At its simplest, a golf handicap is a measure of your ability as a golfer. Almost uniquely in sport, the handicapping system lets players of all levels and abilities compete against each other on equal terms. It is also a means by which lower handicap (ie better) golfers cant moan about the unfairness of the system, but more of that later.
Imagine going onto a tennis court to play Novak Djokovic, trying to dribble your way past Virgil Van Dijk at Anfield or bowl to Jos Buttler when he’s got his eye in. In all three instances you would be in for a humiliating lesson. But you could play a round of golf against Rory McIlroy and stand at least a chance of beating him, as long as you play to, or better than, your handicap (while assuming that he performs at his usual stellar level).
How does a Handicap Work?
Your golf handicap is an allowance of strokes and is represented by a number, such as 19.0, which you add to the par of the course you are playing, to determine what your score should be, all other things being equal. So a 19-handicap golfer playing a par 72 course, is expected to shoot 91 (19+72). A four-handicap player on the same course should go round in 76; it’s as simple as that – well, almost. Your handicap may not be a whole number and could include a decimal point, such as 19.3, and whatever the number is, you consult the handicap board at the course you are about to play to see what your playing handicap will be for that layout. This is necessary because, although two neighbouring courses may both be par 72, their respective course or slope ratings – which calculate how difficult the course is to play – may differ. One layout may have narrow fairways, plenty of penal bunkers or small, undulating greens in comparison to its neighbour, and therefore have a tougher course rating, so your 19 handicapper may be allocated a 23 handicap, for example, on that more difficult course.
How to Calculate your Handicap
Historically, different countries used different ways to calculate handicaps and it was all a bit of a mess; but then the governing bodies of the game, the United States Golf Association and Royal & Ancient, sat down with various handicapping organisations around the globe and in 2020 came up with the World Handicapping System. It has not met with universal acclaim because a) golfers are small ‘c’ conservative and don’t like change; b) it takes a bit of getting used to – like all new systems and c) lower handicap golfers think they’re being screwed.
Your golf handicap is not static but is a rolling reflection of recent play, usually based on the best eight scores of the last 20 rounds played. A scratch golfer is someone expected to shoot level par, while a plus handicap means they should score even better – so a plus two golfer, on our par 72 course, would expect to go round in 70 strokes. Try not to hold that against him or her.
What is Match play?
In match play, you are pitted against an opponent, rather than the course itself and this is where the stroke index comes in. This is a system in which each hole on the course is given a rating according to its difficulty – the stroke index 1 hole is regarded as the most difficult, and the stroke index 18, is the easiest. If our 19-handicap golfer was playing the four-handicap golfer, he would be given, or receive, 15 strokes (the difference between their handicaps*). So, on the holes with a stroke index between 1 and 15, his par figure would be whatever the par of that hole is, plus one. They tee off on the first hole, which is a par four, stroke index 10. The four-handicapper scores four, and the 19-handicapper makes five, so they have halved the hole, neither has won or lost it. In this way, the difference in their abilities is evened out, allowing them to compete on equal terms, or as near equal terms as human ingenuity and mathematics can calculate.
*Actually they get 95% of the difference but the reasons for this are too complicated and life is too short; just accept that it’s 95%.
How does Stableford Points work?
These are a means by which the entire field of competition can compete against each other under stroke play conditions. Par on a hole is worth two points, bogey one point, birdie three points and eagle, four. Again, your handicap comes into play along with the stroke index of each hole. Our 19-handicap golfer, still on the first hole, which has a stroke index of 10, makes five. Because he gets a stroke on the hole, this becomes a net four, so he gets two points. Typically, he will say to whoever is marking his score: ‘Five for two.’ If you play to your handicap you should get 36 points in total (two for each hole, times 18 holes). If someone scores 40 points or more, you are legally entitled to question their parentage.
What’s the average handicap?
