Level the playing field – a term that’s nowadays used more in social settings than in sports, the domain where it actually originated. However, few sports are as efficient in levelling the playing field between more experienced/skilled players and novice/fresh players as golf.
The game of golf has an elaborate mathematical system that allows newer and inexperienced players to compete with experts on a relatively equal footing. The system is called a Handicap.
What Is a Golf Handicap?
It’s important to understand that handicapping is not a golf-specific concept. There is a system of handicapping in multiple competitive sports, including chess and basketball.
In golf, there used to be multiple handicap systems, including six prominent ones, varying from region to region and among different governing bodies. However, the World Handicap System (WHS), introduced in 2020, has become the primary handicapping methodology around the globe (about eighty countries).
The golf handicap (playing handicap), under the WHS system, is a simple, easy-to-understand, and accurate handicapping system that allows golfers from anywhere in the world to compete against each other on any golf course and under virtually any conditions on equal footing. The handicap calculation is sophisticated enough to consider factors like playing conditions and exceptional performances.
While it doesn’t encapsulate all the nuances, considering golf handicap a singular “ability score” that tells you and other golfers your skill level makes it relatively simple to understand what a golf handicap is.
How To Get a Golf Handicap
A unified system makes it easy for almost any golfer to get a golf handicap. The process may differ a bit among countries based on the governing body’s handicap recording and tracking system. In the UK, the governing body is England Golf.
Note that you don’t need to be a member of a golf club to get a handicap index rating. Non-members can join the iGolf platform, which allows golfers to track their performance and get a handicap index. The current fee for joining the platform is £44 per year. If you are a club member, this cost might be rolled into your membership fee.
A few things you need to know about getting a golf handicap are:
9-Hole and 18-Hole: The handicap is calculated for and can be used for both 9-hole and 18-hole courses. The rubric for calculating the handicap takes into account the differences between the two types of courses.
Social and General Play Scores: The WSH allows for both social and general play scores to be used to calculate the handicap index. So even if you are just having some fun with friends and family, if you play the game in an acceptable format (and slay it), you can get the score recorded for the handicap index.
Recording Scores: The game has to be witnessed by at least one individual who can act as an attestor. They can turn in a physical scorecard to verify the score or use the iGolf app to verify the score.
Number of Games/Holes: There are two different thresholds for obtaining the handicap index from WHS. The lower threshold is 54 holes. They can come from both 9-hole and 18-hole course collective configurations like three 9-hole and two 18-hole or three 18-hole games. The proper threshold is 20 games. You need to submit the (acceptable) scores from 20 games, and the average of the eight games with the lowest scores will be chosen to calculate your golf handicap.
Acceptable/Non-Acceptable Scores: Any golf game not played following the standard formats recognised worldwide or the standard format in the player’s home country or the country where the game is taking place will yield a non-acceptable score. Similarly, rules that can get the golfer disqualified from a game, like using a non-conforming club, knowingly incurring a penalty, or using a distance-measuring device during a game, can exclude the score from handicap calculations. So, if you play 20 games as a new golfer and three of them have non-acceptable scores, you may have to play three more games for your handicap to be calculated as per the 20-game threshold.
Handicap Update: The handicap index can be updated on a daily basis, and it’s recommended that the scores are submitted on the day of the game.
Based on the factors stated above, there are just a few simple steps to get a golf handicap (in the UK).
- Become a golf club member and/or subscribe to the iGolf platform.
- Start playing 9-hole or 18-hole golf games while adhering to a standard format (and following the relevant rules).
- Make sure the scores are recorded and submitted to the relevant body, ideally at the end of each game.
You will start building a handicap index by the time you reach 54 holes, and once you have played 20 games, your handicap rating may improve or decrease based on every new score you submit. The process is the same for away games.
How Is Your Golf Handicap Updated?
The golf handicap is calculated based on the eight lowest scores of the last twenty games and your submitted scores. Once you submit the new score, the oldest one goes out the window, and the latest set of 20 games is used for the calculations.
It’s the First In, First Out (FIFO) principle, where the oldest/first recorded score is the first to be discarded and replaced by the newest score to keep the handicap index as current as possible.
Each submitted score is converted to a differential, taking into account factors like playing conditions, course rating, slope rating, and exceptionally good scores. The new score will cause the replacement of one of the eight scores (out of 20 games) used to determine your current handicap.
Improving your golf handicap can require more than just practice, adjusting your swings, or developing a consistent strategy. You also have to choose the right golf courses to strategically build up your skill level and, by extension, improve your handicap.
How Is Golf Handicap Calculated?
The golf handicap is calculated differently for the lower and higher tiers, i.e., when you have less than 20 game scores and when you have 20 or more game scores for the golf handicap index calculation.
The minimum threshold is 54 holes or three 18-hole games.
The calculation takes into account three main variables and a benchmark, i.e., a scratch golfer, which is someone with a zero handicap index, indicating that they can optimally complete any given course.
Course Rating (CR): Difficulty of the course, determined by the total number of strokes a scratch golfer would need to complete a given course.
Slope Rating (SR): A slope rating aims to quantify the difficulty a typical player would face on a slope compared to a scratch player. The standard slope rating is 113.
Adjusted Gross Score (AGS): The AGS is basically the aggregate of the score of all the holes played (in both 9-hole and 18-hole courses). The outliers, i.e., NR holes (No Return/No Score) and high score holes, are added to the AGS using the formula: Par + 2 + Total Number of Handicap Strokes (With both par and handicap strokes for the particular hole in the course).
Any course you play in will have a dedicated course rating and slope rating, so you will have the two numbers on hand before the game even starts. Once you have your adjusted gross score, you can use it to calculate “the differential.”
The Differential = [(Adjusted Gross Score – Course Rating) x 113] / Slope Rating
If you have played the minimum number of games, i.e., three 18-holes, the least of the three differentials will be your handicap index as is. Once you play 20 games, the eight lowest differentials will be averaged out to determine your score, as evident in the example below.
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