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Purpose of the USGA Handicap System

Posted: 5/12/2009

The idea behind the system is to enable golfers of all levels to compete on a comparatively equal basis. There has been a USGA Handicap System in this country since 1912. Until 1987, one’s handicap gave a rough indication of how one usually scored, relative to the expected score of the expert golfer (Course Rating) of where their handicap was established. Thus, on a course where an expert golfer would score 72, a 13-handicapper might be expected to shoot around 85. The downside was the golfer received the same number of handicap strokes at every golf course. Even though each course had a Course Rating, golfers would have higher handicaps coming from a difficult course than they would coming from an easier course.

There has been a USGA Handicap System in this country since 1912. Until 1987, one’s handicap gave a rough indication of how one usually scored, relative to the expected score of the expert golfer (Course Rating) of where their handicap was established. Thus, on a course where an expert golfer would score 72, a 13-handicapper might be expected to shoot around 85. The downside was the golfer received the same number of handicap strokes at every golf course. Even though each course had a Course Rating, golfers would have higher handicaps coming from a difficult course than they would coming from an easier course.

In 1987, the USGA replaced the one-handicap-fits-all-courses method. Golfers no longer have a handicap; they now have a Handicap Index.

What is a Handicap Index? 

A Handicap Index — referred to simply as “Index” by most golfers — is determined by a somewhat complicated formula.

But the result is both easy to use and eminently portable. A Handicap Index is used to determine a specific Course Handicap for any course that has a USGA Course Rating and Slope Rating (see following explanations). This means that your handicap is equitable and adjustable, depending on what course you are playing. (As such, you might have a Course Handicap of 12 at your home club, while you would be a 15 at Pebble Beach.)

The USGA recommends, as does almost any club or course holding an official event that an Index be a requirement for entry into a net competition.

How do I establish a Handicap Index? 

The first step is to join a licensed club. The second is to post at least five 18-hole scores. Once you have posted 20 scores, your Index is calculated using your 10 best scores, relative to the Course Rating and Slope Rating. It is important to note that your Index is based on your peak performance, not your average performance.

Thus, a golfer whose average score is 12 over the Course Rating will have an Index in the neighborhood of 9.

Your Handicap Index takes your 20 most recent scores, factors in Course Rating and Slope Rating, arrives at a number that includes a decimal point and is calculated out to the tenths place. As such, your Index might be 4.6, or 12.4, or 21.8, etc. Your Index is adjusted on a regular basis, usually once every two weeks when golf is “in season” in your part of the country. (In other words, if you live in Florida, you receive a new Index every two weeks year-round. If you live in New York, you receive a new Index every two weeks from April 1 to October 31.)

What is a USGA Course Rating? 

Course Rating is a measure of a course’s difficulty level for a scratch golfer. (A scratch golfer is someone who can play to a Course Handicap of zero on any and all golf courses.) A par 72 course that has a course rating of 75.5 is considered difficult because a scratch golfer would be expected to shoot 3.5 strokes over par. A par 72 course with a course rating of 68.5 indicates that a scratch golfer would be expected to shoot 3.5 strokes under par.

The Course Rating is determined by raters who base their evaluation on yardage, green contours and the nature of the hazards, such as water, sand and other obstacles. The Course Rating is usually printed on the scorecard. If not, it can be found in the pro shop or locker room.

What is a Slope Rating? 

Slope Rating is a bit more difficult to understand than Course Rating because it isn’t measured in strokes. Slope Rating is a ratio that represents how difficult a course will play for golfers of varyingabilities in relation to a scratch golfer. Slope Rating takes into account certain aspects of a course’s layout that will affect a high handicapper’s score more than that of a low handicapper.

For example: The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass is universally acknowledged to be one of the most difficult and penal golf courses in the country. It has many forced carries and yawning water hazards. A scratch golfer can negotiate forced carries and avoid water hazards, so for the player Sawgrass is no harder than, say Pinehurst #2, which has no forced carries or significant water hazards. But someone whose drives carry only 150 yards and don’t always go in the right direction will fare much better at Pinehurst #2 than at Sawgrass. The Slope Rating was devised to take this discrepancy into account. As such, a golfer who has an Index of 1.5 would have a Course Handicap of 2 at Pinehurst #2 and Sawgrass. On the other hand, a golfer with a 25.9 Index would carry a Course Handicap of 31 at Pinehurst #2, but a Course Handicap of 36 at Sawgrass — a difference of 5 strokes.

