If you only play your home course, is your handicap too low?

June 29, 2024

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Are you a Home Course Golfer? Those players who know each blade of their home course so well that they can scrape it around for a respectable score even when they’re not playing well. Home Course Golfers play the large majority of their rounds at their course and enter them all into GHIN to get an accurate USGA Handicap Index.

But, a strange thing happens when Home Course Golfers head to a new course that they haven’t seen before. One HCG who routinely shoots in the high 70s and low 80s on his home turf might struggle to break 90 anywhere else. He loses all of his net matches on away courses while his buddies joke amongst themselves that he’s got a vanity index.

Sam J., a Golf Digest+ member, recently wrote to us, confessing that he is a frustrated HCG who regularly shoots in the low 70s around his home course in Connecticut, but anytime he plays another course, his scores balloon. Here’s how he puts it:

"I’m a 5-handicap, but my game doesn’t travel well. About 90 percent of my rounds are played at one course that I’ve played for decades. Every time I tee it up at my course, I’m hoping to shoot under par, but whenever I play a different course, I’m happy to break 80. Why doesn’t the number of times you play a course weigh into the handicap calculation, to account for familiarity?"

To help Sam, and the rest of us, figure out if it would be practical and helpful to include a “home course advantage” metric in calculating a Handicap Index, we took his question to the Handicap Team at the USGA.

(Editor’s Note: This story is part of the new Golf Digest Community section, where we engage with Golf Digest+ members. We encourage all members to submit swing videos, great stories, questions or feedback on recent stories here for a chance to be included in a future edition.)

How common are HCGs? Can we just add a couple shots to someone’s score on his or her home course, or subtract a few on an away course to account for this familiarity? Does Sam have a vanity index?

The USGA, of course, has long studied the data and formula used to create a golfer’s Handicap Index, and in 2020 helped launch the World Handicap System to unify the various handicapping systems used around the world into one cohesive system.

Lee Rainwater, the USGA’s director of handicapping education and outreach, responded to Sam’s question and explained very interesting data. "Our research shows that golfers have a slightly better chance of shooting a good score at a course where they have a high familiarity versus a course they play less often," he says.

So, many, if not most golfers, are HCGs (but not necessarily as extreme as Sam) who shoot slightly higher on away courses. But, as Rainwater continues, that is not the case for everyone. "A significant number of players post similar or better score differentials on away courses versus their home course," he adds.

The problem in accounting for this within the World Handicap System, however, is that it’s tough to judge just how much of an HCG someone is compared to another player. If Sam shoots eight strokes higher, on average, on an away course of similar difficulty but another player averages only three strokes higher on away courses, how can you factor in this home course advantage equitably between them?

"The tricky thing is that there are many variables at work here—the type of player, how often they play, the Course Rating and Slope Rating, the shots required to score at a given course, etc.," Rainwater says.

As Rainwater alludes to, we’ve all played courses that require an especially high amount of local knowledge to get around, and we’ve all played straightforward courses where we can feel comfortable playing it blindly. Putting a numerical value on the home course advantage at each course would be quite ambiguous and often inaccurate.

Lastly, each golfer has certain courses that fit his or her game better than others. If you play a home course that plays to your strengths and hides your weaknesses, you’re likely going to have a higher home course advantage than another golfer who finds that course exposes his or her weaknesses. All that is to say, how do you value a home course advantage when it differs from player to player?

This leads to a perhaps unsatisfying answer for all of the HCGs out there—it’s just not practical to accurately account for this advantage without creating a host of other issues. "This could create inconsistencies from player to player," Rainwater says. It's also important to remember that the data show that this home course advantage is likely not as much as you think either.

Still, for those HCGs who play significantly better on their home course, Rainwater says new Handicap Review tools will soon be available, which courses can use to make adjustments to golfers’ handicaps if they deem them not accurate enough.

“The Handicap Committee at a golf club has the responsibility of making sure the Handicap Index of golfers at their club represents their demonstrated ability,” he says. “While Handicap Committees and Handicap Review have been in place for many years, the USGA is soon releasing Handicap Review tools that use scoring data to recommend Handicap Index adjustments where appropriate.

“While treating home and away scores differently within the Handicap Index calculation is not in our current plans, these tools will be a modern and data-driven way to support the important role of the golf club’s Handicap Committee.”