You Asked: What is a Golf Handicap?
One of the most misunderstood elements of golf is a player’s handicap. What is a handicap? How does it work? Is there a difference between a handicap and handicap index? Do I need a handicap?
These questions are what I found myself asking when I first started establishing an official United States Golf Association (USGA) handicap this past season. Whether you're a high handicap or scratch golfer, this article will help to answer these questions and more so that you can better understand how this valuable tool can benefit your game the next time you head to the golf course. We will also take a look at some of the changes made to the World Handicap System and how those will be implemented in 2024.
Definition of a Golf Handicap
At its most basic level, a golf handicap is a general term defined as the number of strokes, or shots, a golfer is expected to take above or below a course’s par score. A higher handicap means players are able to subtract more strokes from their gross score to determine their net score. A lower handicap indicates a more skilled golfer, who subtracts, or in some cases may add, a smaller number of strokes from their gross score (this is known as a “plus” handicap).
What is a “Good” Golf Handicap?
A “good” golf handicap is hard to clearly define, as it is relative to the golfer. For example, a 30-handicap golfer may feel that a 10-Handicap is a good golf handicap. The average handicap index for men in the U.S. is 16 while women have an average of 28. The maximum handicap a golfer can carry, regardless of gender, is 54.0.
Handicap Versus Handicap Index
The general term “handicap” differs from a “handicap index”, which is a rating given to a golfer’s game specific to a scoring system, like the USGA Handicap System. A handicap index is not a representation of your average score. It is used to calculate your course handicap by taking into account the course rating and slope rating. There are other factors that are taken into consideration when calculating course handicap, which will be discussed later on. Establishing an index is relatively easy to do, as the minimum number of scores needed equates to three 18-hole rounds. Internet access makes it easy to enter your scores into the Golf Handicap & Information Network (GHIN) system. Your handicap index will then be updated each time you post another score at midnight local time the following day.
How is a Handicap Index Calculated?
The formula used to determine your handicap index takes the sum of your eight lowest handicap differentials divided by eight when 20 or more scores have been posted. This calculation gives us a number that is then rounded to the nearest tenth. For golfers with fewer than 20 scores, the table from USGA rule 5.2a provides information on how score differential is calculated. Many golfers believe they should shoot or beat their handicap index on a regular basis, which is not true. It is simply a measure of your playing ability over a given number of rounds. Often, golfers will finish a few strokes higher than their index. It is important to note that both nine-hole and 18-hole scores may be posted towards generating your handicap.
Importance and Benefits of Having a Handicap
We’ve identified both a handicap and handicap index as well as the difference between the two. Now you may be wondering, “Why the heck do I need a handicap, anyways?” The best answer to this question is that you don’t! If you golf casually and don’t take it that seriously, there really is no need to worry about carrying a handicap; official or otherwise. However, if you plan to play in tournaments or leagues, you likely will require a handicap to participate as it is used to level the playing field. Let’s look at an example of how a handicap is used in medal play (also called stroke play) format:
John is a relatively new golfer with a course handicap of 20. His friend Mike, who has been playing golf since he was a kid, carries a course handicap of three. In medal play format, Mike will give John 17 strokes (20-3=17). John’s final score is a 96, giving him a net score of 79, while Mike shoots a 77. Golf's handicap system allows less skilled players, like John in our example, to compete with better golfers based on his current ability.
How is my Course Handicap Calculated?
There are a multitude of factors taken into consideration when determining course handicap. The playing conditions calculation (PCC), maximum hole scores for handicap purposes (net double bogey) and adjustments made to differentials for an exceptional score, in addition to course and slope rating (as mentioned previously) are all used. Both course and slope rating can be found on your scorecard (each set of tees carries its own slope/rating number). Let's take a look at what some of these terms mean.
Playing conditions calculation (PCC). Whether a a course was playing easier or more difficult than normal due to weather or setup
Net double-bogey. You may count a maximum of two strokes over par plus any strokes you're entitled to, based on stroke allowance for that hole. Use this chart to determine your per-hole maximum as it varies based on handicap index.
