The vast majority of golfers out on the course don't have and likely will never keep an official golf handicap. In my view, these golfers are missing out on an essential part of the game, even if they never plan to play at a high level. Beyond the golfers we can see playing tournament golf on TV, competitive golf exists for players of all levels through club and local events. These competitions give golfers a way to further engage with the game, meet new people, and even play courses that are typically private.
To play in these competitions, you'll need an official handicap as it will help keep the competition fair and allow golfers of different ability levels to compete against one another. Even if you're competing with a few buddies, fairness and an even playing field make handicaps essential to have.
Competitive golf definitely isn't for everyone, but a handicap can provide a great way to measure our ability growth. The ultimate measure of skill will always be the scorecard, as scoring well involves all facets of the game. A golf handicap provides a simple number of what we can expect to score on a good day adjusted for course difficulty. Tracking this number over time helps us understand where our game currently stands.
For these reasons and more, a handicap is a great thing to have for almost every golfer. So how can you go about getting one?
Official Golf Handicaps
The path to an official golf handicap will be through your national golf association, such as the USGA and the R&A. These associations established the WHS (World Handicap System) to standardize handicaps around the world.
For golfers in the United States, establishing a handicap will take you from the USGA to your regional golf association, and you can find a list of these associations here. Within your region, getting an official handicap will involve joining a club.
The club is who you are paying your annual dues to and is responsible "to supervise golf activities, provide peer review, and maintain the integrity of the Rules of Handicapping." The club should provide the members with a community to play with and regular opportunities to post valid scores. Many clubs are tied to a particular course or city, so if there is a golf course you regularly play, the chances are good that they have a club to join. It's not a requirement for clubs to be part of a particular course. Others exist for employees of companies or specific communities of interest. From the golf association site, you will be able to search for clubs in your area. While some have specific membership requirements, many are open to the public.
Several clubs will have two tiers based on how you plan to use your membership. The cheapest will be an associate membership, which provides an official handicap. Full membership gives access to club events and tournaments in addition to the handicap services.
Regardless of where you live or the type of membership you want, there will undoubtedly be options available to establish your handicap. Once you have your GHIN (Golf Handicap Information Network) number, the next step will be to play golf and post scores. Adding your scores to the system can be done quickly through the GHIN website or smartphone app. Acceptable rounds for handicaps can be either 9 or 18 holes and do have to follow specific rules. Once a total of 54 holes (three 18 hole rounds or a combination of 9 holes rounds) have been posted, your handicap index number will be established.
This image shows rounds that are not acceptable for handicap purposes:
Other Ways of Getting a Handicap
Modern technology and the internet have given rise to several options to measure handicaps outside of the official systems. These are especially useful for players not looking to play in sanctioned competitions but instead want a handicap number as a simple reference for their overall golfing ability. Here are a few popular options:
The Arccos Golf shot tracking system has become incredibly popular in recent years for golfers' incredible information, such as club tracking and distances. However, another feature within the system is the ability to record your scores and generate a handicap number.
While not official, this Arccos handicap number allows users to compare "strokes gained" statistics. Arccos users can compare with others at their own handicap level or the level they want to achieve. For example, a 15-handicap golfer comparing their strokes gained/lost to a 10-handicapper to see critical areas to improve). For users who want to utilize a handicap number to measure their improvement, this feature is a benefit of the Arccos system.
As seen on the Practical Golf list of top Android apps, 18Birdies is an on-course GPS and stat tracking system and golf social network. While previously the system showed scoring averages regardless of course difficulty, the app has recently updated to include an 18Birdies Handicap.
This system utilizes calculations similar to the WHS to generate a handicap number based on rounds scored within the 18birdies system. Like Arccos, this is a great benefit to users to use the app to track their rounds and can now get a simple measurement that they can use to assess their overall skill. Additionally, while the handicap can't be used in official competitions, it can definitely be used to create a fair competition within your playing group.
A significant drawback of the apps above is that their handicaps are unofficial and can't be used in USGA competitions. This is where TheGrint might be able to provide the best of both worlds, with app-based GPS and stat tracking along with a USGA-compliant handicap index. Obtaining an official handicap through the app is only available to premium subscribers. However, at $39.99 annually, it is less expensive than getting a handicap through most traditional clubs and includes all the other premium features. For golfers who still prefer to keep their scores on paper, the app even has a feature where you can snap a picture of your scorecard and have the score posted for you.
Regardless of whether you are joining the men's or women's club at your local course or are keeping a handicap through an app on your smartphone, maintaining an official handicap is a mark of any serious golfer. Even outside of competition, a handicap adds a level of meaning to each round you play, making the final score matter. In my view, this makes golf more enjoyable and more meaningful, something that all golfers should really take advantage of.
Last but not least, you can try out this handicap calculator we made for Practical Golf readers. If you enter anywhere between 10-20 of your most recent rounds, it will give you an unofficial handicap estimate.