What is a Golf Handicap: Complete Guide for Beginners

We’ve all heard of the handicap system in golf. Maybe even most of you have one with your local golf course. But do you know why handicaps are used? Or, how they are calculated? Chances are you don’t.

So, in this post, we’re going to explore different aspects of the golf handicap system. We’re going to learn why and how the handicap system was introduced and how do you calculate them.

We’re going to look at the World Handicap system first which is the current standard for implementing handicaps all over the world. We’ll also look at a few previous versions as well.

Why Was Handicap Introduced?

Think of yourself as an F1 racer. You don’t need to imagine a career out of it. Just you in an F1 car sitting on the starting line of a track. You look to your side and you see Lewis Hamilton smiling at you in a different F1 car.

What do you think is going to happen? Do you have any chance to win? The answer is probably no unless you’re Michael Schumacher.

But what if you have an advantage? What if you’re allowed to start the race 5 minutes ahead of Lewis Hamilton? It would increase your chances of winning significantly. Wouldn’t it?

The 5-minute advantage you got is a handicap. And the concept is the same across all sports, including golf.

A golf handicap is used to equalize the skill differences between players. A very important goal for this system is to include more players in the competitive scenario. If there were no handicaps, you’d see only a handful of players playing professional golf. Because the rest of the demographic wouldn’t even stand a chance to qualify.

Read: How to Improve Your Golf Swing Fast

History of Golf Handicap

It is believed that the first iteration of the handicap system came to life in the late 1800s. It was originally developed to match the players’ skill levels so that less skilled players had a chance to win.

The course rating was very much different back in the day when compared to the current course ratings. In fact, course rating was barely even considered at that time. The players would get their handicaps through a committee and its decisions used to final.

The concept was to average the three best scores of a specific year and subtracting the PAR score from that. It would give the player his/her handicap. As you can already imagine, this was not a fair method for less skilled players at all.

The next big wave of changes in the handicap system came in 1979. Dean Knuth, an innovator in golf, thought about including the difficulty factor of different golf courses into the calculation of the handicap.

Dean’s formula used a set of different tees for bogy golfers who would play on a particular course. The system was not perfected yet, but it was way better and more accurate than any previous handicap format.

How Do you Get a Handicap in Golf?

First of all, if you want to officially get your handicap, you must be a member of a golf club. The authority will take care of the official documentation and everything else for you.

You can also sign up directly at www.usga.com to register with your home golf course. All you’ll need to do is pay a small annual fee for your membership. After your application has been processed, it’s a matter of time before you get your GHIN number. It’s much like online bank credentials. You and anyone on your behalf can post the scores online with the GHIN number.

So, now that we’re quite through with the concept and the history of the golf handicap system, let’s get onto how the handicaps are calculated.

Different Types of Handicap Systems and How They’re Calculated

In this section, we’re going to explore the various types of golf handicap systems. We’ll start with the World Handicap System which is the most recent one. And we’ll work our way down to the previous versions as well.

Before we even jump into the calculations, what do you think is considered as a good handicap?

Well, it depends on what your goal is. If you’re trying to get your score under 100, 20 is a very good handicap. Similarly, depending on what score you’re trying to break, your definition of a good handicap will change.

World Handicap System

This is the most recent iteration of handicaps. It was introduced in January 2020. It has a much higher ceiling than all previous formants to include more players with different skill levels.

According to the R&A, this system has been designed to provide golfers with a unified system for the first time. It’s meant to be more inclusive as well. By inclusive, we mean players of all different skill levels.

The World Handicap System has been developed by the partnership of USGA and R&A.

The first step of the process is to create a handicap index for individual players. The best thing about this system is that the index will remain the same all over the world. The players are allowed to take it anywhere in the world where the final handicap will be changed based on the course ratings.

All of the tees at a course will have different course ratings and slope ratings. These are two factors that indicate the difficulty of the course. This calculation gives a maximum number of strokes you can play for the run. If you don’t have an existing handicap yet, it’s going to triple bogey for you on each hole.

Another variable is the format of the game. Depending on what format you choose to play, you’ll receive a handicap allowance. It might be 95% or 96%. This number will come into play when you’re calculating your final handicap.

Some formats, however, are not suitable for submitting handicap scores. If you’re ever in confusion about the procedure of submitting, feel free to reach out to your club. They will sort any issues for you.

Now, how is the handicap calculated for the World Handicap System?

The formula goes like {(AGS-CR)*113}/SR.

Here, the AGS stands for your adjusted gross score for the day. After you’re done with a  round, you need to calculate the total number of strokes you played and adjust the existing handicap.

