Who Needs a Golf Handicap?

By: Nancy Berkley

The simple answer is: You do. That is unless you always play the same course from the same set of tees and are only interested in whether or not you scored better or worse than you have before.

But, if you want to play with golfers of different skill levels and on different courses, and you want a little competition, even just for fun, you will need a handicap. That trophy will look great on your shelf!

In accordance with the USGA Handicap Systemô and stated most simply, a handicap permits golfers of lesser skills to get some extra strokes when they play with better golfers on the same course. That creates the level playing field that is the basis of golf competition.

Before you stop reading because the idea of competition just turns you off, please think again. The game of golf offers not only individual competition but team competitions as well.

There are some competitive formats, such as a "Scramble," where you can be the star of your team if you are a good putter but can't hit more than 50 yards off a tee and have the maximum handicap allowed.

Although there are many golf tournaments at the professional level and at your local golf course that are gender-based - either an all-women or all-men's tournament - there are many formats that are designed for men and women to play together as a team. It's the Handicap System that makes it possible.

Let's demystify the Handicap System and encourage you to establish a handicap. At almost every golf course or golf organization, there will be someone to help you understand how to enter your scores into the handicap computer and get that handicap. And you will probably come to agree with me that competition on the golf course whether among friends or on an inter-club team and even if just occasionally, will sharpen your skills.

For example, my friend Rona is not as good a golfer as I am. My handicap is about five strokes better than hers which means that on average, I will finish a round using five strokes less than she does. But, if we play for a nickel a hole in what is called "match play" (each golf hole is its own contest), something happens. What I notice is that once Rona has a chance to win a nickel, she just plays better. It's not that Rona keeps a dishonest handicap or really needs that nickel. She just likes competition and plays better in a competitive format. And when I play with Rona, I do, too.

The unique feature of golf competition using the USGA Handicap Systemô is that players of different abilities can compete fairly on any golf course. Through the use of a "Handicap Index" (discussed below)., the Handicap System allows me to adjust my handicap based on the difficulty or easiness of any other course, making my handicap is "portable."

Getting back to the Rona and Nancy match. When I play at Rona's home course in a hilly part of New Jersey, I have a slightly higher Course Handicap than at my home course in Florida. I need more strokes on Rona's course to compete fairly with Rona for that nickel.

The USGA Handicap System is not easy to understand. In fact there are lots of golfers who think they understand handicaps, but don't. For example, many golfers believe that a golfer's handicap is simply the difference between their average score on a course and the course par - such as 72. So if a golfer has an average score of 100, they think that on a course with a par of 72, they will have a 28 handicap. Wrong!

The computation of a handicap under the USGA Handicap System is designed to challenge a golfer. It represents a golfer's potential. Only when I am playing my very, very best, will my score minus my course handicap equal par. It doesn't happen very often.

Another incorrect assumption is that a Course Handicap and a Handicap Index is the same thing. Wrong again! I'll try to keep my explanations simple. but for the most accurate description, visit www.usga.org and click on the handicap section. The USGA website has a very complete explanation of handicaps.

The Basics

There are two basic handicap calculations. One is your Course Handicap. That's your official handicap on the particular course you are playing. Most golfers that play regularly on a course know their Course Handicap. The other calculation is your Handicap Index which is the most significant handicap calculation. The Handicap Index is used to compute your Course Handicap. And the Handicap Index provides for the portability of your handicap to other courses.

Handicaps are not secrets. In fact, they are intentionally public. At most golf clubs - usually in the women's and men's locker rooms, there will be a list of all the handicaps of all the players that maintain handicaps at that golf club. Look for that list in your locker room or pro shop. A new list is posted every two weeks when the handicap systems recalculate your handicaps based on recent scores.

Scores are public to encourage handicap honesty. That is in keeping with golf's major tenet that "golf is a game of honor." We expect golfers to play honestly on the course, such as taking a penalty for an "unplayable" ball, and we expect golfers to post all their scores.

So if you play with someone who announces at the beginning of the round that she is a lousy golfer with a 32 handicap and then shots 90, you might want to look at her official handicap and her posted scores. Hmmm? What does that tell you?

