Explain a Golf Handicap

By David W. Berner
Knowing your golf handicap can improve your game by helping establish specific goals.
Knowing your golf handicap can improve your game by helping establish specific goals.

The golf handicap system developed by the United States Golf Association allows golfers of varying abilities to fairly compete against each other and the golf course. Each golf course has a different level of difficulty, and each golfer has a different playing ability. The system calculates the two to designate a handicap for the player that permits them to compete with players who might be less or more skilled. Although the idea is simple, the rules and formulas used to determine a handicap can be complicated.

History

The term handicapping comes from the sport of horse racing. Since betting on horses was common, each jockey was given his odds for the race. He was given those odds on a piece of paper in a cap. This was called "hand in cap."

At some of the earliest golf clubs in Scotland, betting on golf also was common. And betting on matches led to creating odds that were carefully kept in the club's records.

By the mid-19th century, many professional golfers made most of their income through wagering on their golf skills.The concept of handicapping allowed the best golfers to set-up matches with golfers with lesser ability.

Establishing a Handicap

If you are a member of a golf club, public or private, and that club uses the United States Golf Association's handicapping system, then establishing a personal handicap is simple. After each round of golf, post your score to the club's handicapping services.

The USGA provides computer software that allows players to manually enter their scores and calculates the player's official handicap. Sometimes, a handicap committee collects those scores, and a member of the committee calculates the handicap.

Calculating a Score

Your handicap (sometimes called your handicap index) is essentially a number that when subtracted from your score on a particular course gives you a competitive score that can be applied to a match.

Generally, if your handicap index is 10 and your 18-hole score is 85, your competitive score is 75. But this can also be calculated hole-by-hole, as each hole has a specific level of difficulty.

This score can be compared to any other golfer's competitive score, including scratch golfers, golfers who have a handicap of zero. To determine your index, you must first establish handicap differentials. These are your scores applied to the course's difficulty. Your handicap index will be based on your best handicap differentials.

Golf Course Handicap

A golf course's difficulty is determined by a number of factors, including its length, the course's terrain, the architectural design and the number of hazards. Every course has two values that indicate difficulty--slope and rating. Slope is the number indicating the difficulty related to a bogey golfer. The course rating is the number that indicates the level of difficulty for a golfer who regularly shoots par. These values are calculated along with a golfer's score on a course to determine the handicap score for that particular layout.

Handicap Abuses

Although the handicapping system is designed to keep the game on a fair-and-balanced level for all golfers, there are those who manipulate the system to improve their chances of winning a handicapped match.

Some golfer's regularly inflate their scores to establish a higher handicap index then when they apply that index to a tournament, it gives them a better competitive score. This practice is called "sandbagging." A golf club's handicap committee is the watchdog for this kind of scoring abuse.

About the Author

David W. Berner is an award-winning journalist, writer and broadcaster. HIs memoir, "Accidental Lessons," was released in February 2009. His audio documentary, "Pebble Beach Stories," celebrates the ties between golfers and famed California golf links. Berner has covered stories as diverse as the 2008 presidential election to coyote sightings in Chicago's Lincoln Park.

Photo Credits

  • Thinkstock Images/Comstock/Getty Images
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