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9 minute read

Ever wondered what a handicap is when it comes to the game of golf? If the answer is yes, then you can find comfort in the fact that you are not alone. You’re actually probably in the majority! You would be surprised at how many people within the game don’t quite comprehend at least one of the aspects of a golf handicap. And for a term that may not be fully understood, it is used very often. Turns out it’s quite important too!

There are many videos, articles and definitions flying around the internet trying to explain the term in different ways. However, we noticed that the majority of these explanations can get a little technical or are focused on an audience from a different area of the world i.e. USA. Seeing the opportunity, we’ve decided to give you some quick and simple answers to the questions you may have.

  1. What is a golf handicap?
  2. Why do we have one?
  3. How is it calculated?

We will also do our best to explain some of the ‘associated terms‘ that relate to this concept, and how you can improve your handicap in the future!

What is a Golf Handicap?

Le Golf National Albatros requires a max. handicap of 24.5
Le Golf National Albatros requires a max. handicap of 24.5

A handicap is a number that is subtracted from your score at the end of your round. It was introduced to level the playing field between golfers of differing abilities by “handicapping” the better player.

The definition of the actual word handicap is as follows:

“A circumstance that makes progress or success difficult.”

Oxford English Dictionary

In golf it is essentially the same. It serves as an allowance of shots per round, based on a player’s ability – the lower the handicap, the better the player. Let’s use an example:

Let’s say your playing a round of golf with a friend. She has a handicap of 10 while you have a handicap of 20. She would be deemed the better player in this case. You both play the round together and you finish on a ‘gross score‘ of 90, while she shoots a score of 80 (the better score). The handicap is then taken into account. You subtract your handicap (20) from your score (90) to finish with a ‘net score‘ of 70. She, then does the same thing with her score and gets a score of … you guessed it, 70! After finishing even, you can then head to the club house and share the drinks!

More Than Just A Number

Although this is quite a simple breakdown, the basic concept remains true. This is why the handicap system is such a great advantage of playing golf. It means that players of all abilities can play and compete together without having to argue over the “what ifs”.

A lot of casual golfers might never establish a handicap, however it can be required for certain golf courses (depending on the club). They are also mandatory for most amateur tournaments. Since January 2020, 54 is the maximum handicap number that you can have.

A golfer with a handicap of roughly 18 – 24 is said to be a ‘bogey golfer‘ (averaging a bogey (par + 1) per hole) while a ‘scratch golfer‘ is a golfer that plays off a handicap of 0.

A players handicap number is intended to reflect their average best score not the overall average.

To quickly sum up: if a golfer plays 100 strokes on an 18 hole course, and the par is approximately 72, your average score works out to be 28. In this example, your handicap value would be 28. Every time you play a new round, your handicap values can be recalibrated.

How Is It Calculated?

Man calculating a problem

Now, this is the part where things get a little tricky. Working out your handicap requires a few basic steps. Before this, we will need to explain a couple of important terms.

  • ‘Handicap’ – number that is subtracted from your score at the end of your round (discussed above).
  • Handicap Index‘ – A more accurate number, used to represent your ability according to an official system. It’s purpose is to measure your personal handicap against a worldwide standard, and play at any course you wish.
  • Course Rating‘ – System that measures the difficulty of a course for a scratch golfer (0) – used when calculating handicap index.
  • Slope Rating‘ – System that measures the difficulty of a course for a bogey golfer – used when calculating handicap index.

A golfer attempting to acquire an accurate ‘handicap index‘ will have to play at least a few rounds of 18 holes to judge their level. You should keep track and submit the score to your home club or a virtual club (online tracking service). The ‘course‘ and ‘slope rating‘ will then be taken into account by these services, and your number will be calculated. This number is your ‘handicap index‘. It will become more accurate the more often you play/submit. Knowing your handicap index will allow you to determine what your course handicap should be for the specific golf course on which you’re playing.

Up until recently, the point of reference for calculating handicap index has differed per country or region. This has always made playing golf abroad a little complicated, as not every course in the world adhered to the same common standards.

World Handicap System

World Handicap System

The new World Handicap System (2020) aims to combat this by creating a worldwide measure. This system will give you a portable handicap index that you can take with you wherever you play. This handicap index will be combined with the course/slope ratings and your ‘format of play‘ (match/stroke play) to give you an accurate playing handicap (number to subtract from your score) for whatever course you play.

Your handicap index will be calculated by averaging your best 8 differentials from the last 20 rounds. This is designed to reflect the score that a golfer is capable of achieving on his/her best day. All of these scores can be submitted through a club or more likely through an official app associated with the World Handicap System.

Why Do We Have One?

La Manga has 3 different courses - Par 71, 72 & 73
La Manga has 3 different courses – Par 71, 72 & 73

Okay now you can breathe. Calculating a golfers handicap has always been the problematic part. The ‘why’ aspect is easy! Golf handicaps were gradually brought into effect around the late 19th/early 20th century (depending on the country). This was to allow players to play on a level playing field while adhering to a national standard. As mentioned above however, the problem was that the national standards were set up differently. As golfing abroad has since become way more common, it is now necessary for a global standard.

Check out our blog on booking tee times all over Europe!

Now some may ask why we can’t just play a course, shoot 14 over par and use that number as our handicap? Then just average it out the more we play! Well, the answer here is that not all courses are the same, and the difficulty varies. For example, someone with a handicap of 14 who plays an easy, domestic course, could not reasonably expect to shoot 14 strokes over par at a golf course such as Augusta National. This is why the course rating, slope rating and format of play are all taken into account.

Other reasons we use golf handicaps are to track our progress, play in tournaments and of course for our general pride!

How Can I Improve My Handicap?

Putting at Durban CC

The obvious answer here is simple….practice!! Aside from that however, there are some practical things that can help you improve on your handicap. First of all get one! Start tracking your scores religiously and submitting after you play. This can help you measure your ability, select suitable courses and set attainable goals for each and every round you play.

Playing a variety of courses will help to improve your overall ability and allow you to play a wider range of locations when you go abroad. Tools such as rangefinders can help you find a consistent shot length that you can then compare to course distances. Finally, you should be meticulous with your tracking. An accurate awareness of your handicap will give you all of the information you need to play the appropriate golf courses and most of all, enjoy them!

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