Golf handicaps are going down in 2020. Did yours?

If you're playing more during the pandemic, did your handicap go down? We dig into the numbers.
The new World Handicap System, plus perhaps COVID-19, are causing handicaps to drop in 2020.

Golfers tend to fall back on an age-old excuse when they play poorly.

"I haven't played in (insert time here)" ...

Whether that time frame is two weeks or two months, the reasoning implies that you haven't had time to dial in your driver, your short game, your putting or whatever else ails you. If you played regularly like the guys on Tour do, look out world! Your game would be lit.

A summer of COVID-19 golf likely put that theory to the test. By all metrics, the game is booming. More people are playing golf, and, in turn, those golfers are playing more often. So, if you're playing more, are you playing better? That is the question.

My handicap index has plummeted to an all-time low - 6.7 - thanks to a handful of reasons, all of which I thought were related to the pandemic. First and foremost, I'm not traveling for work, playing demanding courses one after another. My body, mind and limited talent were not made to grind out good scores on tournament-caliber courses. That was evident when I visited Big Cedar Lodge for the Payne's Valley Cup in September. I played 76 holes in three days, and didn't shoot a decent score in the bunch, ranging between 88-91.

Stuck at home, a big boost to my game is I'm playing courses I know. I understand their nuances and where to miss. That comfort level is a big deal for scoring purposes. I'm also playing at least once a week, a regular gig that helps my game find a rhythm. When I'm traveling, I tend to play 5 times in 3 days and then not play for 2-3 weeks as I catch up on the work and family responsibilities I missed when I was gone.

I'm also not ashamed to admit the first two months of COVID-19 golf involved raised cups. I "holed" a key bunker shot in a match by clanking one off the raised cup and made a "COVID eagle" by bouncing an 8-iron off a raised cup at my neighborhood muni, the Santa Teresa Golf Club in San Jose. It was virtually impossible to three-putt and making 12-footers became easier.

All of these factors add up to a nice four-stroke bump to my handicap, and my ego. When you think you're good, it feeds your confidence.

I'm not the only Golf Advisor staffer who has lowered his index in 2020. Our resident stick, Tim Gavrich, said he briefly achieved the lofty status of plus-2, an all-time best, before falling back to a plus-1. Gavrich has actually played less golf overall but more tournament golf, a format that brings out his best.

It's not just the pandemic that's propelling lower handicaps, though. Jim Cowan, the director of course rating and handicapping for the Northern California Golf Association, says that the new World Handicap System has also caused a slight dip in men's handicaps. Under this new system implemented earlier this year, the average of only eight of your best rounds (out of 20) are counted toward a handicap, not 10 under the old system. Essentially, you don't have to shoot as many low scores to get a lower handicap. There's also a new "net double bogey" rule that helps keep huge blowup holes from impacting your handicap too much.

Cowan believes raised cups might have caused some vanity handicaps early on during the pandemic.

"Though I do not have widespread data to support this, my inclination is that golfers overreacted to raised cups initially and did experience a decline in their handicap at that time (i.e., considered anything that hit the raised cup as being holed)," he wrote in an an email. "Since then I think people are posting in a more realistic manner and their handicaps have stabilized."

We reached out to TheGrint, an app-based handicap service, to get some data-based facts. TheGrint sampled 30,000 of its users, making sure each had at least 10 rounds played in 2019. On average, the handicap index of these players was 0.9 percent lower this year compared to last.

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'Handicapping' your summer golf season

There are other ways to judge whether you had a good summer of golf. When I lived in Michigan, every fall I would take stock of my summer exploits, knowing that my game was heading for hibernation. I would generally rate my summer based on the answer to four questions:

1. How many rounds did I play?
2. How many new courses did I play?
3. How many golf trips did I take?
4. Did my handicap go down?

The pandemic, obviously, killed my chances for positive answers to questions 2 and 3. I only took one trip, but thankfully, at least I got to play five new courses in a state, Missouri, I'd never tee it up in before. Thankfully, the responses to questions 1 and 4 balance things out. I played a lot AND I played pretty well. Looking back, I probably won't ever have fond memories of 2020 ... except perhaps for the weird rules and low scores from a summer of pandemic golf.

Did playing more help your handicap index go down in 2020? Let us know in the comments below.

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 1,000 courses and golf destinations for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Instagram at @jasondeegangolfadvisor and Twitter at @WorldGolfer.
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Like most of the commenters, I also dropped which is a thing since I'm 72 and my handicap has been steadliy rising for the past 5 years, from a low of around 3-4 to a high of mid-10's last year. This year, I got to play at least twice a week in semi-formal league play and threw in some weeks with 3 rounds as part of the state seniors group. So I dropped about 2.5 in index and at one point was down 3.5 index points.
We never went to the raised cups anywhere I played, though we did start the season late (late-May). It was always foam donuts.

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My index has dropped 5-6 points for a couple of reasons. I recently retired and play 3-4 times a week and like mentioned in the response above I have shot some really low scores at easier local tracks, instead of much more difficult ones. I have played many of those too but scores still better than previous times.

Commented on

Really enjoy the Golf Advisor articles. I did play more rounds this year but at less courses. Set up a net in my garage so hit balls 4-5 days a week. In 2019 my hdcp went from 15 - 12. My 2020 goal was get to 10.__ and break 80 an the 4 Fort Worth munis. Thx to Covid (and GolfPass) I'm at 7.5 today and broke 80 at 3 of the 4 munis. Thankfully I live in Texas and I can still work in a few more chances for #4.

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Thank you for reading, Chris, and congrats on the nice scores!

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My handicap went down due to 2 lessons and focusing on hitting the drive in the fairway.

I played once per week since the end of May. I played 3 new courses.

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Yes it did! I was at 20.5 last year and as of today it's down to 18.5. The number of rounds I was able to play doubled compared to last year, partly because kids sports was limited in the spring and summer. I doubt it will continue this way in 2021 so it will be a sprint to get in as many fall rounds as possible before the weather turns for the worse in NJ.

The one issue I ran into was the competition for tee times was fierce this year compared to past years. In Monmouth County NJ there are 5 regulation courses and if you did not go online at the exact moment the times opened you were left with 12pm or later. I mean 5 seconds late and nothing early. That crazy...

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Oh, the raised cups! Yeah, most of my courses used the donuts in the hole method, which may actually have repelled some shots, although most of us agreed that those were "holed" after thinking about it. Also, a few courses put in the "hook" system that allowed for a more normal hole out. All in all, I think my handicap went down a bit, but I still prefer putting with the flag out. But it was fun getting outside this summer -- I'd have gone nuts if I couldn't have golfed!

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Golf handicaps are going down in 2020. Did yours?