Exceptional Score. A submitted score seven or more strokes better than your handicap index at the time the round is played
Course Rating. The difficulty of a course for a scratch golfer
Slope Rating. The relative difficulty of a course for players who are not scratch golfers compare to those who are
Your handicap may vary across courses or even from one tee box to another due to differences in course slope and rating in relation to the tees you're using. Your handicap index determines your course handicap. For instance, I typically play to a 16 handicap from the white tees at my home course but I'd adjust to a 19 when playing from the back tees. Why? Because the fact that the course plays tougher from those tees affords me more strokes. This practice aids in maintaining accurate scores when navigating courses with varying slope and course ratings.
Another benefit to carrying a handicap if you’re taking your game seriously is that you can see your improvement, or lack thereof, over the course of a season and beyond. As it is a measure of one’s ability, it is easy to track how your golf game progresses.
World Handicap System (WHS) 2024 Revisions
Revisions have been made to the WHS that will be implemented beginning Jan. 1, 2024. Since its implementation in 2020, many countries have seen significant increases in the number of rounds posted for handicap purposes. With more than 100 million scores posted yearly, the WHS helps to unify players globally through a standard measure of playing ability. The upcoming changes include:
Inclusion of shorter-length golf courses. Within the course rating system, 18-hole courses as short as 1,500 yards and nine-hole courses as short as 750 yards will now be eligible for a course and slope rating.
Use of an expected score for a hole not played. To handle holes not played, the use of a player's expected score will be implemented rather than a score of net par. Also, as nine-hole rounds are becoming more popular, an expected score can be used to convert a nine-hole round into an 18-hole score differential.
Playing Conditions Calculation adjustments made more frequent. PCC has been modified to increase the likelihood of an adjustment for abnormal playing conditions.
Enhanced guidance on conducting a handicap review. A yearly handicap review has been recommended to ensure a player's handicap index remains reflective of their ability. New reporting tools that national associations can incorporate into their systems have been developed to assist in conducting the reviews efficiently and consistently.
I hope I have been able to adequately explain, and answer, any questions you may have had surrounding golf’s handicap system. It is a beneficial tool that allows golfers of all skill levels to compete with one another, keeps track of how their game progresses over time and leads to more enjoyment and less frustration on the course. If you haven’t carried an official handicap in the past and would like to get started, doing so is easy! Discover your local Allied Golf Association and sign up today! You'll be ready to grab your golf clubs, head out for a round of golf at your local course and start reporting scores for an official handicap in no time.
In a new series of articles coming to you from the Forum Staff we bring you the Titleist T-Series Irons.
Every iron has a purpose and there is a purpose for every iron.
This is what has become abundantly clear throughout my time using the Titleist T-Series irons and it all started with the fitting. However I have to go back a little further to connect all the dots.
In 2018 I was selected to test and review the PING i210 irons. As I had been using the PING iE1 irons I thought the transition would be easy. It wasn't, however my struggles soon drifted away and this set of PING irons became my main set for the next 4 years.
I had some great rounds with them and fond memories, but being a bit of an equipment junkie I soon wanted to take in the full forged iron experience and transitioned to a set of Sub70 659 TC Irons. I wanted the superior feel of forged irons and felt I had the iron ability to play something with a little less tech, more feel. I wasn't concerned with any distance loss, even though I didn't find much of any. However once again I had early struggles with the new irons.
I know enough about equipment to be able to know what works and what doesn't for my game. I was a bit surprised, however again I had a few stellar rounds, but still felt something was missing. My next step was into the players distance category with a set of TaylorMade P790 irons. Having found I was using a lot of my longer clubs in previous sets I wanted to see if my game could be elevated by using a set of irons on the complete opposite end of the Sub70 659 TC's.
This time around I didn't have the early struggles. I clicked nearly right away with the P790s, but something was still missing. It was hard to put my finger on what that was until I had my fitting with Titleist.
Titleist T-Series Irons
Titleist created their new T-Series to be blended and according to Titleist "80% of tour staff have blended sets." and this is where the light bulb moment came. Even though I had success with all my previous sets and most of the sets had some sort of progressive design to improve performance throughout the set they still were just that one set. In truth this moment should have come much earlier as I had long ago replaced the PING i210 4 iron with a PING Crossover, but that was to create better gapping at the top end of the bag which is normal for many.
What I ended up with for my Titleist set is purposefully selected specific irons for each area of my game and bag to ensure that I have all the proper irons for each situation. So what does this mean exactly? Well let me walk you through my setup.
