Understanding the Handicap System For Dummies


Getting your first handicap can be a very exciting prospect…


So, if you feel like it’s time for you to get yourself on the handicap ladder, this article will show you all the main things you need to know.


So firstly, how do you get a handicap?


The only way to gain an ‘official’ handicap is to join a golf club that is affiliated to one of the national Unions (CONGU).


Unless it’s a few holes cut in the middle of a park, you can assume that most golf clubs will will have some kind of CONGU affiliation. However, it just means that you will have to commit a healthy sum of money each year.


If you have the time and resources to commit, then this is by far the best option.  


I have to say, joining a golf club early in my life was certainly one of my better decisions. Not sure my wife would agree though.


But if this isn’t an option for you at the moment and you just need a handicap for other purposes. You may want to play at certain course in the UK, but they have a handicap certificate policy. Obviously, if you are not a member at another club, then this could be a bit of a sticking point.


So, there is another option…


Sites such as Elite Golf Solutions will offer you an ‘unofficial’ handicap.


I have to stress that this isn’t an official handicap as such, but it’s the next best thing.


They do pride themselves on their handicap certificates never being rejected by golf clubs, so for this purpose, it could be an ideal option for you. They also offer a system whereby you can keep uploading your rounds into their online database which will update your handicap each time.


If you want to see more on this, I have linked to there FAQ page which will answer any of your concerns going down this route.


But whether you join a new golf club or go for the online option, initially getting a handicap is the same system…


You will be required to play 3 rounds on a golf course (6 rounds if 9-hole course) with a trusted individual. This will usually be with another member if you go down the joining a club route. 


How is your initial handicap calculated?


Now to calculate your handicap, they will use the lowest score out of your 3 rounds after deducting any shots on holes which are over a double bogey.


That’s a bit of a mouthful, so i’ll do my best to explain.


So let’s assume you shot scores of 92, 95 and 98.


In the score of 92, you have 3 holes where you made a score worse than a double bogey – they were all triple bogeys. Now on these holes your score will now be adjusted to a double bogey, which will deduct your score by 3 strokes giving you a revised score of 89.


Lets now assume in the 95, you have 2 really bad holes. You score a 10 on a par 4 and a 8 on one of the par 3’s (OOPS). But for handicap purposes these nightmares still only count as a double bogey, thus reducing your total score by 7 shots, giving you a revised total of 88.


And in the score of 98, there were no scores above a double bogey so the score remains the same.


For this example I will assume that the course is a par 70 and has an SSS of 70 (We’ll talk about SSS in a bit). So, your first handicap will be 18 due to the score of 88 being the lowest after the ‘bad hole’ adjustments. 


The only time when this system may change, is if you have had a handicap before. In this case the committee may use a bit of discretion and alter it as they see fit.


But for your initial handicap, this is how it is calculated.


How do you improve your handicap?


I am going to assume for the rest of this article that you have joined a club and obtained an official handicap.


Let’s look at the graph below. As you can see, it shows you how your handicap is adjusted depending on your current level and performance.




Let’s assume for the sake of this article, that you’re an 18 handicapper(18.0 to be exact). As you can see, for every shot you shoot under your handicap, your handicap will be reduced by 0.3.


And let’s pretend that you have just finished your first club competition in which you shoot a score of 86 on a par 70 (CSS is also 70 which we’ll talk about soon)


For this round you have shot 2 shots below your handicap which results in an handicap adjustment of -0.6. This will give you a new adjusted handicap of 17.4 which will round down to 17


And you will continue at this rate of adjustment until you get your handicap down to at least 12. 


But what if the round doesn’t go so well? 


Well if you shoot a score that is well above your handicap allowance, you can expect your handicap to go in the other direction. However, you will get a bit of leeway.


