on the scorecards at the course, as well as the course website these days. You can even check with other members or the pros there if you are confused.
The second type of rating for a golf course looks at how tough it is for weaker, bogey golfers.
This rating is based on the different hazards and other difficulty features on the course.
And much like the course rating, the slope rating is also easy to find out, on the scorecards, online, or from the members/club officials.
The Handicap Formula
There are several ways to measure your handicap. If you are mathematically inclined, you can use the formula to calculate it yourself.
Just play five rounds of golf, note down the scores as well as the course and slope ratings of the course where you played those rounds and use the formula.
The first step involves getting at least five scores, then calculating the individual Handicap Differentials.
Get at least 5 of these differentials, and then pick the lowest differential and multiply it by 0.96 to get the final result.
If you have more than five score differentials, you will need to find the average of the lowest differentials. (For example, for ten differentials, take an average of the lowest 3, for 15 take lowest 6, and if you have 20, take the average of the lowest ten differentials.)
Round the result off to the first decimal point, and you have your first handicap.
The easiest thing to do though is to try any one of the numerous free online golfer's handicap calculators out there.
Provide your five golf scores, and the course and slope rating for all the scores and the calculator will get you your very own handicap score.
Do note that five is the minimum number of rounds required to create a handicap rating. The USGA system of Handicap Index uses scores of up to 20 rounds to calculate your individual index.
Do remember that the score provided by these sites are purely for informational purposes and are in no way connected to the official USGA Handicap Index.
To get an officially recognized handicap score, check out the steps mentioned below.
Getting Your Own Handicap Index
The USGA Handicap Index is the official term for a handicap in golf in the United States.
This is what you need to get the full range of benefits of a golfer's handicap here in the States. To become eligible for a Handicap Index, you will need to be a member of a golf club or golfer's association that is affiliated to the USGA and licensed to use the proprietary USGA Handicap System.
Now, a private golf club membership can be an expensive proposition. But local public and municipal golf courses tend to have player's associations which are licensed by the USGA.
You can easily find a licensed body that suits your budget. The USGA has helpful links for new golfers to find nearby suitable organizations/clubs:
Once you join a club/association and pay the relevant dues, you are eligible to become part of the Handicap Index System.
Play the minimum five requisite number of rounds and fill up the scores and put them up for peer review at the club's handicapping committee.
Once they have been approved, you will start getting your first Handicap Index. Though you can start with just 5 round scores, eventually, your handicap index will be updated with scores from last 20 rounds.
Having at least 20 rounds ensures more reliability and accuracy, and prevents better players from hiding their true handicap by playing a few poor rounds (a process called "sandbagging," for advantage in competitions and such).
This is valid only for golfers in the US. If you live outside the US, check with your local course/national golf authority to find out how to register for a handicap.
There is no strict categorization of golfing handicaps into different skill levels. But you can broadly classify amateur and casual players into three separate categories based on how high or low their handicaps are.
While handicaps give an estimation of your skill levels, your scores on the golf course, and how often you manage to break into a particular scoring bracket give a better estimate of how decent a player you are.
Almost all beginners and recreational golfers fit into this demographic as a rule.
As we have already noted, the maximum permissible handicap is around 34 for men and 40 for women. A handicap in the thirties, progressing all the way down to the early twenties could be safely considered to be a high handicap.
Often 18 is considered the line between a mid handicapper and a high handicapper. This is because having 18 handicap means that on an average, you can be expected to hit a "bogey" (1 shot above par) on every hole in an 18 hole course.
This is why an 18-handicapper is called a bogey golfer. High handicapper scores in a round of golf tend to be in the high 90's or 100s. If you don't break the 100 or 95 mark often and get a lot of bogeys (and double and triple bogeys as well), you can be safely considered a high handicapper.
Double digit handicaps from 10 to 20 is generally considered to be a mid handicap range. Since there no strict leveling, even golfers with handicaps as high as 22 or 24 can be regarded as average players.
High and mid-handicappers tend to have less consistency in their scores across rounds. So long as you break the 100 mark on a regular basis, you can consider yourself an average player.
Mid-handicap players will generally get scores between 80 and 95. Better players in the intermediate category with their handicaps closer to 10 should be getting scores in the 70s as well.
