The Long Game

Our handicaps are going up. Are we really getting worse?

What upward movement does and doesn't say about your progress
June 17, 2024

The Long Game tracks the Handicap Index progress of four Golf Digest editors of different abilities throughout the 2024 golf season. Catch up on last month’s story.

This isn’t going well. Or maybe better to say, it’s not going great.

When the four of us signed up to chronicle our Handicap Index this golf season, there might have been the lazy assumption we would see our numbers melt away as we made steady progress week over week. But this was our first mistake, because golf rarely travels a straight line.

And to be fair, there has been some progress. Luke’s seen his number inch down closer to scratch thanks to some new attention to his putting. Greg has traveled an even bigger distance. He didn’t even have an official Handicap Index to start the year, and now he’s got a baseline from which he’s bound to see rapid improvement.

That leaves me and Maddi. A former Division I college golfer who now lives in New York City, Maddi began the year with a 6.3 index but has since crept up to a 6.6. I was once as low as a 10.8 a few months ago and am now an 11.6. Neither would qualify as catastrophic regressions, but in a season dedicated to tangible improvement, we appear to be traveling in the wrong direction. Are we really getting worse?

First, a look at the chart.

An additional wrinkle for Maddi and I is we now are set to square off against each other in our company Match Play this week. I should be getting some shots, although just how many is still up in the air based on what tees Maddi chooses. We discuss that and our respective ruts below.

Maddi, we've both been working hard on our games and keeping track of our progress. Yet according to our handicaps, we're not getting better. What are we doing wrong?

For me it’s all about getting reps in on the course and getting comfortable with my setup. I’ve noticed that when l haven’t played enough I second guess little things like how high my hands should be or wide my stance is and where to play the ball in my stance. Ultimately it’s muscle memory after you’ve played enough rounds and I guess I just haven’t played enough this year.

The fact that your handicap is going up right as we're set to play in the company Match Play doesn't make me feel very good. Not that I'm doubting its accuracy.

It definitely seems like something a sandbagger would do, but I promise it’s legit. I’ve been losing tee shots left and right and the added strokes from balls sent OB or chipping out are ruining my scores. Hoping I can start feeling more comfortable over the ball and that it will translate to more fairways hit per round.

I honestly trust you. The weird thing is you're struggling with your driver, and yet for our match, you're toying with playing back from the blue tees. You definitely hit it far enough, and if you play all the way back, I'll get fewer strokes. But wouldn't a shorter distance help you?

Well, the way I see it. If I’m going to miss a few fairways, it’s better to not give up any strokes while doing it. I don’t want to risk giving up a stroke on the few holes that I’m able to find the fairway. Plus, my approach shots have been pretty decent so the distance shouldn’t be too much of a factor … hopefully.

Do you think it's possible to be a better golfer and still have your index go up? I ask because I genuinely think I do most things better than I used to, with the small exception of scoring. I'm aware of how dumb that sounds.

I do! Scoring is as much of a skill as chipping or putting. I think it’s a misconception that when your technique gets better that your scores will drop automatically. You have to learn how to score. Part of that is learning not to quit on yourself and part of it is learning to capitalize on big moments that might make you nervous. Once you can do both of those things you’ll convert more bogeys into pars and more pars into birdies. Then you’ll see your handicap drop. You’ll know it’s happening when everything just clicks. Mentally and physically.

Sounds about right. I'm hoping it clicks right around when I arrive at the first tee for our match. See you then!