A golfer is asked: 'What's your handicap?' The reply: "Playing golf."
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 roughly 15 percent of all golfers have legitimate handicaps, the answers, whether the golfer is trying to be truthful or not, are often wrong, plain and simple.
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 handicap index, because of the way handicaps are self-reported, 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 proper handicaps. For example, if you regularly compete in official events, your handicap will land you in a certain flight. Your tournament scores carry far more weight in the World Handicap System that was adopted in 2020. Shoot a few low scores or win a couple of times, and you're likely to get bumped up to a more skilled flight.
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:
How to get a golf handicap
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 United States Golf Association. You will pay a yearly fee for this service.
In the old days, you used to turn in your scorecards to your pro, who would then help get your handicap index. 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. Like golf itself, integrity is a big part of the process.
It's certainly not necessary to know the handicapping formula, but a basic understanding of it will help in your informal matches 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.
How to calculate a golf handicap
Individual handicaps are determined by a complex formula. When you are posting your hole-by-hole scores in the USGA's GHIN app or on the computer, net double bogey is the maximum allowed on each hole. You can establish a handicap by entering as few as five scores, but only the lowest score would be used to determine your handicap. Once you get to 20 total scores posted, the average of the 8 lowest scores of your last 20 rounds are used to determine your handicap.
What is course rating?
In order for handicaps to travel, courses have been rated to determine which ones are harder or easier. We all know that not all courses were 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.
What is slope rating?
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 USGA'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 Website, popeofslope.com.
Course and slope ratings aren't just used to determine handicaps; they are also used to adjust a person's handicap when bouncing from course to course. Without getting too complicated, when a course is harder than average, a player will get more strokes than his or her handicap when competing at that course. If the course is easier, he or she will receive fewer strokes.
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. Courses weren't rated yet, so this method didn't travel well 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. And, as we all know too well, rarely do we play to our potential. That's why shooting your handicap "number" should be celebrated. If your expectation is to shoot your handicap every round, you better find another sport. It's impossible to live up to round after round. Golf ... the ultimate pursuit of a perfection we'll never reach.