The USGA has determined that the standard Slope Rating of an 18-hole course is 113, with 55 being the lowest and 155 being the highest. Like the Course Rating, the Slope Rating varies from each set of tees and can be found on the scorecard or in the clubhouse.

The Bottom Line About Your Handicap Index 

The important thing to remember about your Handicap Index is that it is designed to travel with you and to level the playing field.

By way of illustration: Let’s look at two hypothetical golfers, Bob and Mark. Bob plays a majority of his golf at the brutally tough Bethpage Black, which has a Course Rating of 76.2 and a Slope Rating of 148. Mark plays at a course that is barely 6,000 yards long and has virtually no rough. The course rating at Mark’s club is 68.9 and the Slope Rating is 113. Bob and Mark both shoot in the high 70’s on their respective courses. Although their scores are about the same, it is clear that Bob is a better golfer than Mark because he plays most of his rounds on a significantly more challenging course. In this example, Bob’s Handicap Index would be around 1.7, while Mark’s would be around 10.0, which means that Bob and Mark could have a competitive match no matter where they played.

Great Courses in American - How They Rate 

You’ve heard of many of the great courses in America, and maybe you’ve even played some of them.

Here is a listing of the par, Course Rating and Slope Ratings for 10 of the best-known public courses, all from the championship tees.

 

Course Slope Rating  Par  Course Rating  Slope 
Bethpage Black 71 76.6 144
Doral (Blue Monster) 72 75.6 135
French Lick (Ross) 70 74.7 135
Ocean Course, Kiawah Island 72 79.6 155
Pebble Beach 72 74.3 144
PGA West (Stadium) 72 76.1 150
Pinehurst No. 2 72 76.0 137
Spyglass Hill 72 75.5 147
Torrey Pines South 72 78.2 144
TPC Sawgrass (Stadium) 72 76.8 155

 

Posting Scores 

There are two basic principles behind the practice of posting scores. You must try to make the best score at each hole in every round, and you are required to post every acceptable score. Many golfers believe scores cannot be posted if an entire 9- or 18-hole round is not completed. That is not the case. All of the following are acceptable scores:

· When at least seven holes are played (7–12 holes are posted as a 9-hole score; 13 or more are posted as an 18-hole score).

· Scores on all courses with a Course Rating and Slope Rating.

· Scores in all forms of competition: match play, stroke play, and team competitions where each player plays his own ball.

· Scores made under the Rules of Golf.

· Scores played under the local rule of “preferred lies”.

· Scores made in an area observing an active season.

 

Adjusted Scores 


If you skip a hole
or don’t play it according to the Rules of Golf, you must post a score of par plus any handicap strokes you would receive. In other words: Your Course Handicap is 6. You cannot play the par 5 15th hole because it is under construction. The 15th is rated the third handicap-stroke hole on the golf course. For recording purposes, your score on the 15th hole is x-6. The ‘x’ indicates that you did not actually play the hole, and the ‘6’ is your adjusted score from par (5), plus 1 for your handicap. (If your Course Handicap is 2, the adjusted score would be a par (5). You would not get the ‘1’ for the handicap adjustment.)

If you play a mulligan, you should post par plus any strokes you would receive on the hole as your score, not the score that you made with the mulligan.

If you start, but do not complete a hole or are conceded a stroke, you must record the score you most likely would have made had you finished out the hole.

 

Equitable Stroke Control 

Equitable Stroke Control (ESC) puts a cap on individual hole scores for handicap purposes in order to make your handicap more representative of your ability. ESC puts a limit on how many strokes you can take on a hole depending on your Course Handicap. ESC is applied to all scores, including tournament scores. Below is the maximum number of strokes allowed per hole, based on Course Handicap:

Course Handicap   Maximum Score 
9 or less Double Bogey
10–19 7
20–29 8
30–39 9
40 or more 10

 

ESC is applied after the round and is only used if your actual score or most likely score exceeds the maximum score you are permitted to take.

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