CR stands for course rating. It’s going to vary from course to course but will be the same for all holes. You can find the information on the course’s scorecard.

The value 113 is known as the neutral slope rating. The actual slope rating of a tee can vary from 55 to 155. 113 is considered to be the neutral zone and a validator for the equation.

And finally, SR means the slope rating. You’ll also find this information on the scorecard.

After this calculation is done, you’ll get your handicap differential. Now, you need to multiply this number with the handicap allowance. If it’s 95%, you need to multiply .95 and so on.

Let’s look at an example of how this will work out in a real-life scenario.

Let’s take Chambers Bay at Washington. It has a course rating of 78.1 at the time of writing and a slope rating of 146.

If you hit 85 shots on a round, here’s how your handicap will be calculated.

{(85-78.1)*113}/146 = 5.3. There will be more decimal places after this but the regulations say that you can only up to one decimal place.

Now, you need to multiply your differential of 5.3 with .96, which is the handicap allowance at Chambers Bay. You get 5.0.

This value is for one round only. The ideal scenario is where you submit 20 of your latest scores and take the average of your best 8 scores. Handling 20 scores at once gives you a more accurate insight into your skill levels.

If you’re just starting out, submitting as little as 5 scores would work.

So, what do all of these numbers mean for you? On the simplest level, if you look at your differential of 5.3, it means you’re most likely to hit 5 shots over PAR. It’s a very good handicap if you ask us!

Another great thing is that you don’t have to do any of the calculations by yourself! The USGA website will do it for you. It’s one of the main reasons why players from around the world don’t know very much about the handicapping system. Because you don’t need to know any of it except for your adjusted gross score.

However, if you’re on the curious side of the spectrum and have a soft corner to understanding everything you come across, learning about the handicap math must’ve been amazing for you.

The USGA Handicap System

This was probably the most popular handicap system before the World Handicap System was introduced. It was mostly done by Leighton Calkins. The USGA handicap system was primarily based on the three scores average system widely used by the British.

It’s the one we’ve talked about in the history section. The course would take the best three scores by the player from the previous year and average it out. And then it was compared to the PAR score of the courses. It was known as the PAR rating which was later renamed to the course rating.

In the beginning, the courses under different golf clubs were allowed to set their own course rating/PAR rating. But it was creating huge confusion between players and the authorities. So, the USGA decided to assign course ratings centrally.

Up until 1967, course ratings were whole integers, mostly rounded up from the nearest fraction value. After 1967, the course ratings were given up to one decimal place.

EGA Handicap System

European Golf Association (EGA) came up with the handicapping system in 2000. This handicap works based on the Stableford scoring system. The EGA system shares characteristics with both the USGA system and the CONGU system. We’ll proceed to the CONGU system very shortly.

In this system, the maximum initial handicap given for a 9 or 18 hole is 54.

So, the equation goes like this, Initial Handicap = 54 – (Stableford points – 36).

And the Playing Handicap = {(handicap index – slope rating)/113} + (Course Rating – PAR).

CONGU Unified Handicap System

A meeting was arranged by the R&A (The Royal And Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews) back in 1924, the then British Golf Unions Joints Advisory Committee was formed. The Standard Scratch Score and Handicapping Scheme were developed during that time as well.

Way later in 2004, the Unified Handicapping System (UHS) came to life. It’s used to calculate and maintain handicaps for both men and women based in the United Kingdom and Ireland. It’s centrally published by the Council of National Golf Unions (CONGU) and administered by individual unions.

The initial handicaps are given based on the scores from 54 holes or 3 standard 18 hole rounds.

The equation goes like this, Initial Handicap = [{(Lowest AGD + (Lowest AGD x 0.13)}/1.237.

Different adjustments are made based on whether the player is male or female.

Wrapping Up

When you think about it, the golf handicapping system is not as intense or complicated as people tend to make them. The biggest benefit is that all of the calculations are either done by software or certified professionals now. So, you don’t have to think about the math too hard.

In this post, we’ve covered the most common and popular handicapping systems. While the World Handicapping System is the current standard, the previous formats played a huge role in developing it.

Apart from the ones we’ve talked about in this post, there are other ones like Golf Australia Handicap System, South African Handicap System, Argentine Handicap System, Peoria System, Callaway System, Scheid System, System 36, and so on.

All of these systems are based on the same principle, to make golf more inclusive and more enjoyable to players will all kinds of skill levels. And to be honest, the handicap system has worked like a charm!

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