If you stop a random person on the street and ask them to name things about golf, even the person who is most oblivious to golf will probably know about the handicap system. For some reason it is something about our great game that sticks in the mind of non-golfers.
The thing is, whilst many know that golf has a handicap system, few can actually explain what this means for golf or how it works. It is a little bit like the offside rule in football, most know it’s there but may not be able to accurately describe it.
One of the most unique things about golf is that people can play and compete at almost any age. Various features of the sport are designed to level the playing field and make for good competition between players despite potentially vast differences in skill level.
One factor is the choice of tees you can play off of which can make the course easier or harder depending on your liking for self-punishment/challenge. The other key feature is the handicap system, a way of altering a players score based on his/her skill level.
In a nutshell, when you play a round of golf you take your handicap from your gross score (how many shots you actually took) to produce your net score (your gross score minus your handicap). Now let’s look at a specific example of how this can work in practice.
If you take ninety shots to complete a round and have a handicap of twenty then your net score is seventy. If someone with a handicap of five takes seventy-five strokes then they too have a net score of seventy.
In this way, even though both players have scored differently, when compared under scratch conditions, they have performed the same. Most clubs offer gross and net prizes so you can see who has taken the fewest shots and who has best outperformed their handicap, respectively.
Another way this is useful is when players face off in a match play game. If the two aforementioned players meet, then the player with a handicap of twenty gets fifteen shots during the round as this is the difference between the two players’ handicaps.
Each hole on a course is indexed from one to eighteen depending on its difficulty. This Stroke Index says that the hole rated number one is the hardest up to eighteen as the easiest. In the case of the player getting fifteen strokes, from stroke index one to fifteen that player will be “given a stroke”.
On these holes, the player receiving a stroke will have one shot deducted from their score. That means that the lower handicapped player must win the hole by at least two shots in order to truly win the hole under these match conditions.
It is a straightforward system but one that requires a bit of explanation to really understand. It isn’t immediately obvious how the handicap system can be used in differing situations but, once you get your head around it, it is all very reasonable. It’s a clever way of creating more level playing field.
This elegant system is thought to have been around since the 17th century but wasn’t known as handicaps at that point. Over time, handicapping was refined to consider the differing difficulty of courses and to build this into the system.
Until this point, the R&A was in charge of handicapping rules. The other governing body, the USGA, had been tweaking their handicap system separately and one of the key differences was that they wanted a handicap to reflect the potential of a player. This may sound insignificant, but it is an important point to build on.
The R&A system was geared toward the average playing standard of a player. This meant that on a given day when someone played exceptionally, they could exceed their handicap considerably. This USGA system took these days into account more specifically. You can’t say one is right and one is wrong but there is a clear philosophical difference here.
The difficulty of a course is an important factor to consider too. If someone has a handicap of five on a very tough course, then it is reasonable to assume that they should find it easy to play to this handicap on an easier course. Thankfully, both the R&A and the USGA take course difficulty into account.
Another key difference was that by R&A rules, each club set their own difficulty, known as standard scratch score. The USGA set these scores themselves for all courses in America and did it through a standardised procedure. This created a more comparable system as courses were being judged by a set standard.
This was key as it meant that golfers could more easily travel for competitions and had a fairer way of judging how they should fair on any given course. This system was then further refined to the Course and Slope rating system.
As golf became a global game, multiple handicapping systems emerged and it led to an issue when it came to international competition and comparisons. Ultimately, a new World Handicap System was introduced in 2020 and was devised mainly by the USGA and R&A.
This centuries long history shows a system that has been polished to ensure that the game is equitable as possible. To go back to the start of this article, it has all been in the pursuit of levelling the playing field to make sure golf is as competitive as possible even if there is an obvious skill mismatch.
Few, if any, other sports have worked so hard to ensure that they have a game that is equitable in the way golf has. Many consider golf to be an exclusionary sport but this example here should let them see that that is not the case.
As golf has become a more inclusive sport through the years the handicap system has become more and more valuable to the sport. It has meant that you always have a chance to win, no matter who you are up against.
The handicap system is absolute proof that in the game of golf you are only ever competing against yourself, the course and sometimes the elements. For many the handicap system creates a yardstick. It’s often the first question that unacquainted golfers ask one another, a situation that always stinks of machismo.
Your handicap is neither something to brag about nor be ashamed of. It is a very dynamic number that moves frequently to reflect where your game is at that point in time. The most exciting thing about your handicap is that, with practice, it can improve.