The Handicap System

How does it work?
The basics of what is a handicap have been explained in an earlier section.

The handicap basically allows people of very different golfing ability to compete with each other. Other sports do have a ‘handicap’ system, but nowhere does it work as effectively as in the game of golf.

Let’s take an example of a 9 handicap player meeting a 16-handicapper in a Matchplay singles match. They would take the difference between their handicaps (7) and apply the ¾ of difference principle (if their club uses this rather than the full difference) = 5.25 – rounded to the nearest full number (=5). The 16 handicap player would get an extra stroke over his opponent at the first 5 stroke index numbered holes on the course.

Handicaps are administered by the Golf Clubs themselves, according to rules laid down by their responsible national union.

Officially, there is no other way, despite the claims of a number of bodies to being able to award ‘official handicaps’ (except where low handicaps are administered by a regional body rather than a club)

Most golf clubs have a committee (council) member responsible for this. A players handicap can be varied upwards or downwards as a result of his/her performance in ‘qualifying competitions’. The committee also has the right under the rules of golf (rule 19b) to make merit adjustments to a members handicap.

Handicaps fall into 4 categories for men and 6 for ladies, as follows:

Category Handicap range
1 0 – 5
2 6 – 12
3 13 – 20
4 21 – 28
5 29 – 40
6 41 – 45

Clubs often have names rather than category numbers for the different levels, ranging from the Gold/silver etc to the Tigers and Rabbits and the like.

Stroke Index
All golf clubs are required to publish a HANDICAP STROKE TABLE, indicating the order of holes at which handicap strokes are to be given or received. This always appears on the course scorecard under the heading stroke index. This is a list of numbers from 1 to 18 where handicap strokes are taken. The lower numbers indicate a higher degree of difficulty, hence a person receiving, for example, 9 strokes, either in a handicap competition or from a playing opponent, would receive an extra stroke at each of the holes with a Stroke Index from 1 to 9 inclusive.
The ‘degree of difficulty’ is a relative term, as the Club Committee is requested to observe a number of recommendations when setting the stroke index – such as ‘balancing’ the numbers between the two ‘nines’ of an 18-hole course. This is especially noticeable if you visit a course which has 3 or more ‘nines’ which can be played in different combinations – allowance must be made for the balancing and other factors, when wondering why a hole played much easier (or harder!) than its stroke index would indicate. One thing you can guarantee – the stroke index 1 hole has been given that status for a very good reason!

Qualifying competitions
These are normally club competitions which ‘qualify’ for handicap adjustment purposes. These is a complex area and not for these pages! Purely as an example, a competition may be declared non-qualifying if it is played when many temporary greens are in use, affecting the overall length of the course.

Standard Scratch Score (SSS)
This is a fixed number agreed by the Club with the ruling bodies. This is the score it would be expected a scratch golfer would go round in. This can differ from the course par by anything up to +3 to –3 of the course par. It is this number which is used for handicap adjustment, rather than the par of the course.

Competition Scratch Score
This is arrived at as a result of calculations on the day of a competition, taking into account the degree of difficulty (climactic conditions) size of field and generally how the different handicap categories performed. If this is different to the SSS, it replaces it for that day

Qualifying score
Any score, including a ‘no-return’ returned in a qualifying competition
Net differential
Is the difference (+or-) between the nett score returned by a player in a qualifying competition and the competition scratch score

Buffer Zone Adjustments
Changes to handicaps are made in accordance with a set of rules administered by the national/regional authority. For simplicity’s sake, a player’s handicap may increase or decrease by a tenth of a point for every full shot that player is above or below the CSS x the number of their category. So a 10- handicap player (category 2) coming in 3 below the CSS would expect to see his handicap reduced by 3 x 0.2 shots = 0.6.

There is a so-called ‘buffer zone’ which prevents handicaps increasing quite so directly. Again, the category number is used, but this time as a whole number, and this is applied before any adjustments are made. So a score of 3 over CSS for our 10-handicapper (category 2) would result in an increase in handicap of just 0.1.

Exact v Playing handicap
It will be immediately apparent that there is no point moving handicaps up and down by the odd decimal place if there is no record kept of other than round numbers. Every player has an exact handicap as well as a playing one. The playing one is simply the ‘rounded’ whole number of the exact one. Thus 8.4 = 8, 8.5 = 9