Handicap scores allow beginning and experienced golfers to play together

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By Staff Brunswick Beacon

Lots more folks are beginning to play golf in Brunswick County.

Kids are learning golf through The First Tee or summer golf camps. Other youngsters come to visit grandma and grandpa (who own a home right on a golf course) and soon, Granny and Poppy have their grandchildren out on the practice tee and on the course.

In addition to our junior golfers, hundreds of new retirees are moving to our coastal communities. Many of them dreamed of playing the game of golf but never had the time to get involved.

Now they have the time and they are signing up for lessons, buying clubs and joining leagues.

Young adults watch The Golf Channel and soon they are thinking about trying their hand at the sport.

It’s all good news.

The one thing critical to golf is the handicap system, and it’s important for everyone, new golfers and lifetime players alike, to establish a handicap and to understand how it works.

Basically, the United States Golf Association (USGA) administers a system in which each amateur golfer can get a handicap. If you are a very good golfer and shoot in the low 70s, your handicap may be a 2 or a 3. If you are an average golfer, your handicap will probably be around 25. If you are a beginner, your handicap will probably be in the high 30s or even 40.

Here’s what happens in a tournament. The 2 handicap golfer gets to subtract two strokes from his gross 18-hole score; the 25 handicap subtracts 25 strokes and the 40 handicap subtracts 40 shots. (This, of course, is in a tournament where handicaps are permitted—which is not always the case.)

If the guy with the 2 handicap shoots a 74 on a par 72 course, he will have a net score of 72 or even par. If a gal with a 25 handicap shoots a 97, she will have a 72 also. The same thing happens when a new golfer with a 40 handicap shoots a 112 and gets a net 72.

This is why golf is such a great game. People of all ages and all abilities can play together and be competitive. A new golfer can play with a club champion. A 10-year-old can play with grandpa. Husbands and wives with vastly different scores can play as team, and it’s all because of the wonderful handicap system that is part of golf.

Can you imagine Green Bay spotting the Bears a couple of touchdowns before the kickoff? How about the Hurricanes giving Tampa Bay a few extra goals before the face-off, just to make it even?

A handicap system wouldn’t work in diving or gymnastics or track and field. It would not work in tennis. I don’t think Andy Roddick would want to give two aces to any opponent before the start of the match, but that’s basically what happens in golf.

Everyone starts equal on the first hole. If you play better than your handicap and achieve a net score under par, you will probably place in the tournament. If you do not play up to your own established standard, you won’t do as well.

How do you get a handicap?

It’s easy. If you are a member of a golf club, you will simply apply to become part of the USGA handicap system, then post your score each time you play. Courses often give a temporary handicap to new golfers, but basically, the computerized handicap system takes the best 10 scores out of the last 20 that are posted and comes up with a handicap for your home course. Because only the best 10 scores are used, it keeps a single awful score from impacting your handicap. We all have bad days, and the handicap system recognizes that very human quality.

Golfers who are not members of a golf course can establish a handicap through an outside golf league that has an arrangement with a local course to carry the member’s handicaps.

When you establish a handicap, you will get a number for your home course. You will also get a handicap index. This is a number like 14.7, which reflects the players’ potential based upon the best scores posted for a given number of rounds.

The reason the index number and the course handicap number are different is each golf course is different. Unlike tennis, football or soccer, where all the playing fields are essentially alike, golf is played over lakes and sand traps, through trees, uphill and downhill. There are hilly courses and flat courses, courses with very slick greens and courses with very narrow fairways.

All that is taken into account by something called the rating and slope. Each course has these two numbers. In fact, each teeing area at a golf course has a specific rating and slope.

The USGA course rating indicates the evaluation of the playing difficulty of a course for scratch golfers (those who normally shoot par). It is based on yardage and other obstacles to the extent they affect the scoring difficulty of the scratch golfer. For example, a course may have a rating of 68.5 even though par is 72.

The slope rating indicates the measurement of the relative difficulty for the bogey golfer (someone who normally shots a bogey on each hole) compared to the course rating. Slope rating is computed from the difference between the bogey rating and the course rating. Those numbers vary between 55 and 155.

Each time a golfer plays a different course, his or her handicap will be adjusted according to the difficulty of that particular course. My handicap is established at Brick Landing, a relatively easy course for women, with a course rating of 67.0 and a slope of 113. When I play at my friend Carol’s guest day at Plainfield Country Club in New Jersey, I get a lot more strokes because their ladies course rating is 75.4 and their slope is 141.

At Plainfield, if I break 100, it’s a really good day because the course is just sooooooo darn hard! I need those extra strokes at Plainfield just to be competitive.

Each golf course has a conversion table for adjusting handicaps when outsiders come to play.

The USGA handicap system has several fail-safe modes that help keep people honest. A tournament score (big tournaments, not those little weekly things you play in) gets posted as a “T” score and is weighted more heavily than a regular score. This helps solve the problem of a golfer who shoots a 74 gross score a major event even though his handicap is 24. His index will come zooming down when he registers that low “T” score.

Also, if the “T” score is out of line by too many strokes, that score will become “restricted” and will stay in the computer for a year, no matter how many other scores he enters.

In the handicap system, you post scores when you play at other courses. Just enter their course rating and slope into the computer and, bingo, the handicap computer takes care of it all, putting your best 10 scores together using course rating and slope for all the different courses you’ve played.

As your game improves, your handicap (and handicap index) will come down. Conversely, if you get into a real slump, that number will increase.

If the system is working and you’ve posted all you scores, you’ll have a fighting chance to win in any net tournament.

It’s all up to you.


Two old geezers were playing golf one Saturday. Larry finished his putt on the second hole, turned to Simon and said, “I just bought a new hearing aid. It was very expensive, cost me $4,000, but it is state-of-the-art. It’s perfect and I’m so excited to have it.”

“Really?” answered Simon. “What kind is it?”


ELSA BONSTEIN is a golf columnist for the Beacon. Reach her at elanbon@atmc.net.