When you think about most sports, there’s no way for most folks to compete against the best in the world. Let’s face it, you’re not going to throw as many touchdown passes as Aaron Rodgers, score as many points as LeBron James, or score as many goals as Wayne Gretzky.
But in golf, it’s possible to compete against players that are both a lot better and a lot worse than you. That’s thanks to handicaps.
What’s a Handicap?
In short, your handicap is a numerical measurement of how skilled you are as a golfer. It’s established and continually updated based on your most recent scores.
The lower the number, the better the player.
By assigning handicaps, lesser skilled players are given additional strokes on a course’s hardest holes to level out the playing field. As an example, the difference between an eight handicap and a 12 is four strokes. In a match, the eight handicap spots the 12 handicap a single shot on the four hardest holes.
While there’s no set-in-stone-scale to define handicap ranges or classifications, the following are a general guide that most golfers use.
High handicappers are thought to be golfers with a handicap or 18 or above. You’ll often hear these types of golfers described as “bogey” golfers. An 18 handicap will typically score an average of bogey on most holes.
Higher handicappers have handicaps north of 20 or so. These folks might break 100 on a good day, but usually have a couple of bad holes that inflate their score.
The vast majority of golfers fall into the high handicap category.
Mid handicaps range from 10 to 17. More often than not, these are players that have been playing for a while and make some effort to work on their game. They probably play a few times a month, and you can find them on the range after work.
While these players hit a lot of good shots and know what they’re doing, they struggle to break 80 and are prone to mistakes.
A lot of times, mid handicappers are proficient in one or more areas of the game. However, they usually struggle with a certain aspect of two that holds them back and keeps them from breaking into the 70s for 18 holes.
Anyone with a handicap below seven falls into the low handicap category. These players regularly break 80.
Low handicaps are by far the most seasoned players around. Most have been playing golf for many years and take the game seriously. They’re meticulous about their equipment, take lessons, and spend more time practicing than mid and high handicappers.
On the course, these players make mistakes, but have the skills to recover more often than not. Very rarely will you see low handicappers card anything worse than a bogey on a single hole.
The most skilled players of this lot are what we call scratch players. They make up much less than 0.01% of the golfing population.
Scratch players break par regularly and really know what they’re doing. You’ll find that many scratch players have accomplished competitive resumes with some even having played professionally at some point.
These will be the guys playing from the back tees with the very best equipment.
What’s a Good Handicap?
Now that we’ve outlined the different classes of handicaps, you’re probably wondering what a “good” handicap is.
Again, this is subjective and depends on who you talk to. But by most estimations, a “good” handicap is considered anything 10 or less. A golfer with a 10 handicap averages a score in the neighborhood of 82. Most of these golfers are comfortable playing any course from the appropriate set of tees.
While these players might be inconsistent at times, they generally know what they’re doing.
Anyone with a handicap less than 10 is considered a “good” or “very good” player.
How Can I Lower My Handicap?
As much as the marketing teams at club companies like to make you think playing their equipment can lower your handicap, there’s a lot more to the equation. As our Golfer’s Authority Instructors are fond of saying, you can’t buy a good golf game.
Like anything else worthwhile, the fastest way to lower your handicap is through proper practice. All too often, golfers practice without knowing what they’re doing, or work on the wrong things.
That’s why investing in some lessons is a good idea if you want to lower your handicap. Once you have an idea of what you need to get better at, it’s up to you to work on it.
If you’re looking for results in the shortest period of time, any instructor will tell you to practice your short game. Up 75% of your shots come inside of 100 yards, so it reasons that this is the part of the game you should spend the most time practicing.
Why is My Handicap Different at Different Courses?
Not all golf courses are created equal. Some are harder or easier than others. As such, they’re rated differently by the USGA.
A 10 handicap at one course, might be a seven or 13 at another course.
Whenever you go to a new course, check the course’s conversion chart to see what your handicap translates to. For a more detailed look at course ratings, handicap indexes, and course handicaps, check out our article about handicaps.
What’s the Average Handicap?
Even though there isn’t a lot of empirical data to answer this question, the average handicap is thought to be somewhere between 16 and 18.
The fact is that most golfers don’t play all that often. Even those that do, don’t spend the necessary time practicing to get better.
A 16 handicap is going to shoot scores in the high 80s and low 90s most of the time.
What is Sandbagging?
The last thing you ever want to be labeled on a golf course is a sandbagger. A sandbagger is someone who intentionally posts inflated scores to boost their handicap. They do this so that they’ll receive more shots on the hardest holes from their competition.
Thankfully, most golf associations have safeguards in place to prevent excessive sandbagging. If you get labeled a sandbagger, there’s a good chance you’ll be excommunicated from your group. And the label is hard to shake.
When it comes to your handicap, honesty is always the best policy.
Golf is a game that’s meant to be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of ability. In theory, the highest handicap in the world can compete against the lowest on a somewhat level playing field.
If you’re just starting out with golf, your handicap is probably going to be higher than you like. The good news is that handicaps can come down quickly. All it takes is some practice and little patience to start shooting the scores you know you’re capable of.