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The Golf Handicap. A great guide for junior golfers

A golf handicap... something that all golfers feel differently about. Some want it to go down so that they can show how much they are improving. Others want it to go up so that they feel able to compete with golfers of all abilities. Here we explain what a golf handicap is, what it is for, how it goes up or down and how you can get one.

What is a golf handicap?

A golf handicap helps to balance out the scores of golfers of all differing abilities. For example, someone who goes around a par 72, 18-hole golf course with a score of around 100 can still compete with someone who only takes 72 shots. That’s because the player who takes more shots will usually have a higher handicap than the player with a lower one and that’s what balances the scores out. Each time you play a handicap qualifying round, your handicap can go up or down.

An example of a high golf handicap;

The maximum golf handicap a golfer is allowed to have is 54. This means that in a normal stroke play competition 54 shots are taken off the total number of shots taken (Gross Score) to create an adjusted score. (Net score)

An example of a low golf handicap;

A low golf handicap usually relates to better players. Some players are good enough to have a 0 handicap (‘scratch’) This means that whatever score they get no shots are taken off their score. Some golfers are so good that they have a positive handicap. That means that we actually add shots to their score to even things out.

Why do Golf Handicaps exist?

Golf Handicaps exist in the first place so that golfers of all levels can compete in amateur competitions against each other. All professional golfers have no handicap at all so they all compete based on how many shots they have taken without any corrections from handicaps. Without handicaps, you would stand no chance of competing against better golfers as they would usually take fewer shots to get around and therefore win every time.

How do golf handicaps work?

Golf Handicaps work slightly differently depending on which format of the game you are playing. This is where things can seem complicated at first but once you get the hang of it, it’s not so bad. Stroke play is probably the easiest to understand. If your playing handicap is 10 and takes 82 shots to complete the course then your net score is 72. So if your playing handicap is 10 and your playing partner's handicap is 12 then they would get 2 more shots knocked off whatever their gross score was (the total number of shots taken) Stableford is a little trickier. All golf courses rate the holes in order of difficulty, this is called the stroke index. If a player has a handicap of 10 then they get one shot taken off the gross score for the holes with a stroke index of 10 or less, i.e. the 10 toughest holes on the course. In Stableford scoring, it is important to keep your score as you go around. If a player has a handicap of 36 they would get 2 shots taken off their gross score for each of the 18 holes. Here, you score points on each hole as you go along, e.g. you receive 2 points for a nett par on a hole. So if you take 5 shots to finish a hole and that hole has a stroke index of 8, with your playing handicap of 10 you will receive a shot on that hole thereby giving you a nett par which equals 2 points. A nett bogey equals 1 point and a nett birdie equals 3 points. Should you take 5 shots on a par 4 hole with a stroke index of 11 or more, then you will only score 1 point for that hole as you will not receive a handicap stroke on that hole. It is also possible to score no points on a hole if you take too many shots. A Stableford score of 36 shows that you have generally played to your handicap and averaged 2 points per hole, this is a good figure to keep in mind to try and work out how well you are playing. Adjusted Gross Score, even when playing Stableford your golf handicap will still go up or down depending on how well you have played. To make sure that someone can’t artificially increase their handicap by purposely having a bad score on a hole or a bad round there is something called an adjusted gross score. If your golf handicap is 10 and on a hole with a stroke index of 8 and you happen to take 12 shots the scoring computers at your golf club will automatically adjust that score to a 6. That is because 6 is the lowest number of shots you can take on that hole and score a 0. So if you took 7 shots or 20 shots the scoring computers will adjust that gross score to 6

What is the slope rating?

A slope rating is a figure given to every golf course worldwide which is effectively the degree of difficulty of that course in relation to all other courses. The rating is based on years of scores submitted by golfers for each course and a mathematical equation decides what that rating is. It can alter by quite a few shots from one course to another but also on the same course. Each golf club usually has at least 3 courses within it. These are the courses determined by which colour tee box you play from. They are usually white, yellow and red with some courses having blue or black tee markers to denote shorter or longer courses. Although you are effectively playing the same golf course, each differently colour coded course is either longer or shorter therefore it is judged to have differing degrees of difficulty and therefore a different slope rating.

How does a golf course calculate its course rating?

