Golf handicapGolf like many sports is jargon-laden and hard to understand for newbies. One of the things you’ll hear about in golf is the handicap. Many golfers mention “playing off 10”, “playing off scratch” or being a “14 handicap”. We aim to clarify this language for you. In golf, a handicap is essentially the numerical measure of each player’s ability. The handicap can then be used to allow players of different ability or potential ability to compete with each other on a level playing field. The better the player, the lower their handicap.

Though handicapping systems for many decades differed from country to country and area to area, in 2020 a World Handicapping System began to be introduced. Amateur golf club members who are fully paid-up are usually eligible for handicaps. Those handicaps are managed by each golf club, though for the lower handicaps some peer reviewing is often needed. Some golfers are ineligible for handicaps but there are some other systems provided gratis to help.

Handicaps are not needed in professional golf, as all players compete at the same level. When a golfer becomes so good that they reach a zero handicap, then are considered a ‘scratch golfer’. This means they are not given any shots on their round. What they shoot is what they shoot.

How a Golf Handicap Works

Woman golfer

A handicap in golf is actually intended to reflect either a player’s average best or their potential. It is not meant to define a player’s overall average score, contrary to popular belief. Those with high handicaps may play wildly different rounds from one day to the next, while those with a low handicap are more likely to play up to their ability often as they are better and more consistent.

When playing golf, your handicap is how many shots you’ll be given for not being a scratch golfer. For example, if you have an 8 handicap and you go round in a total of 82 shots, you can take 8 off that for a score of 74. Each scorecard at each course has a handicap line. Each of the 18 holes is rated from hardest to easiest, based basically on distance.

The number of strokes you are given is compared to this. If you have a 5 handicap, then you find the five highest rated holes on the course and you can take one shot at each of these. So, if the highest-rated hole is a par 5 and you make it in six, you take a shot off and can actually record a par. If you have a 10 handicap, then you find the 10 hardest holes on the course and take one stroke at each of these.

If your handicap is more than 18, you take one shot at every hole on the course and then an extra one for each of the hardest holes until the handicap is met. For example, if you have a 22 handicap, then you take 2 shots at the four hardest holes and one at every other hole until you have received 22 shots.

History of Handicapping

World Handicap System
The World Handicap System was started in 2020

The manner in which golf is played allows for its participants to be handicapped. It is the best way to keep everything fair and competitive. In football, you are either competitive or you are out of your depth. There is no such system. Developing the handicap system is one of the most important things to have ever happed in this sport and it goes right back to the 1600s. A diary from the 17th century which was kept by Thomas Kincaid, an Edinburgh student, recorded a version of golf handicapping.

Late 1800s: A Method of Handicapping Was Introduced

It was discovered that competing golfers would negotiate the number of shots each would receive and on which holes. This was done before the beginning of each round. Throughout the late-1800s a method of handicapping was introduced in England and Scotland. This was derived by players taking their average of their three best score during the year and par.

As the sport became more popular, many players were dissatisfied with how fair handicapping was perceived to be. Those with lesser skills in particular weren’t happy as they knew that they were far less likely to be able to play up to their best-three average. This handed them a disadvantage in most cases against more proficient players.

1926: First Handicapping Scheme in Great Britain & Ireland

To begin placating players, British and Irish authorities began standardising their basic handicap systems. In one case, union-assigned course ratings were introduced instead of clubs using their own ratings. This meant players had standard handicap systems in place. In 1924, things ramped up with the advent of the British Golf Unions Join Advisory Committee. This allowed the creation of an equitable system, a handicap structure which could include a uniformed course rating across all of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1926, the Standard Scratch Score and Handicapped Scheme was then introduced.

1911: First National Handicapping System in the US

The USGA was America’s single golf authority. That made one single handicap structure easy to implement in the country and in 1911, they indeed created their first national handicapping system. This was initially based on the three-score average scheme used in Britain. As things developed, a par rating system was developed which allowed for the assessment of average good scores for a scratch golfer on each course. It was at this time that it was made clear that a handicap for a golfer was intended to be a reflection of their potential, rather than their average play.

1900s: Handicapping Grew in Popularity Globally

The sport continued to grow hugely through the 1900s with associations around the globe adapting handicap systems or developing their own. By the turn of the millennium there were six major handicap systems recognised by the golfing world. They were the USGA Handicap System, the CONGU Unified Handicap System, the EGA Handicap System, the South African Handicap System, the Golf Australia Handicap System and the Argentinian Handicap System.

2020: The World Handicap System

To eliminate any problems caused by the difference in systems around the world, the USGA and the Royal & Ancient worked alongside the existing worldwide handicap authorities to come up with a more unified system. The result was the World Handicap System which was introduced in 2020.

Handicap Bandits

As we mentioned above, a golf handicap was intended to show numerically a golfer’s potential, not their average score. This is done because it would be too easy for a player to out-do their ‘average’ score and win a match. The handicap system is not perfect however and remains open to manipulation.

The definition of a golfing bandit is a player who players deliberately badly, or at least does not care how they play, thus getting a high handicap mark. Then, when there is a competition, a prize or some money up for grabs, they concentrate and play better, using that high handicap mark to have more strokes taken off their score and win.