My Golf Bag - The Finer Details
I prefer to use a 58, 54 combo of wedges. I also prefer and have had more success with cavity bag type wedges (Mizuno S23 and Ping Glide series). For my next club I either wanted to add another one of those wedges or as what happened add a set wedge.
The main reason I go down this route is forgiveness. I am a solid ball striker, but I consider any opportunity with a wedge or less to be a scoring opportunity. I want to be set myself up for the most success possible, even if that means a less sexy looking club. When discussing this situation with my fitter and going through several shots we landed on a GW(50*) and PW (46*) in the T100. These are an all forged, slim top line and built for greater precision. If I want the best scoring club possible that fits my comfort zone this was going to be the choice.
The next section of my bag we wanted to be able to add a little extra distance, keep a certain level of forgiveness and still have the ability to use these irons as potential scoring clubs. While I don't expect to hit every green I still want to see if I can make improvements in that area. While my fitter did suggest I could continue with the T100 set throughout this area, I wasn't as confident. I knew the gapping would be easier, however the Iron distance was a little shorter than I would prefer to see knowing the courses I play and the clubs I would have more confidence in playing.
When we factored all of this together we landed on the Titleist T150 9-6 irons. The T150 have a bit more technology in them, while aiming to mimic the feel and the performance aspects of the T100. The T150 have an added 2 degrees of loft meaning a bit more distance. However this also left a decent gap with the T100's which we needed to address and did by making both the GW and PW 1* stronger. I now had a middle section which was better suited to longer approach shots and tee shots into par 3s. The nice part with these together is they look nearly identical. Yes the topline on the T150 is marginally bigger, but it isn't enough to truly matter.
The feel for both is exceptional and the main difference I can say is that the T150 have a bit more pop to them. I am sure that is partly their tech, but also the loft. The other key feeling both keep is their responsiveness to strike location and turf interaction. In this area both sets excel and versus any of my previous sets.
This left me with one more club to select for my set and where I often use my 5 iron. There are two main areas that I have need or use this club. One is off the tee on shorter par 4s or situational par 5s, sometimes into longer par 3s and to progress up the fairway on par 5s. While not a max distance club I was less concerned about exact carry number and more in getting a club that would meet those needs of distance versus accuracy.
Once again the fitter did give some leeway in the decision as he felt I could use either the T150 or make the leap to T200, which is where I ultimately settled. The look on the Titleist T200 is a lot different to to the T100/T150 irons that have the brushed look. The T200 is shiny and does a better job appearance matching the T350. That is where the similarities end though, as at address the T200 has the same shaping of the T150 as well as offset. The topline again is marginally thicker, but not by much.
All the irons used the same Project X IO 6.0 shaft that matches up well for my swing and it was a toss up between that and the Project X LZ. Both performed really well, but with a slightly higher peak height on the IO it just felt really good and we loved seeing the window that the ball came out of.
With the fitting done and everything awaiting arrival the anticipation grew. When irons arrived it didn't take me long to get them out to the range. A slightly similar trend followed and while not my first round, but my first session on the range I struggled. This meant a lot of my initial excitement dampened and maybe expectations lowered because the first round turned it all around.
Key Takeaways - On Course
I have since played 20 or so rounds with these irons and here are my biggest takeaways from this time.
- I wish I had never played a straight set of irons and it will be nearly impossible to consider a non blended set in the future.
- PW and GW are way more forgiving than I had initially anticipated and the quality of precision is exceptional.
- With the mid irons (non T100) my GIR have gone up along with my confidence.
- T200 is not my favorite club, however the purpose in which I need it for does the job.
- Stopping power! I have never owned a set that has had this level of stopping power. Not just spin, but flight and consistency.
I have still of course had awful shots and struggled at times, as with any amateur golfer. I also still have not reached my ceiling in terms of potential. But I can say with extreme confidence that my floor has been raised. This is due to each iron being purposefully selected and built to work best for not just my game, but having the proper purpose. Where previous sets aimed to fit the bill everywhere and do everything well, this set is built to excel only where it needs to and not provide performance aspects which are not going to be utilized.
The Titleist experience is exceptional, from fitting, to delivery to putting them in play. I had never owned a set of Titleist Irons before and much like my PING i210 irons staying in the bag for several years, I can see these irons holding their spot for many years to come.