In order to obtain this rating 2 calculations are made, a course rating and a bogey rating. The course rating is an evaluation of the difficulty of the course for a scratch golfer (someone with a Course Handicap of 0). The bogey rating measures the playing difficulty for a bogey golfer (someone with a handicap of 20-24). Having these two ratings allows the WHS to produce a Slope Rating for each set of tees which allows all golfers to work out how many strokes they will receive on a particular course, this is called the course handicap. The Slope Rating of a course is calculated by subtracting the Course Rating from the Bogey Rating and multiplying it by a predetermined constant. Slope ratings vary between 55 and 155. T he Slope Rating is not just about how difficult a course is, it is also an indication of the difference in difficulty between scratch golfers and bogey players.

What is the handicap index?

This is your personal handicap. The handicap index is the rating you take to every golf course and your playing handicap is worked out from there. As stated above, each course has it’s own individual slope rating depending on which tee you’re playing from. When you get to the course (or you can check online prior to playing there) there will be a rating for that course. Your handicap index will fall into a small range of numbers which will determine your playing handicap. e.g. if your handicap index is 8.9 and you play a golf course with a slope rating of 126 then your playing handicap is 10. The way this is calculated can be found online but you don’t need to know how this is done as every club has already done it for you and there will be a chart at the golf club showing the calculations for playing from each of the tees. How to get a golf handicap? If you are new to golf and you’ve never had a handicap then you will need to submit a minimum of 3 scorecards that have been marked by a player already in possession of a handicap. This needs to be done at the course where you are a member. This person also needs to be an adult. If you’re a junior golfer and not ready to make it round 18 holes then you can submit 6 rounds of 9 holes. (Essentially you need 54 holes played) These scores are then submitted into the WHS software that your club uses and that will work out what your initial handicap index is. Once you have played 20 rounds of golf then your handicap will be adjusted by using the best 8 scores from those 20 rounds. From then on, as you play another round the oldest from the initial 20 will drop off. Sometimes the one that drops off is one of your best 8, so if the next round submitted is a higher score then the average of your best 8 scores will go up. If you score a round at any time that is lower than one of your 8 best rounds then the average will go down meaning that your handicap index will be lower. You can obtain a WHS handicap as by joining England Golf's iGolf or Scottish Golf's OpenPlay schemes designed to allow nomadic golfers to obtain a handicap. What is the maximum score you can take on a hole for your handicap? As stated earlier under Stableford scoring rules, there is a maximum score that can be entered for a hole but in stroke play rules there is no limit. Sometimes you may decide to not enter a score for a hole, it may be that you’ve lost your ball and don’t want to go back and replay the shot. There may be other reasons that you don’t enter a score for that hole. Whatever the reason is this is called a No Return (NR) you should continue to score for the rest of the holes and the scoring computer will adjust your score for the NR hole as explained earlier under Adjusted Gross Score. Your total for the 18 holes will remain as a No Return for the competition you’re playing in but for handicap purposes it is adjusted.

My handicap is less than 18. How do I know which golf holes I get extra shots on?

All golf courses rate the holes in order of difficulty, this is called the stroke index. They are rated stroke 1 -18 with 1 being the toughest and 18 being the easiest. If a player has a handicap of 10 then they get one shot taken off the gross score for the holes with a stroke index of 10 or less, i.e. the 10 toughest holes on the course. How many rounds of golf do you need to play to keep your handicap active? You need to submit 3 competition rounds in one playing season to keep your handicap active. This means that if you don’t play in 3 competitions your handicap becomes inactive. You will still have a handicap but you won’t be able to enter a competition.

How is the World Handicap System an improvement on what we had?

In 2019 all of the governing bodies in charge of golf decided that handicaps need to be the same around the world so that Handicaps can be worked out fairly when golfers travel to play in different countries. This is why the WHS has been created and adopted across 80 countries worldwide.

Why has the WHS been adopted?

The principal aim was to make handicapping easier to understand and transferable to any course anywhere in the world. Handicaps used by 15 million golfers in 80 countries worldwide should now be equitable. The system also aims to make it easier for players to obtain and maintain a handicap and to enjoy a level playing field, wherever they play whether in recreational games or in competitions. The objective being to grow the game.

How handicaps are interpreted for different types of competitions?

Different handicap allowances are suitable for different formats of competitions. When playing an individual stroke play event you will receive 100% of the course handicap as a playing handicap. Whereas if you are playing a 4BBB stable ford competition then you will only receive 90% of your course handicap as a playing handicap for that day. Other formats also have slightly different percentages of your course handicap so it is important to know if the competition you are playing in is a full allowance or a percentage of your course handicap. Handicap allowances are applied to a Course Handicap to establish a player’s Playing Handicap for the event. For information on more Junior Golf issues, head to 
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