What Is a Handicap in Golf?
Once golf goes from a once in a blue moon past time to a dedicated practice, you start to realize how important handicaps are.
In short, a handicap in golf is a numerical indicator of your skill level. The lower your handicap, the more skilled you are. Handicaps help pair players in fair head-to-head matchups, ensuring the game is fair, competitive, and fun for everyone on the green.
The practice has evolved considerably since its invention in 1850s Scotland. Today, it only takes a few rules to understand the handicapping system and how it can help you. Let's dive in.
How Does a Handicap Work?
In 2022, an estimated 3.3 million people played golf on a golf course for the first time. That's a veritable army of inexperienced golfers who are only just figuring out what the handicap index is and how to use it.
Succinctly, a handicap is a number (between 0 and 28 for men and between 0 and 36 for women) that corresponds to your skill. Handicaps are used in tournament placements and even in informal matchups.
If you have a handicap of 7, for example, you were on average 7 over par in your last 3 rounds. You wouldn't want to play an 18-hole course with someone with a handicap over 10 points above yours, so knowing your handicap is essential.
What Is the Handicap Index?
The United States Golf Association is the leading authority on the handicapping system and the best place to go for resources on how to handicap. Their guidelines for handicapping include information on something crucial to understanding how to handicap, called the “Handicap Index.”
The Handicap Index differs from a handicap in that a handicap is a generic rating determined by a player's score in relation to par. Likewise, the Handicap Index is an official rating that's taken to the precision point of one added decimal. Anyone can calculate their handicap offhand by averaging their number of tees, given the courses they play on.
A Handicap Index must be calculated through the official USGA handicap system.
How Do You Earn Your Handicap Index?
To get a Handicap Index you must join a USGA-approved golf club. They must be in good standing with the USGA and have implemented their practices for determining Handicap Indexes.
Also, you have to play at least five 18-hole rounds to have enough data to calculate a score. Submit your scores from these rounds, and someone can calculate your precise Handicap Index based on how well you played.
Calculating Your Golf Course Handicap
You can start calculating your golf course handicap by keeping track of your 9-hole and 18-hole scores. Keep a scorecard handy, and make sure someone besides you is signing it - to prove that your scores are accurate and verified.
You must submit at minimum three 18-hole scores to get your Handicap Index. This can come from a combination of 9-hole and 18-hole rounds, but must add up to a total of three 18-hole scores.
The more you play, the easier it is to calculate your handicap. And the sooner you get your handicap, the more incentivized you'll be to play to improve it. Learning how to calculate this score is the ultimate self-incentivization system. In this way, it's you against yourself.
How To Compete Using Your Handicap?
Calculating your handicap doesn't mean that you'll only ever play other golfers with the same handicap. Instead, the score is a tool that allows you to play against other golfers of all experience levels.
If you have a handicap of 2, it wouldn't be fun to play against a person with a handicap of 22. It wouldn't be challenging enough for you, and it would be too challenging for your competitor. Pitting scores against each other helps golfers determine how many extra strokes one should receive so that the game is fair.
There are two main ways of competing using a handicap.
Match Play Handicaps
In a match play game, the player with the higher handicap receives an extra stroke on a number of holes to even out the competition. So, if Player A has a handicap of 3 and Player B has a handicap of 10, player B would receive an extra stroke on the seven most challenging holes on the course.
Stroke Play Handicaps
On stroke play games, rather than add the extra strokes in per hole as you play, the player with the higher handicap simply subtracts a number of strokes from their total once the course is played out.
Using the above example, player B would subtract 7 strokes from their final score after the course is finished.
How Can You Improve Your Handicap?
There are several things you can do to improve your handicap once you understand how to calculate it:
- Learn to improve your swing.
- Buy higher quality golf clubs and develop a stroke for each one distinct from the rest.
- Simple: play more.
Frequently Asked Questions
What does a 20-handicap shoot?
A 20-handicap golfer shoots, on average, about 20 over par in their games. That means you would shoot roughly 92 times whenever you go out to play. While this isn't a great handicap, there's always room for improvement.
Is a 7-handicap good?
A 7-handicap is a great score in golfing. Anything 10 or below is considered a good score. But anything close to five is considered excellent.
Professional golfers don't have handicaps, so it would be impossible to compare scores and determine how “close to pro” a certain score is.
Skill level shouldn't matter when you're actually playing on the green. A golfer with a 7-handicap has the same chance of losing to someone with a 20-handicap as does the opposite outcome.
Is an 18-handicap in golf good?
18 is considered the threshold for when handicaps can be considered high. Anything under 10 is low, and so considered “good.” 10 to 18 is the mid-tier, where you aren't a novice and aren't yet approaching excellence.
18 is on the lower end, but it's right on the cusp of major improvement, so if you have an 18-handicap, keep pushing.
Is a 24-handicap in golf good?
For male players, a 24-handicap is just about pushing the very extreme of the Handicap Index. 28 is the max score you can get, so 24 is not a great score. But when you're at the bottom of the chart, there's only one direction you can go: up. Don't lose sight of your goals; you can get into the mid-range with time and dedication.
Is a 10-handicap in golf good?
A 10-handicap is a great score for golfers. You've passed through the threshold from the mid-range to the upper range. Each number you climb brings you closer to golf god status.
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