From the archive

How much better are golfers today vs. 40 years ago? Not as much as you might think

February 22, 2024

At the center of the golf ball rollback expected to be put in place for all golfers by the end of the decade is the belief that the best players are getting too good. More precisely, they are hitting the ball too far, causing courses to play too short and shot-making to be less of a priority. But really, the issue is layered by the notion that improved technology, fitness and technique have today’s best players playing the game a little too well.

What about the rest of us? Not even the staunchest rollback disciple will argue that the average player hits the ball too far. Yet surely those same advances in equipment helping pro golfers over the last several decades have translated to better golf for the everyday player, right?

A March 1984 feature by Golf Digest's current Editor-in-Chief Jerry Tarde revealed the results of a USGA survey of golfers’ handicaps that at the time was the largest sampling of handicaps ever studied. It comprised 250,000 golfers across the country, with a breakdown of 76 percent men and 24 percent women.

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The survey found that in 1983, the average Handicap Index for male golfers was 17, while the average for females was 31.5. Forty years later, the Handicap Index data from the USGA, fueled by the launch of the World Handicap System in 2020, is far more extensive, with more than 3.2 million golfers having a Handicap Index. The USGA recently released statistics on today’s golfers, including the average handicap. For men, the average Index is 14, and the average for women is 28.


USGA handicap distribution from 1984.

Before we take a deeper look at the numbers, it’s worth noting that the formula for calculating a Handicap Index has changed a little over the years. With the adoption of the WHS, the USGA went away from the longtime practice of counting the best 10 score differentials (determined by the Course Rating and Slope) of a golfer’s last 20 rounds. Now, only a golfer’s eight best score differentials out of his or her last 20 rounds are counted.

Yet while that may indicate why handicaps have improved over time, consider that the old formula multiplied the average differentials by 96 percent, whereas today the full value is used. That may offset any decrease in handicaps caused by only counting the eight best rounds. Simply put, though the formula used is different today than 40 years ago, handicaps remain generally comparable.

Now, back to the data. Both male and female golfers have seen Handicap Index improvements of about three strokes over the last 40 years, but considering all the advances in technology and course conditioning, that is quite modest. Of course, today we have far more forgiving clubs than the persimmons and blades of the 1980s. The advent of metal woods, hybrids and higher-lofted wedges with a variety of grinds and bounces has lessened the need for precision to become an adequate golfer.

What’s more, the golf ball spins less and flies farther today, and off-center strikes no longer dive offline as quickly. Course maintenance has improved significantly, allowing greens to run more smoothly and in theory allowing for golfers to make more putts.

All of this is to say what we already know (or think we know), anecdotally: golf today is easier than it was 40 years ago.


USGA data from 2023 on all male golfers with a Handicap Index.

Courtesy of the USGA

Breaking down the data further shows where the modest improvement in handicaps has come from. In 1983, about 17 percent of male golfers had a handicap above 25, while that number is only 8.5 percent today. About 54 percent of women had a handicap above 30 in 1983, while that number is only 43 percent today. Taken together, there are less golfers with high or very high handicaps. Perhaps it is those golfers who the equipment advances have helped most.

On the other end of the spectrum, there has been a less significant change in the number of scratch golfers. In 1983, just 0.1 percent of male golfers had an Index better than 0. While that number has increased to about 2 percent today, it remains a very small subset of golfers.

What hasn’t changed is the number of male golfers with a handicap between 10 and 20. Forty years ago, 48 percent of male golfers fell into this range, and today, that number is about 49 percent. This is the range we largely associate as being “average,” and a similarly large portion of golfers are still, well, average.


Data from 1983 breaks down golfers by handicap.

So what explains these handicap trends, or lack thereof, over the last 40 years? Sure, equipment has helped poor golfers move into the “average” bucket, but overall, golfers are only slightly better than they were in the 1980s. On the surface, we should have expected more progress.

One theory is that, despite all the technological advances, golf is still a very difficult game, and it is tough to improve beyond a certain point. We all have a limit to how good we can get. That limit existed in 1983, and it exists today (see: less than 2 percent of golfers are scratch).

Another explanation is that while course conditions have made greens smoother, they are also much faster now. Faster greens accentuate slopes, repel average approach shots and make breaking putts more difficult to hole.

Lastly, many observe that improved fitness and nutrition regimens among the game’s best has fueled their increased driving distance and lower scores. This, of course is correct, but that doesn’t necessarily hold true for the average golfer. For the rest of us, that mid-round beer and dog is just as tempting today as it was in 1983. Sure, some may be in better shape now, but any difference for players at our level is far less than on tour.

Perhaps this leaves us with a sobering acknowledgment, then: While we can expect to make incremental improvements in our games, there is a limit to our progress. But, hell, that’s for you—I plan on dropping more than three shots in the next 40 years.