Golf handicaps: a guide

From working it out to understanding the stroke index, there's much to learn about golf handicaps

Andy Roberts's picture
Tue, 12 May 2015

Golf handicaps: a guide

Golf is one of very few sports where players can compete on a level playing field regardless of ability, and that is all down to handicaps. 

From working out handicaps and discovering how they change, to learning about stroke index and giving strokes in matchplay, there is much to take in when it comes to this often complex, yet characteristic feature of our game.

What is a golf handicap?

A golf handicap represents the number of strokes you are typically going to take above those of a "scratch" golfer (someone who plays of a zero handicap).

It serves as the number of strokes needed to be deducted from the player's "gross" score (the actual score) so that when the golfer plays to their average ability, the "net" score (the score after the handicap has been deducted) equals a "standard score". 

The amount deducted (i.e. the player's handicap) is calculated so as to be representative of the player's current ability and potential at the point in time that they play in a competition.

Only amateurs have handicaps. Professionals do not have handicaps. 

How to calculate a golf handicap

A player must join a Council of National Golf Unions (CONGU) affiliated club, which will then make the following recommendations for handicap allowances:

Each of the first three scorecards (minimum) a player submits is assessed individually against the Standard Scratch Score (SSS - a measure of the playing difficulty of a golf course). CONGU allows a double bogey (two shots over par) maximum on any holes.

The SSS is then subtracted from the adjusted gross score to give a handicap. Whichever of the three scorecards indicates the lowest handicap, then the player is allocated that handicap.

In the UK, the maximum handicap for men is 28 and the maximum for women is 36.

Another important thing to note is that if an official handicap reads .5, the handicap goes up. For example, if the player's handicap is 14.5, the handicap is 15. 

Understanding the "stroke index" 

A common misconception is that stroke index simply gives an indication of a hole’s difficulty, i.e. the hardest hole on the course is stroke index one, second hardest is two and so on.

In fact, difficulty is just one of the many criteria considered when distributing stroke indexes and there is typically an even spread of stroke indexes on either nine.

Stroke indexes one and two tend to be allocated somewhere in the centre of each nine. This is because in many matches, where the handicap difference is minimal, the placing of the lower indexed holes is of vital importance.

An effort is generally made to ensure the first six should not be allocated to adjacent holes, and the first and last holes are often not given a stroke index below nine.

If the player's handicap is 18, the golfer receives one shot on each hole as the stroke index for each hole will be anything from one to 18. 

However, if the player's handicap is 28, the golfer receives one shot on all 18 holes and two shots on holes with a stroke index from one to 10, thus making up 28 shots. 

If a player's handicap is 16, the player receives one shot on holes where the stroke index is between one and 16, but does not receive a shot on holes where the stroke index is 17 or 18. 

How to give strokes in matchplay

In matchplay, the difference between two players' handicaps is the number of strokes given by one player to another.

These strokes are taken at different holes according to the stroke index of each hole on the course.

For example, if Player A is receiving four strokes from Player B, then Player A is given an additional shot on the holes where the stroke index is one, two, three and four. 

Singles: the lowest handicap player gives strokes to their opponent based on the full difference between the two handicaps.

Foursomes: each pair adds up their handicaps and takes the difference between the two totals; you then divide this difference by two to get the number of shots the higher handicap pair receives from the lower handicap pair. 

Fourballs: the lowest handicap player gives strokes to the other three players based on three quarters of the difference between the lowest handicap and that of each player

Handicap stroke allowances

Some tournaments require a golfer to use three quarters or half of their handicap. 

For example, if the player is off an eight handicap, he or she will be off six (if three quarters) or four (if half).

If the player is off nine, he or she will be playing off seven (if three quaters) or five (if half). 

Using handicaps in strokeplay tournaments

Singles: the player's full handicap is deducted from the total score

Foursomes: half of the total handicap of both players is deducted from the total score

Fourballs: players receive three quarters of their handicaps according to the stroke index

Stableford singles: full handicap with strokes deducted at each hole according to the stroke index 

Stableford foursomes: half of the total handicap of both players, with strokes deducted at each hole according to the stroke index

Stableford fourballs: players receive three quarters of their handicaps, with strokes deducted at each hole according to the stroke index

How handicaps change after each round

Only competitions that are handicap qualifying competitions will automatically trigger handicap revisions.

Typically, handicaps are reduced by 0.4 for each stroke a category-four player (handicaps between 21 and 28) shoots under their handicap, 0.3 for each stroke a category-three player (handicaps between 13 and 20) shoots under their handicap, 0.2 for a category-two player (handicaps between six and 12) and 0.1 for a category-one player (handicaps up to five).

If the result is more than zero plus your buffer zone (zero to four shots for category four; zero to three shots for category three; zero to two shots for category two; zero to one shot for category one), your handicap increases by 0.1.

For example, if your handicap is 17.3 (category three) and the card you entered was a gross score of 87 and the standard scratch score is 67, your net score would be three shots (87 - 67 = 20) above your handicap. As your buffer zone allows you to be between zero and three shots above your handicap (17 + three) then no adjustment is made. 

If your gross score was 81, meaning you were three shots (i.e. 81 - 67 = 14) under your handicap, then your handicap would reduce to 16.4 (17.3 - (0.3 x 3)).

Click this link to find out more about the full CONGU uniformed handicapping system.

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