When you're new to the world of golf, the concept of golf handicaps can be confusing. In reality, it is very simple to understand and does not involve any sort of impediment of physical or mental faculties, as when used in the traditional sense.
Your understanding of this golfing term will also be a great help in keeping score during your game and understanding how other players' scores are calculated.
Ready to learn? Then let's go.
What Is Handicap Anyway?
In the most basic terms, a handicap is a number assigned to a golfer that represents their expected level of play. This number allows players of different skill levels to compete against each other on a level playing field.
Your actual handicap is important to know, especially if you are desirous of playing in a real tournament one day. This way, you are seeded with players of comparable skill levels, making the competition less of a one-sided affair.
For men, gold handicaps range from 0-28, while for women this ranges from 0-36.
What The Numbers Mean
The rule of thumb is that the lower your number is, the more of a skilled player you are classified as being. For instance, if your handicap is 6, it means that your average is 6 strokes over par.
This means that if the par score on an 18-hole course is 70, and you score 76, your handicap is a 6. Just keep in mind this is an average score, which used to be based on a minimum recommendation of best 10 of 20 games, but now just requires 8 out of 20.
In like manner, you can calculate your handicap today from as little as 3 rounds of golf, while in the past it used to be 5 rounds (this is not recommended, however, and should only be used for calculations in really time-intensive scenarios).
How Do You Calculate Your Golf Handicap?
Well, even though we have just given you a high-level overview of what handicaps are, and how they are useful in the game of golf, you may be wondering how you calculate your own handicap.
The United States Golf Association (USGA) has a great tool that allows you to do just that. With their Handicap Index Calculator, all you need is your most recent scores from rounds of golf that you have played, as well as the course rating and slope rating for each course.
With these numbers in hand, simply plug them into the calculator and let it do its job. In no time at all, you will have your very own handicap to help you accurately compete against others…or at least give you a good idea of how you are progressing in the game of golf.
Can it be done manually? Absolutely. However, we don't necessarily recommend you go that route as it is quite time intensive and requires you to already have a good understanding of the mathematics involved.
Plus, an added feature of the new scoring system that we really like is the fact that playing conditions are factored into your handicap. Previously, it was weighed the same, be it in perfect weather or a hurricane.
How Do I Know What A Good Handicap Is?
Ask most experts and professional golfers alike, and you will likely hear them say that anything under a 10 is considered good. In fact, if you can get your handicap down into single digits, you are already considered an exceptional player by many standards.
With a handicap of 10, shooting a score of about 82 would be considered good, and if you're improving- this might be closer to 80. If you are playing to a handicap of 5, you're looking at scores in the mid-70s.
Achieving a handicap lower than 10 is difficult, but not impossible. It generally requires years of practice and lots of experience playing the game under all sorts of conditions.
However, if it is something you are striving for, then more power to you!
How Are Handicaps Classified?
Handicap classification, anecdotally according to players, is as follows:
There is no official stance adopted by the USGA on what constitutes a "high" handicap, "medium" handicap, or "low" handicap. However, most players would likely say that a high handicap is anything over 18, while a low handicap is anything under 7.
A medium handicap would then fall somewhere in the middle- between 7 and 18.
Golfers with a "high" handicap, are most often considered bogey golfers, as they typically shoot one stroke over par on any given hole.
"Medium" handicappers are considered par golfers, as they usually shoot even par or just below on most holes.
"Low" handicappers, also known as scratch golfers, typically shoot one or more strokes under par on a given hole. However, when used in this context, these golfers are not considered professionals, as the pros can even achieve minus handicaps (yes, to clarify the confusion, 99% of us are plus handicap players).
High handicap players often reflect those among us who are new to the game or play very infrequently.
Handicap calculations tend to limit even the greenest golfers to a double bogey most of the time, which is good as it prevents your handicap from declining too drastically from a few bad holes, which is likely to happen when you are in this category.
Why Do My Handicaps Vary Significantly At Different Courses?
We've all been there- proudly boasting of your handicap of 10, only to play at a 24 at a new course. Ouch! Why does this happen? It has a lot to do with course difficulty. No two venues will be the same, and you will find that some are definitely more difficult than others.
This is where the course rating and slope come into play. The higher the number, the more difficult the course.
If you're playing at a club with a course rating of 70 and a slope rating of 115, this is going to be a lot more difficult than a course with a rating of 72 and a slope of 110.
The big takeaway here is that you should never get too comfortable with your handicap, as it will definitely vary from one club to another. In fact, it might even vary from one hole to the next!