Lets pretend you shoot a score of 91. This is now 3 shots over your handicap (assuming the CSS is 70)


If you look at the handicap adjustment table again, you will notice that although you have shot worse than your handicap allowance, no adjustment in the wrong direction will be made. This is because you are inside what is called ‘The buffer zone’. The buffer zone is a number of shots that you can go over your handicap allowance without your handicap being increased.





In an 18 handicappers case, this is 3, so in this example a score of 91 has just scraped in.


PAR OF COURSE (CSS) = (70) + HANDICAP (18) + BUFFER ZONE (3) = 91 


Another key takeaway from the graph, is that no matter how badly you shoot or how many shots you are over your buffer zone. Your handicap can only ever be increased by +0.1 per round.





This maximum increase is one of the reasons why the common myth I talk about later, is well and truly debunked.



You should also notice from the table that the lower your handicap gets, the harder it is to get down. A 5 handicapper for instance, will only be reduced by 0.1 per shot, as opposed to a 29+ handicapper who gets a reduction of 0.5 per shot.


A lot of golfers have an easy job getting their handicap down at first, but due to the reduction of shot decreasing and less shots allowance for the buffer Zone, this obviously becomes a lot harder and often slows down dramatically.



Understanding SSS and CSS


Okay, so another complexity to add into which I have already mentioned is SSS and CSS.


SSS – Standard scratch score


A lot of golfers think that their handicap is judged against the par of the course. For example, if the course was a par 70 and your handicap is 18, then 88 would be your par score.


This however is not the case.


Handicaps are judged against the SSS or CSS (if in competition)


The SSS is effectively the revised par for the course which takes into account the actual difficulty of the course. You will find the SSS on the golf course scorecard (as below)



An easier golf course would have an SSS less than it’s par and a harder golf course the SSS will usually be higher than par.


As you can see, my home course (men’s tees) has a par of 70 but an SSS of 69. So, for me playing off a 4 handicap, I will receive only 3 shots against the par for handicap adjustment purposes.


The SSS system is put in place to ensure your handicap would match up to any course you played, no matter the difficulty.


Let’s take a golf course like Wentworth for example which is the home of the European Tours flagship event. For the average golfer, this is an absolute beast of a golf course which measures in excess of 7000 yards. You could expect the SSS to be higher than it’s par.


My home course in comparison is like a pitch and putt. The difficulty levels aren’t even comparable.


If I play really well at my home club, I’ll shoot under par (69 or lower). If I played my absolute best at Wentworth, I might just shoot less than 75.


Therefore, by comparing your handicap to par and not SSS would give a distorted view of a player’s ability depending on where they played.


And this could mean that a 6 handicapper at Wentworth would probably be the same standard as a 2 handicapper at my club.


This for a handicap system doesn’t work, so SSS is introduced to effectively even this up. And in theory, a 5 handicapper at Wentworth will be the same standard as a 5 handicapper at my home club.


Whether the SSS system does a good enough job at doing this is up for debate.


CSS – Competition Scratch score


When you play in a competition the SSS is revised for that round giving you the CSS. This takes into account not only the difficulty of the course, but also the difficulty of that particular day. This is revised using the overall scores that occur on that tournament round.


So, if the SSS of your course is 68 and it’s a very windy day and overall the scores have been poor in relative to the competitors handicaps. Then the CSS may rise to 69 or 70 (or higher) depending on the severity of these factors.


You will see the CSS of the round once the final tournament scores have been posted and your handicap will be adjusted against this instead of the SSS.


A Common Myth Regarding The Handicap System


I mentioned earlier a myth that I was going to debunk.


Well, a lot of golfers think your handicap is effectively your average score. So, an 18 handicapper should expect to shot 18 over if he were to have an average day.


This is just not the case. in fact, a 18 handicapper would shoot 90 or 91 more regularly than they would an 88 (SSS 70).


And this confusion often causes golfers to often have delusional expectations of themselves.


So why is it not your average score?


The only way it would work as your average score, is if your handicap was adjusted as much up when you scored above your handicap, as it is down when you play below it.