In April 2022 the English Golf Union published data suggesting that the average golf handicap for men is 17.1 and 27.2 for women. As a general rule of thumb, below 10 – that is, single-figure handicappers – are considered to be good players but the handicap can go as high as 54, which brings us to the complaints of low-handicap golfers when faced by an opponent with a high-handicap. The better golfers remain convinced that they are at a disadvantage, especially when their opponent makes a par. But the reason he or she is carrying that high handicap is that they cannot sustain that level of play. You see very few high-handicap golfers walk away with their club championship trophies. Also, the incidence of 54-handicap golfers is calculated at 0.04% for men, and 2.32% for women, so we’re talking about a pretty small percentage carrying that kind of handicap.
The problem, or perceived problem for low handicappers is that our 19-handicap friend may well play three or four consecutive holes in par or better, which makes them a formidable opponent. But they can equally blow up with a run of bad holes, which is why they have a high handicap – but when you’re under the cosh in a match and faced with an opponent who plays significantly better than their handicap might suggests, it can be difficult to accept in a phlegmatic way. Console yourself with the thought that they’re just having a good day.
Worst case scenario, however, is that your high handicap opponent is a bandit – a golfer with much greater ability than their handicap might suggest. These vermin keep their handicap high by any number of ploys. They might, for example, if playing well, deliberately hit several bad shots on the homeward stretch of a round in order to see their score climb. Or they could withdraw from the round when playing well, citing a non-existent injury. When they enter serious competition, especially ones that offer desirable prizes, they play to their full ability. Also known as pot, or trophy-hunters, they are cheats, pure and simple and wherever possible should be avoided. Failing that, shoot them**.
**This is a tasteless and dishonourable joke – just make sure you don’t get caught.
How do you get a handicap?
Easy, join a golf club and enter a few competitions. Sadly, many golfers are not members of a club and until a few years ago golf’s governing bodies labelled them with the rather insulting term of ‘non-status golfers.’ There are numerous online organisations and companies offering handicaps, at a cost, and generally, these are accepted by golf clubs and courses as an indication of your ability but they are not official. What the clubs where you want to play are most concerned about is that you have an understanding of the etiquette of the game and will remember the basics, such as replacing divots, repairing pitch marks and raking bunkers and hopefully an online handicap from a company will be accepted as evidence of your ability.
In England you can sign up to England Golf’s iGolf subscription, after which you download an app, submit scores from a minimum 54 holes and away you go. In Scotland you do it via the Open Play app from the Scottish Golf Union, which costs £5.99 per month. In England you pay £40 for a year-long subscription. In Wales the system is Flexi Club (£5.50 a month) and in Ireland there is not yet a similar scheme. These systems are organised by the game’s governing bodies in their respective countries and carry greater authenticity.
The World Handicapping System has taken a little while to bed in but is now largely accepted because it is more flexible and responds quicker to your scoring, and is applicable around the world.
About the Author
Martin Vousden - Golf Writer
Martin Vousden joined Today’s Golfer in 1988 as a staff writer and quickly rose to become editor; under his stewardship it became Britain’s best-selling golf title. He then became launch editor of Golf Buyer and Swing magazines, before moving to Scotland to take over at ScottishGolf. After five years he became (and remains) a freelance journalist, having written for numerous titles, including Golf Monthly, Golf Punk and The Clubhouse, which is based in Malaysia. He lives in Angus, about 12 miles from the Carnoustie course that beats him up every time he plays it, so he joined Kirriemuir GC. His handicap of 19.3 rises inexorably with every passing year.
Martin’s golf bag contains:
Ping G400 driver
King Cobra F/Speed 3-wood
Kane Golf 5-wood
Callaway Big Bertha 7-wood
Wilson D9 irons, 5-gap wedge
Yonex Z-Force sand wedge
John Letters Golden Goose lob wedge
Putter: GEL Ruby or Odyssey 2-ball blade (depending on which is behaving itself)
TaylorMade Distance Balls (yellow, just because he likes the colour)