What does it mean when you hear ‘Playing to your handicap’

Updated: May 1, 2017

To acquire a better understanding of the USGA Handicap System™, wouldn’t it be nice to know what “Playing to Your Handicap” means and whether you should do this every time? The system is built around the concept of Course Rating™, which impacts us all even though its definition ties to a “scratch” golfer. When you are given handicap strokes, you receive the number of strokes necessary to play to the level of a scratch golfer. If the scratch golfer is supposed to shoot the Course Rating, then those handicap strokes relate to the Course rating as well.

We use the phrase “target score” regarding playing to your Handicap. How is a target score determined? First, go through the normal process of converting a Handicap Index to a Course Handicap. Then add that Course Handicap to the Course Rating. For example, a player with a USGA Handicap Index of 16.3 decides to play a course with a USGA Course Rating of 68.9 and a Slope Rating of 129. That player converts the 16.3 to a Course Handicap of 19 (using Course Handicap Tables or “Conversion Charts”), then adds 19 to 68.9, for a total of 88 (rounded). If the player shoots 88, that player has played to his or her Handicap.

So playing to your handicap is not exclusively a matter of whether you have hit the ball well or the number of putts you had, but a measurable number. It is NOT how your net score relates to par.

How often should a player do this? Recognize that your worst scores are not truly utilized in the calculation of a Handicap Index; only the best 10 scores are utilized and the worst 10 are disregarded, then the best 10 are averaged. This ratio tells us playing to a handicap happens less than half of the time. Including all of the handicap formula, the resulting probability is that playing to your handicap happens only once out of four to five rounds. The USGA isn’t out to discourage you, but in order to maintain a semblance of equitable competition for players with differing skills in varying formats; we have determined this probability as the best choice for our formula. If we used all scores, those players with higher handicaps would see their values increase significantly, while those with lower values would not increase as much. This would tip the balance of the system heavily toward higher handicap players. We believe there should be an incentive toward improving one’s game.

We can’t all be scratch golfers, but we can set a target to strive for to play to our handicap – and we can determine what that means. And don’t get discouraged if you only play to your handicap 20-25 percent of the time.