How do you find out the handicaps of other golfers? It's very simple. Let's use me as an example. Go to www.ghin.com and look me up on "Handicap Lookup" tab: Use Florida as the state and Berkley, Nancy as the name. Bingo! You can see that as of 1/1/2112, I have a Handicap (HCP) Index of 17.7. (If you are reading this later, my Handicap Index may have already changed as more recent scores were added from which my handicap was computed.)

One caveat: The GHIN system is one of several systems that manage and compute handicaps. If your club is not on the GHIN system, there is probably a website that allows you to see all the handicaps at your course on the system your club uses.

Over on the right of my handicap GHIN info you can see that my lowest Handicap Index was 16.8. I am not playing as well as I probably could if I played more and practiced more. Sound familiar?

My current Handicap Index travels with me wherever I play. It is based on the 10 best scores I post out of the last 20 scores I post. The scores that are used to compute my index will have an asterisk next to them. So if I have a really bad round, I still post it in the computer system because it will most probably not be a score used to calculate my Handicap Index.

Once I know my Handicap Index, I can determine the handicap I play with at any course that complies with the proprietary rules of the USGA Handicap Systemô. On my GHIN page that you were looking at, click on the "CH Calculator" column. That's the "Course Handicap" calculator. To get my official handicap at Banyan Golf Club - my home course in Florida, enter Banyan's Slope for the Red tees that I play. (Slope is discussed below.) Banyan's Slope for the Red tees is 122. Click to calculate and you will see that at Banyan, I play to a 19 handicap. Almost every course you play in the U.S. will have a USGA Slope and it's usually marked on the scorecard next to the set of tees it is based on.

And, you will also notice on my GHIN handicap page, that I maintain a handicap at a club in New Jersey, Mountain Ridge Golf Club. I have the same Handicap Index there but that is a much more difficult course with a Slope of 139 from the forward ladies tees. When I enter that 139 Slope in the Course Handicap Calculator, I play to a 22 handicap at Mountain Ridge. That's how the portability of handicaps works.

During the summer, I like to play the course at Beaver Creek Golf Club near Vail, Colo. On that course the women's tees I play have a Slope of 128, so my handicap is 20.

Understanding how the course's Rating and Slope is determined is a key to understanding handicaps and why you should have one. Part II (below) explains who the Rating and Slope of a golf course is determined.

Who Needs a Handicap? Part II

The next question is how are the rating and Slope of a course determined? On most scorecards, you will notice the designations of Rating and Slope for each set of tees. Some sets of tees - the longer ones - are rated just for male players, the shorter sets of tees for females, and some for both genders.

The USGA educates and trains certain good golfers to be official "raters." There are male raters for tees that men play and female raters for tees that women play.

Just briefly, the Rating of a course is the number of strokes an expert amateur female or male golfer (playing "scratch" golf as it is called - with a zero handicap) would take on that course from a designated set of tees.

The materials that the USGA prepares for raters include very specific information about how far female and male expert amateur golfers hit balls with their clubs. This information is obtained by studying the shots made by amateurs in the USGA female and male amateur competitions.

There is no guessing involved. The distances are based on statistical analysis of expert golfers. For example, the USGA Course Rating System Guide supplied to official raters provides that a female "scratch" golfer (a golfer who plays to a zero-handicap) can hit her tee shot 210 yards including a 20-yard roll.

The Slope of a course is based on a handicap formula that uses the score a "bogey" female or male golfer would have on that designated set of tees. (A bogey golfer by definition requires one stroke over par on every hole.) According to the USGA ratings guide, a bogey female golfer can hit her tee shot 150 yards.

The Slope numbers don't relate to a golf score but are derived from a proprietary USGA formula. A Slope of 124 has nothing to do with a score of 124. As an example, here is how the Slope and Ratings look for men and women on my Banyan Golf Club scorecard:

On the card you will see that four tees: the Black, Blue, White and Gold have a Slope and Rating for men. Most often on scorecards, the tees that men play are at the top of the scorecard. Women's are on the bottom.

At the bottom of the scorecard are the Slope and Rating for three sets of tees women regularly or occasionally play. Most women play from the Red tees, which are 5,296 yards. But if women wanted to play from the White or Gold Tees, they have Slope and Rating based on the skills of female scratch and bogey golfers.

You may have noticed that both the Gold and White tees are rated for both men and women. There are some women golfers who can carry all the hazards and hit long balls and would enjoy playing the White tees. Female professional golf instructors would also probably play from those tees.

