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How to Use the Golf Handicap System

The United States Golf Association constructed the handicap system to level the playing field for everyone. Golf handicap calculations use an esoteric system of “course rating” and something called “slope” to compute exactly how many strokes everyone should get. Few people understand or can explain how the course rating and slope are computed, so be like everyone else — accept both and go with the flow.

Getting a handicap in golf

If you’ve never played golf before, you won’t have a handicap yet. Don’t worry — you have plenty of time. When you're ready, you want to test yourself on a real golf course and give your progress a number. Make that two numbers: your score and your handicap.

The first thing you need to do is keep score. Get a golfer friend to accompany you in a round of 18 holes. This person must keep score and sign your card at the end of the round. To be valid, a card needs two signatures — your own and that of the person you’re playing with. That way, all scores are clearly valid, and corruption is kept to a minimum.

You need to play at least ten rounds before you’re eligible for a handicap. Don’t ask why; those are the rules. Before you complete ten rounds, you’re in a kind of cocoon from which you emerge as a beautiful, full-fledged, handicap golfer.

At first, your handicap will probably drop quite quickly. Most new golfers improve by leaps and bounds at first. After that, improvement may continue, but at a much slower pace.

Calculating your golf handicap

Okay, you’re wondering how you get a handicap, right? All you have to do is hand in your scores at the course where you normally play. Your handicap at any one time is 96 percent of the average of the best 10 of your previous 20 scores. (Don't worry — you get a card that shows your information.)

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Your handicap fairly accurately reflects your current form because you must record your score every time you go out. Most clubs and public facilities make things easy for you. They have computers into which you feed your scores. The program does all the work and updates your handicap.

Suppose that your ten scores average out at exactly 100. In other words, for your first ten rounds of golf, you hit 1,000 shots. If par for the 18-hole course you played is 72, your average score is 28 over par. That figure, 28, is your handicap. Every time you play from then on, your handicap adjusts to account for your most recent score.

What your handicap means

In golf, the lower your handicap is, the better you are. Thus, if your handicap is 6 and your friend's is 10, you’re a better player than she is. On average, four strokes better, to be exact.

Assume that par for the 18-hole course we’re going to play is 72. You, as someone with a handicap of 6, would be expected to play 18 holes in a total of 78 strokes, 6 more than par. Your friend, on the other hand, being a 10-handicapper, would hit the ball 82 times on a normal day, 10 more than par. Thus, your handicap is the number of strokes over par you should take to play an 18-hole course.

When you’re just starting out, you don’t want to team up with three low-handicap players. Play with golfers of your own ability at first. When you get the hang of it, start playing with people who are better than you so that you can learn from them.

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