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Quick Answer: a golf handicap is a number that represents a golfer’s skill level in relation to par. The higher the handicap, the higher the golfer’s score will tend to be for a round of golf. A handicap can either be unofficial or official.
Many people have a rough idea of what a handicap is in golf, recognizing that it’s a general gauge of skill level with higher handicaps being associated with less-skilled golfers.
Beyond this, however, there’s a bit of confusion, misconception and misinformation floating around about how it’s calculated and how it really works.
This article aims to clarify and help you get a firm grasp on what a handicap actually is.
What is a handicap?
It’s important to make the distinction between two distinct but closely related concepts: handicap and handicap index. Let’s define each.
A handicap is a generic, unofficial number and is what most golfers refer to when they tell other people their handicap.
It essentially represents how many strokes over par the golfer tends to shoot on average. So, if a particular golfer tends to shoot 88 on a par-72 course and 86 on a par-70 course, their handicap would be approximately 16.
Similarly, if another golfer tends to shoot around 76 on a par-72 course, they could give their handicap number as 4.
A handicap index is a specific number that is tied to an official handicapping system.
This number can be considered a golfer’s “true” handicap that is not specific to any course or set of tees being played.
It is used as a base value to calculate a golfer’s course handicap, and while it comes close to measuring the average score of a golfer in relation to par, it does not reflect it precisely.
In the past, there were many different systems and methods used around the world for calculating handicap indexes including the USGA Handicap System.
However, starting in 2020, a new system overseen jointly by the USGA and R&A was introduced called the World Handicap System (WHS). Today, the WHS is used by the vast majority of countries and can be considered the global handicapping system.
The WHS process for calculating a player’s course handicap is fairly lengthy and complicated, and it will be outlined below for those interested.
The average handicap indexes for male and female golfers are 14.2 and 27.5, respectively.
A Handicap Example
Probably the easiest way to understand handicap is through an example.
Suppose that, on a particular par-72 course from a particular set of tees, Mark (less skilled) has a course handicap of 19 and Jeff has a course handicap of 5.
At the end of the round, both Mark and Jeff’s handicaps are deducted from their actual number of strokes played (their gross scores) to get their handicap-adjusted (or net) scores and bring them on a level playing field. Thus, If Mark shoots 90 and Jeff shoots 79, Mark’s net score becomes 90-19=71 and Jeff’s net score becomes 79-5=74.
These net scores are then compared directly to determine the winner; in this case, Mark has a lower net score and wins the round.
Uses Of A Handicap
Handicaps in golf serve many useful (sometimes essential) purposes. A handicap index, in particular, is something that every golfer should strive to obtain if they have the means. Here are the main reasons why:
1. They indicate your skill level.
Handicaps indicate your skill level relative to scratch golfers. Scratch golfers are golfers who have course handicaps of approximately zero.
In addition, a handicap that is constantly updated to reflect your current ability allows you to understand if your skills are getting better or worse. This can, in turn, help you understand when it might be time to take the next step in your golfing career.
2. They allow for fair wagering.
Handicaps are an easy and reliable way for golfers of different skill levels to bet against each other.
Normally, a less-skilled golfer wouldn’t wager against a skilled golfer, but handicaps level the playing field. They ensure that the raw scores of each golfer are adjusted and normalized, taking the general skill level out of the equation.
This means that whichever golfer plays the best relative to their handicap is going to win. Given that the vast majority of golfers gamble when they play, this is especially important.
3. They allow you to play in local competitions and charity events.
You’ll generally need an official handicap in order to be eligible for local golf competitions, amateur tournaments, and charity events.
These events typically require you to provide your current handicap when registering. This allows the tournament organizers to put you in the correct group and make sure the competition is fair for everyone.
Use In Professional Golf
Handicaps are not used in professional golf, but if a professional were assigned a handicap it would likely be negative (indicating great skill) and be added to their gross score.
Amateur golfers can typically obtain “official” handicaps, for a fee, from golf clubs that they are a member of. You should consult your local organization about the exact process that needs to be followed.
The WHS Handicap Calculation
The methods the WHS uses to calculate handicap are fairly complicated. The formulas and explanations below are not rigorous but will give you a general idea of how it works.
First, a value called the handicap differential is calculated for each of a golfer’s past 20 rounds of golf in the following way:
In this equation:
- AGS stands for Adjusted Gross Score, and it involves something called a net double bogey adjustment
- CR stands for course rating and is a number, usually between 67 and 77, that represents the average “good score” of a scratch golfer on the course.
- PCC stands for playing conditions calculation and takes into account whether or not a course was playing easier or more difficult than normal due to weather or setup
- slope rating is a number between 55 and 155 that is used to measure the difficulty of the course for a bogey golfer (a golfer with a handicap index of approximately 18).
A handicap index is then calculated as the average of the best 8 handicap differentials (of the golfer’s past 20 rounds) with an added adjustment.
There are other rules and procedures for calculating a handicap index with less than 20 rounds logged, but that won’t be discussed here. The WHS handicap index is updated daily as a golfer submits new scores.
The course handicap with respect to a particular golf course is then calculated for the golfer as:
In this equation:
- HI stands for handicap index (calculated previously)
- SR stands for slope rating
- CR stands for course rating
- par is the par of the golf course
The course handicap is the value to be deducted from a golfer’s gross score to determine their net score at the end of the round.
Here’s the key thing to remember: a golf handicap is a number that represents a golfer’s skill level in relation to par. The higher the handicap, the higher the golfer’s score will tend to be for a round of golf.
While golfers can work out an unofficial “handicap” based on their experience and scoring history, an official handicap (known as a handicap index) must be obtained by joining a golf club licensed to issue handicaps according to the rules and procedures of a recognized handicap system like the WHS.
Now that you know what a handicap is, if you’re serious about the game of golf, your goal should be to reduce that number as much as you can.
Was this explanation of golf handicaps helpful to you? Do you have any questions? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments down below.