Let's look at those White tees, which are 6,266 yards. If an expert female golfer played those tees, she would score 76.4 (that's the Rating for a female). If a male expert amateur were to play those same tees, he would score 70.5. (That's the Rating for his White tees.) That's about six shots less for a male golfer than for an expert female.

Based on all the statistics gathered by the USGA and used in the rating system, the USGA has computed ball-striking distances and determined that on average (recognizing there are some exceptions to every generalization) men hit the ball farther than women.

Now look at the difference in Slope between men and women on that set of White tees. If I were to play the White tees, my handicap would be several strokes higher than on the Red Tees that I usually play.

I would use the Course Handicap Calculator and compute my handicap based on a slope of 135. My handicap from the White tees would be 21. That makes sense because I would need more strokes to have a fair competition against a male player from those longer White tees.

The USGA Handicap Systemô does provide a method for equitable handicaps even when men and women are competing against each other from different sets of tees. Those adjustments are based on the Ratings for the different sets of tees.

I'm saving a fuller discussion of applying handicaps in both stroke play and match play for another article. But, quite simply, in stroke play (sometimes called medal play) all the strokes you take on all the holes are added up at the end of the round - either 18 or nine holes. That is the "gross" score and then your Course Handicap is deducted from that gross score to compute your "net" score. It's the net score that is the level-playing-field score because it takes into account the golfers' handicaps. In some tournament formats there are winners for both gross and net scores.

Match play is hole-by-hole play. In other words, each hole is its own match. You win a hole, lose a hole, or tie a hole. See that little "+/-" in the middle of the Banyan scorecard? That's where the player keeps track of how many hole she or he is winning or losing.

Understanding stroke and match play is best learned out on the course. If you need some help understanding it, ask a friend to take you out for six-hole round and play both a stroke and match-play competition. You will get the idea very quickly of the difference between the competitions and how they are scored.

In the meantime, when you get to any golf course, it's a good idea to look at the scorecard before you automatically pick a tee by color. Look at the Slope and Rating of a course from each set of tees.

As a female bogey golfer, when I see a set of tees with a women's rating of par or over par, I know that it is going to be a challenging course for me. If an expert amateur female golfer who hits her drive 210 yards just makes par, I know that for me it is going to be a long course or a course with some difficult carries over hazards, perhaps narrow fairways, strategic landing areas and probably many bunkers. On the other hand, if the Women's Rating is 68 on a par-72 course, I know play will be easier for me.

And I look at the Slope. If the Slope of the tees I am considering is in the mid-120s, as a bogey golfer the course will be manageable and I will not be intimidated or overwhelmed. Of course, sometimes I love a challenge and I'll play from the harder tees if they are rated for women golfers and I know what I am getting into.

The lesson is: Start looking at Ratings and Slopes on different sets of Tees. Get familiar with the scorecard at the courses you regularly play. Before you tee off, learn to recognize a set of tees that will not be too challenging or not challenging enough. Pick the set that's right for you. And it's okay to try out different sets of tees. There is even a way to calculate scores and handicaps in the USGA Handicap System if you mix and match holes from a different set of tees.

Always post your score when you are finished using the Equitable Stroke Control (ESC). Every golfer should know about ESC, which I will discuss in a future article. But it's a great question to ask your golf professional or a good friend.

Once you have posted five scores, you will have a "Trend" handicap - good enough to use in most competitions. Post 10 scores and you will have an official Handicap Index and be able to establish a Course Handicap on any course you play. You will be ready to compete.

Nancy Berkley, President of Berkley Golf Consulting, is an expert on women's golf and junior-girls golf. She is a frequent contributor to www.cybergolf.com/womensgolf. Her book, "Women Welcome Here! A Guide to Growing Women's Golf," published by the National Golf Foundation, is an industry reference on marketing golf to women and spotting trends within the industry. She offers information and advice about the golf industry on www.berkleygolfconsulting.com and is often quoted in national publications. She was a contributing editor of "Golf for Women" magazine and a founding advisor of "Golfer Girl Magazine." Her interviews with women in the golf industry now appear on www.golfergirlcareers.com. Nancy lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., and is a graduate of the University of Minnesota, Harvard University and Rutgers Law School. After a business and legal career, she decided to write about the game she learned and loved as a teenager. She describes herself as a good bogey golfer with permanent potential.