While there is considerable overlap between the higher handicaps, there is more consistency once you reach the lower levels.
These players tend to score par more often, with scores that stay in the 60s and 70s. Once you reach that stage, the main aim is to retain consistency in shooting birdies and pars and bring your handicap as close to zero as possible.
Once you manage to get your handicap to zero, you are considered to be a scratch golfer. They are considered the best amateur golfers in the sport.
This is the stage where handicaps no longer apply to you. Once you reach this stage, you should have no trouble hitting par on courses of all difficulty levels.
There is still a considerable way to go before you can consider yourself Pro material though! It is estimated that your game will have to improve by at least 4-5 strokes, not to mention an increase in yardage on long distance shots, to even survive on the PGA Tour!
If you play golf regularly, the aim is always to reduce your handicap. In fact, the game is not really about winning against others.
The odds are so stacked against the player; the focus is more on improving your game to fight those odds and get the lowest possible scores in the long run. Getting to beat others is just an added plus you get to pick along this route.
Many things can be done to lower your handicap. Some of the important pointers are:
Get the right equipment
These days we have clubs that cater to specific skill levels, with max game improvement clubs for high handicappers, game improvement clubs for average golfers and better player clubs for the low handicappers. We'll look at tools such as the lady petite golf club further below and on other areas of this website.
Choose a club that fits your skill level, and more importantly, get it custom fitted at the manufacturers or a club fitter. Do note that this advice does not imply that you have to buy the most expensive clubs out there!
Improve your swing and stance
If you don't get the fundamentals straight, no amount of practice or fitness or expensive equipment will make any difference.
The best advice for a beginner golfer is to spend less on clubs and more on proper golfing lessons. The earlier you get your swing and stance in order, the better your chances of improving your handicap.
Many golfers have a fetish for the long game, hitting booming drives from the tee.
Improving your distance game as a high handicapper will help improve scores in the short to medium term.
But rather than using brute force alone, spend time on the driving range to learn to place your shots better on the fairway. If necessary, use a long hybrid or 3-wood instead of a driver.
This will help you avoid the bunkers and the rough better.
Learn to wield the short irons
The long game may help you during the high handicapper days, but the short game is what you need to make the transition to becoming a low, single digit handicapper.
The short game within 140 yards accounts for almost 60% of your entire shots on a round of golf. These clubs will put you into scoring positions on the green for easy par and birdie shots, as well as the odd eagle, as well if you choose your shots well.
Improve your putting game
This is just a logical extension of the point above. Once you get it on the green, you should have the skill to dispatch the ball to the hole with just one or two putts.
The putt is the most important shot in the game, period. The better you are at it, the better your overall score and handicap will become.
Replace your long irons. They are harder to hit and even harder to get good accuracy when you most want in on the fairway. Hybrids are better in every conceivable way unless you are a scratch golfer or tour Pro with a god-like swing.
Hybrids are extremely versatile and can be used in any lie on the fairway, in the rough and even from the tee.
The FocusBand is used by top Pros like Jason Day to measure brain activity before swings and figure out when the brain is in the zone and when it is tense. The band can be used to train the brain to stay "in the zone."
A few atrocious rounds make no difference to your handicap. Handicap is calculated based on your lowest scores out of a range (1 out of 5, 3 out of 10, 10 out of 20). So a few off games will not make any difference, even if the score is awful.
You cannot get your Handicap Index directly from the USGA. The USGA does not provide handicap calculation services to individual golfers. You have to take membership in a USGA licensed club or association to get these services.
Your Handicap is not your average score from last few rounds. This is probably the most common misconception regarding handicaps in golf. As we have already seen, the USGA takes into account several factors like the rating of your golf course, and it's slope angle to calculate your Handicap.
A lot of recreational and casual golfers don't bother about their handicaps. If you are new to the sport and play it very often, you might be better off getting one as it can really help your game take off.
On the other hand, if you only take out your clubs once every year to play an obligatory round or two, you probably have little to benefit from it.
A handicap helps you learn more faster. It opens up options for competitive and friendly matches, with golfers of all skill levels.
It is the only reliable yardstick with which to measure your progress in the game.
And with the provision for golf associations, you don't need membership in exclusive clubs to gain access to a USGA Handicap Index.