A top-level player will have a low handicap across courses of different difficulties, as they will be able to make the necessary adjustments in their game to account for the varying conditions.
If you are just starting out, or are still working on lowering your handicap, then it is important to keep this in mind and not get too discouraged if you don't shoot as well as you do at your home club.
How Can I Improve My Handicap?
Improving your handicap won't happen overnight, but you can begin to see meaningful change in as little as a few weeks by following some simple steps.
Your Short Game Needs Work
This is an indisputable fact when it comes to lowering your handicap- if your short game sucks, then your handicap will reflect that.
A large percentage of your score comes from within 100 yards of the hole, so it is important to make sure that you are proficient in this area if you want to see a lower handicap.
Start by hitting some balls on the driving range, and then move on to the putting green and pitching area. Once you have a feel for the different clubs and are able to hit some consistent shots, then you can begin to work on your scoring.
Always remember- most people can drive easily, but the short game is where the massive drop-off in performance is noticeable.
Don't Neglect Your Fitness
The way TV and movies portray golfers would have you believe that fat, middle-aged men (and it is mostly men) are the norm when it comes to those who enjoy a round or two.
This couldn't be further from the truth. While many golfers do tend to be older, you will be hard-pressed to find people that are truly out of shape.
If they are, golf becomes a physical nightmare to play. Not surprisingly, their handicap reflects their poor physical performance on the course, as they will get tired quickly and their shots will become more erratic.
This is why it is important to make sure that you are physically fit if you want to lower your handicap. While you don't need to be a gym rat, some basic cardio and strength training a few times weekly will go a long way in making sure that you can last a full 18 without too much fatigue.
Eat Nutritious Food
This might seem like an obvious one, but you would be surprised at how many golfers head to the course without eating a proper meal or packing a lunch.
Golf is a physical activity, and your body needs energy to perform at its best. Eating unhealthy foods will only lead to an early crash, as your blood sugar will spike and then quickly drop.
Nutrition on the course is just as important- we strongly recommend ditching the hot dog and opting for a whole-food bar like Whole In One.
The same goes for staying hydrated- make sure to drink plenty of water, especially on hot days. Dehydration will sap your energy and make it difficult to concentrate on your shots.
A final tip in this area is to avoid alcohol while playing golf. It might seem like a beer or two will help you relax, but in reality, it will only hinder your performance.
Alcohol leads to dehydration and will make it difficult to focus on your shots, so it is best to avoid it if you want to lower your handicap.
Practice, Practice, Practice
This one might seem obvious, but it is worth repeating- if you want to lower your handicap, then you need to put in the time on the range and on the course.
You need to have a solid understanding of your clubs, and how they perform under different conditions. This can only come with time and experience.
In addition, you need to get comfortable with the different shots that you will be asked to hit on the course. While you might not be able to replicate every shot that you will encounter, the more you practice the better prepared you will be.
We recommend setting aside at least 30 minutes per day to work on your game, whether that is at the driving range, putting green, or even in your backyard.
The more time you can dedicate to practicing, the lower your handicap will be.
Find a Good Teacher
This is one of the most important pieces of advice that we can give- if you want to lower your handicap, then you need to find a good teacher.
A good golf coach will be able to quickly identify your weaknesses and help you correct them. They will also be able to give you valuable feedback on your swing and offer suggestions on how to make it more consistent.
Don't be afraid to invest in some lessons- it will be more than worth it when you start seeing your handicap decline.
Get a Golf GPS
A golf GPS can be a great asset if you are serious about lowering your handicap.
A good quality GPS will give you accurate yardages to the green, as well as help you choose the right club for each shot. This takes a lot of the guesswork out of the game and can help you make better decisions on the course.
If you are serious about lowering your handicap, then we recommend investing in a golf GPS.
Keep Track Of Your Scores
This may seem like a no-brainer, but you would be surprised at how many golfers don't keep track of their scores.
If you want to lower your handicap, then you need to have a good understanding of your strengths and weaknesses. The only way to do this is to keep track of your scores and identify patterns in your game.
For example, if you find that you are consistently losing strokes on the back nine, then you know that you need to work on your stamina.
Or, if you find that you are struggling with your driver, then you know that you need to spend more time at the driving range.
Whatever the case may be, keeping track of your scores is the only way to identify areas that need improvement.
Lowering your handicap can seem like a daunting task, but it is definitely achievable with some hard work and dedication.
If you follow the tips that we have outlined in this article, then you will be well on your way to shooting lower scores and achieving a lower handicap.
Have fun out there!