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Explainer

This is what people get wrong about handicaps

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On several occasions in recent years, I have subjected my golf swing to scrutiny from the Internet. Spoiler alert: The Internet has not been kind.

Some of this is my doing. It’s what I signed up for, but also, my swing has its faults. I am too stiff at address, pull the shaft down too steep on the downswing, and then restrain myself from firing my hips as if balancing valuable china on my head.

“Arthritic,” one colleague called it a few years back. At the time I hadn't even turned 40.

By the standard of my single-digit handicap colleagues, not to mention the professionals I study as an editor, I am a mediocre golfer. This I know.

But on the scale of all American golfers, I am also told I am above average. I hit the ball relatively straight, employ a healthy array of shots around greens that work out OK, and putt decently enough to scratch out some pars and the very occasional birdie.

On my best days I shoot in the low 80s. But other days I am capable of much worse—which brings us to the subject of handicaps. As of this writing, I carry a 12.6 handicap index, and was as low as a 10.6 last summer. I suspect my number will go up in the next few weeks since there are a handful of low scores from last fall that will cycle off my card (your index only accounts for your 20 most recent scores). But we’re talking a stroke or so, nothing major.

As my game has remained frustratingly the same for the past few years, and that game has been featured in an assortment of lighthearted Golf Digest videos, I have come to expect a familiar reaction—that there is no way I am an 11 or 12 handicap, and that I must be worse.

Am I? Well, no. But also, yes. This is where we need to dive into the handicap system further to address what some golfers don’t always grasp.

Handicaps skew toward potential more than performance

Like I said, I am a mediocre golfer. But my version of mediocre is reflected in a handicap formula that tends to be misunderstood. Most days I scrap it around enough to keep the ball in play and can make enough putts to alternate between bogeys and pars. A 12 index does not reflect a player who averages roughly 12 strokes above par, for reasons I’ll get into. What it does do, however, is provide a baseline for a fair match between players of differing abilities. It accounts for my potential to piece together some decent holes and acknowledges there are days when I can have more of those holes than others.

However …

The handicap system doesn’t account for the times we really stink

Perhaps the biggest misconception about a handicap is that it’s essentially a scoring average. It isn’t. The handicap doesn’t account for our worst days, and perhaps more controversially, it doesn’t even really account for what might be considered our norm. By only using the best eight of our most recent 20 scores, the handicap index is instead a gauge of our best golf—not so much how we usually play, but how we’re capable of playing when everything’s going relatively well (the USGA refers to this as "demonstrated ability).


By contrast, those days when you don’t make a par until the 10th hole, top your tee shot into a creek on 18 and leave every putt pathetically short—for me, also known as “last Saturday”—those rounds are discarded as outliers. Of course for golfers of my level, this is also very much golf I’m capable of playing, but at least here, the handicap formula chooses not to notice.

Handicaps should protect better players

If you’re a 5 index, it means your best days are better than a 12 index’s best days. But it should also mean your bad days are less bad than theirs as well. When I play poorly, I can play a good 8 or 9 strokes higher than my index—a bad day, yes, but also not impossible. Better players, meanwhile, don’t stray as far or as often from this “golf they’re capable of playing” standard. That means when they both show up on the first tee, a 5 index is more likely to play like a 5 than a 12 index is to play like a 12. Right away, advantage 5.

Net double bogey plays a bigger role in this than you think

Like I said, the lower your index, the less bad your bad is likely to be, which means fewer disaster shots, and fewer holes in which you end up wanting to toss your clubs in a lake. For the higher-handicapped player, those disasters lurk around every corner, and in a stroke-play, hole-everything-out format, they’re what inordinately inflate scores. The handicap system however, softens their impact because of the provision that states you can’t put down more than net double bogey on any hole. Pump two balls OB off the tee in tournament play? On a par 4, you’re staring at 8 or higher. But the handicap system won’t let you put down more than a 6, or if you’re getting a stroke, a 7. Why does this matter? Because arguably the biggest contributor to making certain golfers bad—the moments when they’re worst of all—is remarkably left out of the equation.

The handicap system isn’t perfect for everything

Getting back to the original premise—am I really a 12 handicap, or possibly worse? The answer is I really am a 12 handicap, but that a 12 handicap is probably worse than many people think. Because for all those days I flirt with breaking 80, there are plenty of days when 90 is in play instead. The handicap system, however, is quick to forgive. When I hit the ball wildly off line, the net double bogey maximum prevents those holes from being catastrophic. Some rounds, I have too many of those holes, but those are the rounds that are dropped off my card since they’re not one of my eight lowest recent scores.

If the expectation of a handicap is to tell you precisely what sort of golf season a player has been having, I agree it can be misleading. As with much in our golf lives, it chooses to focus more on what we can be, and less on what we really are.