Missouri Golf Post

Dear Dr. Divot,

I have been a member of my club for only a short time, and one of the first things people want to know is: “what’s your handicap?”  I’ve never had a handicap before, so I’m not sure exactly how I should react.

After all the old jokes about my swing and my short game being my biggest handicaps, I’m at a loss. Help me out, Doc. What’s an “index” and how does a handicap work?


Welcome aboard, Rook! You have graduated to the class of real golfers – people who enjoy the game and post their score every time they play. Your USGA handicap lets men, women, youngsters…even people who play from different tees, compete on a more-or-less equal footing.

After you have turned-in (or posted by computer) at least five scores, you’ll receive a USGA handicap index when the next revision period rolls around. It could be something like 23.6.

When you have enough rounds posted, your handicap index will be based on the best 10 of your last 20 scores.

When you go to www.ghin.com or somewhere in the locker room or the pro shop, you’ll find a chart that lets you convert your index into your actual course handicap… the “slope system,” There should be one for each set of tees. When you go to another course, they’ll have similar charts, so you can be sure you’re getting (or giving) the correct number of strokes.

And this would be a good time for the ol’ Doc to urge you to play from a set of tees that lets you enjoy your round, have a chance to hit greens in regulation and have a good time. Don’t be talked into biting off more than your game can chew.

We call that “Playing it forward.”  Don’t be a hero, Rook. They put those forward tee markers there for a reason.

So, I guessed your index will be 23.6. That could be as much as 27 from the back tees, 26 from the middle tees, and from the forward markers (where you probably belong, Rookie) maybe a 25. That means to have a fair game with a “scratch” player you should get 25 strokes.

You’d get a “pop” on every hole and two shots on the seven holes rated as the ones where you need the most help against the really good player. Look for the “Handicap” line on your score card and you’ll probably find holes 1, 3, 5and 7  on the front nine and 2, 4 and 6 on the back.

But be careful when making those first-tee wagers, Rook. A player should shoot his handicap only about 25 percent of the time. That’s because, as I said, your handicap is based on an average of the best 10 out of the last 20 scores posted.

Many players think a 25 handicap means if they don’t shoot 97 on their par 72 course they’ve had a rotten day. Not true. I could go into a long speech about the quality of your day not being tied to the score you shoot, but I’ll spare you the lecture.

It’s pretty complicated, but all you need to know is that handicaps are based on the course rating, not on par. So, if your course is rated 70.1 from your tees, you’ll “shoot your handicap” if you score 98. The lowest score on your 20-round record should be 93, and the statistical odds of shooting 92 or lower twice in the 20-round span are about 50:1.

Don’t get too hung-up on the details, Rookie. They’ll take care of themselves. Just post every score you shoot, every time you play and enjoy the game. An accurate, honest handicap makes this great game fair and fun.

As for the “handicap” of your short game and your swing,  the ol’ Doc’s prescription is easy: go see your local PGA Professional. Get on a program of regular lessons and you’ll see that index melt before the end of the season.

Dr. Divot


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The Missouri Golf Post is a monthly digital magazine that “celebrates the people who play the game.” Each monthly issue contains several “feature” stories on golfers, golf courses, and/or major tournaments of interest statewide. Each issue contains a number of regular departments on topics such as Tournament Summaries, Fitness, “The Superintendent’s Corner,” Instruction, and Rules.


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