But as we’ve already explored, it’s not. An 18 handicapper will receive a 0.3 reduction for every single shot he scores below his handicap. But no matter how badly he plays, his handicap can only ever be increased by +0.1 for an entire round.


So, lets go back to that first example where you played well and received an adjustment of -0.6 (2 under your handicap) which gave you a revised handicap of 17.4.


Now for you to get up to 18.0 again, you would have to have 6 rounds in a row that your scores were high enough to be outside of your buffer zone.


And let’s even assume in those next 6 rounds, you only miss the buffer zone by just one shot. 


If you add up the maths, you will know that your best possible average score for these rounds is 21 over.(3 worse than your handicap)


But your handicap has not moved an inch and has remained exactly as it was before those 7 rounds started, despite shooting on average, 3 shots above your handicap.


And in reality, golfers often miss the buffer by a lot more than just the one stroke, so we can assume that in this instance, their average score would be even higher.


So, in short – your handicap is not your average score, it signifies your level as a golfer when you play well. So I would strongly advise that your expectations correlate with this.



How Does My Handicap Affect Stableford Points?


You may or may not be familiar with the term stableford. If not, this is a type of competition that all golfers love to play which focuses on points scored rather than total shots.


The scoring system is something a lot of golfers get confused by, so I’ll do my best now to clear it up for you.


If you look down this scorecard, you’ll see a column called ‘stroke index’ (Pink Circle). The stroke index effectively signifies the difficulty of the hole. So, 1 being the hardest and 18 being the easiest.



And it also signifies what holes you will receive your shots on in a stableford competition. 


So, a 14 handicapper for instance will receive shots on stroke index’s 1-14. So if he were to bogey these holes, they would count as a net par. If you were to play off 18, you would receive one shot on every hole. 


Let’s look at how the pointing system works…


  • Net Albatross – 5 points
  • Net Eagle – 4 points
  • Net Birdie – 3 points
  • Net Par – 2 points
  • Net bogey – 1 point
  • Net Double Bogey or Worse – 0 points


The term ‘Net’ means after your handicap has been deducted. So, let’s assume you were playing hole 5 which is a par 4, stroke index 7. If you had a 14 handicap, you would receive one shot on this hole.


And on this hole, you make a score of 6. So, to work out your stableford points, you need to deduct the shot you receive from your actual score.


In this case, this will result in a net 5, therefore a net bogey, and you’ll receive 1 point for that hole.


Now lets use an example for a 24 handicapper…


Because there handicap is 18 or above, He/she would receive at least one shot on every hole, but for some holes, he/she would receive two shots. And on holes with a stroke index 1-6 they would receive this allowance. On these tougher holes, they could score as much as a double bogey and still receive 2 points, as this equates to a net par.


Playing stableford is hugely popular for a few reasons. It tends to speed up play, because once a person cannot score, they can pick the ball up and can start to ponder the next hole. This is known commonly as a ‘blob hole’ and 0 points.


You cannot make any worse than 0, so once this score is reached, there’s very little point in carrying on the hole. (Other than for a bit of practice)


It also doesn’t quite come with the same pressure as medal play. In medal play where every shot counts, you can quickly blow yourself out of the competition with one of those nightmare holes which cripples the scorecard. All in all, its much more relaxed kind of competition. 


Getting a handicap is not the be all and end all, but if you want to take your golf seriously and have a benchmark for constant improvement, then getting an official one should definitely be on your radar.


If you have made it this far, thank you for reading – I think that is enough to digest at the moment and it definitely covers all the main bits that you need to know about getting your first handicap.


If you have any other queries regarding this, please leave them in the comment section below and I will happily answer.









I am a low handicap golfer and an absolute golf addict. I have a huge passion for helping golfers with what I believe is the most important aspect of their golf game - their mindset. I have completed my golf psychology coaching certificate and I continue to learn every single day, all so I can help golfers become better at this great game.

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