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Golf Handicaps Explained - Complete Guide to WHS

The handicap system is an integral part of the way golf is played in the UK and across the world. Despite this being such a significant pillar of the sport, many people struggle to understand what a handicap is and how it is calculated, often causing confusion. We have created a complete guide to golf handicaps to make sure golfers of every level know everything they need to before heading to the course

Photo credit: Gina Smith / Shutterstock

What is a Golf Handicap? 

In the most simple form, a golf handicap takes on the form of a leveller to all players of the game across the world. The number generally dictates how many strokes a player can subtract from their gross score to achieve their nett score. A higher handicap gives more strokes to be subtracted from the gross score and brings the player closer to par than the number of shots actually taken. 

Unlike any other sport, the handicap system in golf rates each player based on average performance over a given period of time. Each player’s handicap then relates to a number-weighted system to rank them against each other and creates a fairer way to compete in the game regardless of ability. The idea is that any two players of any ability should be able to play against each other on the same score and theoretically have a close game.

How to Get a Handicap in Golf

Most people think that achieving a handicap is only for seasoned and regular golfers who are members of a golf club. The introduction of the world handicap system brought a change to this way of thinking by ensuring anyone with access to any golf course can obtain and maintain a handicap. 

Golfers now have the ability to record each of their scores when out on the course which can be used to calculate a handicap from a number of calculations. 

The WHS model takes into account the course rating, slope rating and your adjusted gross score to work out your handicap counting score. Adjusted gross scores cap your actual shots taken at a double bogey for handicap purposes only. 

Calculation:  (113 / Slope Rating) – (Adjusted Gross Score – Course Rating – Playing Conditions Calculation)

No golfer is expected to work this out; it is done for you in the system! 

After this, your personal handicap index rating is taken from the best 8 scores from your last 20 using the above calculation. If you don’t have 20 scores submitted a weighted average is applied. When you have more than 20 recorded scores the oldest will be removed from the selection, if this is one of your 8 scores it is likely you will see a handicap index change. 

Course Playing Handicaps 

Now that you have determined a handicap index figure, you are ready to head to the course. At each golf course across the country, there is a slope rating for each set of tees. Usually red, yellow and white. 

A player's course playing handicap is found via a calculation where the individual's handicap index is multiplied by the slope index for the course they are playing and divided by 113.

Course Handicap Calculation

Handicap Index® x (Slope Rating/113) = Course HandicapSource

- England Golf

Photo credit: chanceux / Shutterstock

What is a Good Golf Handicap?

There is no exact figure for what makes a good golf handicap. Progress on your handicap can relate to many factors individual to the player from how long you have been playing golf to how many times you get to play in a week or month. Other factors such as age and physical condition make it almost impossible to give a range of what makes a good handicap. 

It is generally considered that lower handicap players are seen as better players of the game needing less help from their handicap to achieve a scoring average close to par. Data supplied by the Golf Club Managers Association indicated that the average handicap index in the UK since the introduction may not be as low as you think. 

Average UK Male Handicap Index: 17.1

Average UK Female Handicap Index: 27.2 

What is a Scratch Handicap?

A scratch golfer, or a player with a scratch handicap, is a player who has a handicap index in and around 0, meaning that when this is applied to the slope rating of a course they have a playing handicap also at zero. These players are some of the most elite in the amateur game, able to go around golf courses with gross scores close to if not beating par on regular occasions. 

What is the Maximum Handicap a Player Can Have?

The maximum handicap a golfer can have is 54. The changes to the World Handicap System in 2020 changed this from the previous high of 36 to mean both men and women can have a handicap index as high as 54.0 which is then applied to a course slope rating meaning it is possible to get a playing handicap even higher! 

Looking to lower your handicap? 

Any golfer looking to lower their handicap can do this in two main ways. Expert tuition from PGA professionals and by getting reliable golf clubs custom fit to their golf swing. While we may not offer golf lessons, we are able to offer golfers of all handicap abilities our custom-fitting experience to tailor a set of golf clubs to your needs and help you achieve your best from tee to green.

Here's a video from the R&A about what the World Handicap System entails:

Feature image credit: Gina Smith / Shutterstock