An Easy Guide to the Golf Handicap System

An Easy Guide to the Golf Handicap System

7 October 2022

“So, what’s your handicap?” Chances are, it’s the first question you’ll be asked when you tell someone that you play golf.  

But, for many golfers (especially those new to the game) handicaps can be the source of much bewilderment. How is a handicap calculated? How do reduce it? Why do I even need a handicap? These are all common questions in the golfing community.  

That’s why we’ve devised this easy-to-follow guide to dispel some of the confusion surrounding golf’s most popular performance metric. Keep reading for the answers to the most frequently asked handicap related questions, as well as some great tips for reducing yours! 

What is a golf handicap?  

If you’re new to golf, this is good place to start. Fundamentally, a handicap is one of the quickest ways to gauge a golfer’s skill level. Unlike in other sports, this system is designed to level the playing field between golfers of different abilities.  

Calculated based on your average score over several rounds (the exact number depends on which system is being used) in essence, the lower the handicap, the better the golfer.  

Why do we need a handicap?

While having a handicap is a prerequisite for most golfing competitions, it can also be beneficial for making your weekend bounce games more interesting.  

For example, if you’re frustrated by never winning against your more skilled golfing partners (or similarly by not feeling like you are not being challenged enough) incorporating handicaps means that worse players are ‘given’ extra strokes on certain holes so that they still have a realistic goal to aim for.  

By utilising the handicap system, golfers can measure how they played on any given day in relation to their own specific ability level. Additionally, a handicap is an easy way to track your golfing progress over time.  

It’s also worth noting that some more prestigious courses (such as the Old Course at St Andrews) require golfers to have an official handicap before being allowed to play.  

When were handicaps first introduced?  

As a term first coined in horse racing, handicaps were first applied to golf in the late 1600s in relation to the betting odds assigned to players in competitions. It wasn’t until 1911 when the first national handicap system (with the same meaning as it has today) was introduced.  

This early version of the handicap was essentially a derivative of the British 3 score average system and later evolved to include a par rating for every course. Such ratings were based on the average score of a scratch golfer on each course; which had the added benefit of making handicaps more accurate and relevant as golfers traveled from course to course. 

How do you get one?  

You can guesstimate a rough handicap by subtracting the course rating from your score. For example, if the course par is 73 and you shoot 100, your approximate handicap would be 27.  

However, calculating an official handicap is far more complicated. Firstly, any rounds which contribute towards your handicap must be played in a competition/medal setting.  

After this, you must consider which system is being used. Until recently, there were several different recognised handicap systems in use (depending on where you lived) such as the CONGU and USGA versions.   

Thankfully, now, a new universal system called the WHS (World Handicapping System) has been introduced which applies across 80 countries.  

Designed by the USGA and the R and A, the WHS was implemented to encourage greater uptake of the game and to provide an easier to understand system which applies worldwide. Despite this though, calculating a handicap with the WHS can still be tricky to get your head around. Visit the Scottish Golf website for a more comprehensive guide on how the new system works.  

How to lower your handicap?  

Although it’s probably the oldest (and most difficult to answer) question in the world of golf, thanks to recent advances in golfing technology there is one easy way to drop a few numbers off your handicap, and it’s called performance tracking.  

Buying a shot tracking device such as Shot Scope’s V3 GPS watch, allows you to view your performance in specific areas over time in a way which is not possible by merely tracking your handicap alone.  

By analysing your performance statistics, you can analyse your game which areas of game need most improvement and focus on these in practice. As the numbers highlight, those who use Shot Scope tracking devices reduce their scores by 4.1 strokes on average.  


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