How Solid is Your Handicap?

[September 2018: My advice in the second half of this post about playing a variety of courses stands. The first part, about getting a USGA handicap, does not. To heck with a handicap. Just go play and have fun. Your golf belongs to you, not the USGA.]

I hope you have a handicap, an official USGA handicap. If golf for you is just knocking the ball around every so often, then, maybe it isn’t that important. But if you are a steady player, you should have one. It brings you into the company of golfers by allowing you to enter competitions. It will show you how much you are improving, you can tell how well you play on courses of varying difficulty, and if you travel abroad, many courses won’t let you on unless you can show them a USGA handicap card.

To have an accurate handicap, you should turn in every score, the good ones, and the bad ones. And you keep an honest score, counting the penalty strokes and playing by the rules. If you do, you can say your handicap truly reflects the condition of your game. But does it?

There is one other consideration — does your handicap travel? This is the important part. It’s one thing to be a 12 at your home course, which you have learned inside and out. It’s another to be a 12 no matter where you play.

A few years ago, a golfer shot a 62 at one of our local courses. He had a 2 handicap and had a day where everything went right. I looked him up on the GHIN Handicap Lookup page, which you can do if you have a name and a state, and found that all of his rounds were played on the same course.

Now you can’t argue with a 2. That’s pretty good golf no matter where you earn it. But I wonder how that 2 would stand up if he took his game to some of the other courses in the area that are, quite frankly, harder than the one he’s playing on? I wondered if he shot higher rounds on some of those courses and just didn’t turn them in. Who knows?

How well your handicap travels is the factor that makes your handicap legitimate. This isn’t about honesty. It’s about how good are you, really?

If you play a rotation of courses, you now that certain courses demand shots that are different from other courses. One course I play is a first-shot course. Get your ball in the fairway, and you’re home free. Of course, that isn’t easy to do, and a price for missing is paid. Another course has high rough around the greens that demands chips I never hit anywhere else, and so on.

I would suggest, as a general rule, that you the twenty scores in your handicap mix should at any time be made on at least four different courses, and the ten scores that determine your handicap should come from at least three.

That would give you the assurance that when you go to a new course, you won’t get a big surprise by finding out there are big holes in your game. This will also give you the joy of rounding out your game, and knowing that wherever you go, there isn’t a challenge you can’t handle.

If you don’t have a handicap, join a club to get one. The USGA’s definition of a club is quite permissive. It doesn’t necessarily mean an expensive membership in a private or semiprivate club. Your local muni should have a mens’ club or women’s club you can join for maybe $40 per year, and you’re all set.

My new book, The Golfing Self, is now available at It will change everything about the way you play.

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