Golf's handicap system: A beginner's guide

A golfer is asked what his handicap is. His reply: "my golf game."

It's an old joke but it really is a loaded question.

When you're playing golf with people you've never played with before, the question about a handicap is a common one. And because only 20 percent of all golfers have legitimate handicaps, the answers, whether the golfer is trying to be truthful or not, are often without merit.

Most golfers who don't have a handicap just guess their average score and subtract 72 from it. That's not a handicap.

And even those who have a real USGA or R&A handicap index, because of the way handicaps are reported nowadays, can fudge their way to being a sandbagger (but that's a different discussion).

Fortunately, in many tournament settings there are certain safeguards to look out for with handicaps. For example, if you play in the Golf Channel Am Tour , your handicap will land you in a certain flight, but your tournament scores on the Am Tour carry far more weight. Shoot a few low scores or win a couple of times, and you're likely to get bumped up to more skilled flight. In fact, the national champion in each flight, except at the championship level, automatically moves up to the next flight the following season.

In an ideal world, of course, everybody reports their actual scores and makes the proper adjustments and there's little need to intercede.

But to get a better understanding of what a handicap should be and how the system works, let's take a look:

A brief look back at golf handicaps

Handicaps in golf are almost as old as the game itself, though they certainly weren't administered the way they are today. In the mid-1800s in Scotland it was simply a matter of matching the lesser player against the more accomplished player. The terms "third-one" or "half-one" came about, meaning that the lesser player would get a stroke every three or two holes, respectively. The assigning of these "odds" often came at the discretion of individuals competing or a committee, but courses weren't rated yet, so this method didn't travel from course to course.

By the late 1800s golfers started getting handicaps for tournaments. One method involved computing the average of the best three scores of the year and subtracting par from that average. Critics argued that such a method clearly favored the better players, and that was certainly true. Today a variation of that method still exists because handicaps really aren't your average; they are a measurement of your potential, but we'll get back to that later.

In order for handicaps to travel, however, courses had to be rated. In other words, not all courses are created equal. Basically a course rating is the reflection of what a scratch golfer would shoot on that course. If it's a particularly difficult track, the course rating could be 75 or 76, playing two or three strokes over par for scratch players. Chambers Bay , which hosted the 2015 U.S. Open, rates 76.6 from the back tees with a slope rating of 140.

Slope, by the way, didn't really come around until 1979 when Dean Knuth (he was a Navy commander then) invented the formula to predict what bogey golfers would shoot on a course on a particular set of tees. Regarded as the world's foremost authority on course ratings and handicaps, Knuth was the United States Golf Association's Senior Director of Handicapping, GHIN and Green Section Administration from 1981-97.

"By comparing the bogey rating to the scratch rating, I was able to develop the Slope Rating for each course -- a way to predict how fast scores go up as the golfer's handicaps go up," Knuth wrote on his Web site, popeofslope.com .

Course and slope ratings aren't just used to determine handicaps; they are also used to adjust a person's handicap when they travel. Without going into the formula, suffice it to say that when a course is harder than average, a player will get more strokes than his or her handicap at a tournament at said course. If the course is easier, it's fewer strokes.

How is a handicap calculated?

Individual handicaps are determined by a formula that takes your adjusted score (when you first set up your handicap, triple bogey is maximum on each hole) and subtracts the course rating. That figure is then multiplied by 113 (which represents the slope rating of a course of average difficulty) and divided by the actual course rating for the selected set of tees.

It might look like this if you shot 82 at Chambers Bay from the back tees: (82 minus 76) X 113/140. In this example, your differential would be 4.8, which is far lower than the actual score of 8-over par.

You can establish a handicap by entering as few as five scores, but only the lowest differential would be used to determine you handicap. In the above example, your other four scores could all be more than 100, but you'd still carry a handicap index of 4.8. That's why, of course, you want to enter all your scores. Once you get to 20, the average of the 10 lowest differentials of your last 20 scores are used to determine your handicap. That figure is multiplied by .96, and that's your handicap index.

How to get a handicap

This is the easy part. You can either sign up for one at your home course or register for a GHIN (Golf Handicapping & Information Network) handicap with your local golf association connected with the USGA. I have mine at Memorial Park in Houston, though most of my rounds are on the road. I pay $33 a year for this service.

In the old days, you used to turn in your scorecards to your pro. There was more review back then, making it more difficult to fudge the numbers. Nowadays with the Internet and computers, golfers usually just enter their own scores into the GHIN system and like golf itself, integrity is a big part of the process.

It's certainly not necessary to know the handicapping formula, but the basic understanding of it will help you in your matches and tournaments with other players, especially against those who really don't have handicaps and are just guessing based on what they think their average score is.

Mike Bailey is a senior staff writer based in Houston. Focusing primarily on golf in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America with an occasional trip to Europe and beyond, he contributes course reviews, travel stories and features as well as the occasional equipment review. An award-winning writer and past president of Texas Golf Writers Association, he has more than 25 years in the golf industry. Before accepting his current position in 2008, he was on staff at PGA Magazine, The Golfweek Group and AvidGolfer Magazine. Follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeBaileyGA and Instagram at @MikeStefanBailey.
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Golf's handicap system: A beginner's guide
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