Category Archives: basics

How does a golf handicap actually work – part two?

Water hazard

“A golf ball can stop in the fairway, rough, woods, bunker or lake. With five equally likely options, very few balls choose the fairway.” – Jim Bishop

By Ian Hardie

In the article How does a golf handicap actually work? I wrote that one of the greatest strengths that the game of golf has is a way of being able to reasonably accurately assess the ability of an individual player using their past history at the game, then use that to produce a way of expressing their current potential at the game in numerical form

Which ultimately becomes known as ‘the golfer’s handicap’

You may recall that the purpose of doing this is so that two or more players of unequal skill, age, experience, coming from almost anywhere in the world – can actually play a game or competition against each other on the same golf course and come out with what most would consider to be a fair result

In that first article I was able to put the idea of unequal skill into perspective by giving you an idea of approximate handicaps of the different levels of golfer around the world

“A brand new golfer might start with a handicap between 36 to 60, a newer player may quickly move to between 21 and 35, the average golfer around the world supposedly sits between 18 to 20, an accomplished golfer (described as a single figure golfer) will have a handicap of between 4 to 9, an elite level golfer (described as a scratch golfer) will have a handicap around 0 and a PGA Tour pro would have a handicap (most don’t actually have them but if they did it’s easy enough to work out) that they would have a handicap of between ‘+2’ to ‘+7’”

When you see the variation between the different levels of golfers it’s easy to understand that the idea of the handicap system has always been to attempt to level the playing field for golfers of differing abilities, so that almost all golfers can compete equally on any given day

Once a golfer gets a handicap – the most common systems worldwide require five x 18 hole or ten x 9 hole rounds to be submitted to begin with – it is always referenced to the par of the golf course being played that day even though it is actually worked out using some pretty complex ideas which I am about to introduce you to

However, before doing so I must provide you with two warnings:

Firstly, even though I have been involved in the game of golf in some form or another for over 30 years – the field of ‘golf handicapping’ with all of its wizardry, convolutions and complicated calculations is way outside of my powers as a simple golf teacher – so you may need to read my disclaimer here

Secondly, if you have a tendency towards Narcolepsy, suffer from extreme boredom or just simply want to play the game of golf being blissfully ignorant as to how that golf handicap of yours is worked out

I’d suggest that you stop reading this right now and go have a look at some of the other articles on Golf Habits in the Archives instead because this is a part of the game that……………….well, you have been warned!

So, here are all the important sounding words that make this thing work:

Handicap Index, Course rating, Scratch golfer, Slope rating, Bogey golfer, Adjusted gross score and Equitable Stroke Control

All of those things go into making up your golf handicap on any given day but you may have also noticed that one word that you would expect to be there – Par – doesn’t feature

This is because the Par of the course plays no role in computing handicaps – go figure!

Let’s take these things one at a time and see if we can make some sense of them

Handicap Index

A golf handicap is actually more correctly known as a ‘handicap index’

As I said earlier in this article – to establish a handicap index – a golfer needs a minimum of five x 18 hole or ten x 9 hole rounds as well as some evidence of the course rating and slope rating of the courses played during those rounds

Eventually, their current handicap index gets calculated using the ten best rounds of the  golfer’s twenty most recent rounds – so in reality any golfer that has less than twenty rounds making up their index – may not have a handicap index that is as accurate as a more established golfers one should be

Once a handicap index is established, it is then used to determine a course handicap

A course handicap tells a golfer how many strokes they are allowed to take on a specific golf course and set of tees – for example a handicap index of 17.8 may provide a course handicap of 18 on the white tee markers or a course handicap of 19 on the blue tee markers – even though it’s the same golf course and the same day

Course rating

Course rating is the number of strokes a certain set of tees are expected to be played in by the upper-half of scratch golfers (I’ll explain what a scratch golfer is in a minute)

This means that if a course has a rating of 73 – that 73 is expected to be the average score of the best half of the rounds played by scratch golfers – or in other words

If you took a course that had a par of 70 but was judged to be quite difficult when it was rated due to things like narrow fairways, water hazards like the one in the image above, multiple sand traps and other challenges – giving it a course rating of 76 – then you put 100 scratch golfers out there for a game

It would be expected that the average scores of the best 50 would be 76 – with the other half of them having a much higher score than that

Similarly, if you took a course that had a par of 72 but when all the course rating methodology was put onto it – was judged to be a lot easier than it seems – due to it having wide fairways, very few hazards and flat greens for example

That course may come out with a rating of 68 which would indicate that if you put those same 100 scratch golfers out on that course for a game – it would be expected that as it was an easier course to play than the first example I gave – that the average score of the best 50 players would be 68

For a more recognisable example of course rating – we can take a look at a golf course that virtually all golfers know of – that doesn’t actually even have an official course rating!

Augusta National golf club where The Masters is played each year has an un-official 78.1 course rating – which means if you were able to get 100 scratch golfers on there for a game (a fairly unlikely possibility)

The average score of the best 50 of them would be 78.1 – a sharp contrast to the actual par of the course which is 72 and gets even worse when you consider that the course record is 63 – held by Nick Price (1986) and Greg Norman (1996) if you weren’t aware

“Why is it an un-official course rating of 78.1?”

Well, it turns out that Augusta National golf club actually has its own handicap system for its members and therefore doesn’t use any of the stuff I’m talking about here – something that I wasn’t aware of before but now that I am – I might take a look at that sometime soon

In the meantime, I need to answer that other question that you have been wondering about for a bit of time now – “what the heck is a scratch golfer?”

A scratch golfer when it comes to golf handicaps is a ‘mythical’ golfer that has been invented by golf handicappers for the purposes of rating golf courses

The scratch golfer has a handicap index of zero and on most days that they ‘play’ the game of golf will have a score that equal to the par of the course

Note though, that this ‘scratch golfer’ that has been invented for handicapping is not quite the same as what most people would understand to be a scratch golfer – which I’m going to talk more about in “How does a golf handicap actually work – part three?”

Until then

Play well


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