One of the characteristic features of the game of golf is the handicapping system. A handicap allows players of all levels of golfing ability to compete against each other equally and, consequently, is essential to the popularity and prosperity of the game.
In amateur golf, the majority of competitions cater for players who have a wide range of golfing ability. If no allowance was made for this variation then the relatively small number of high-ability players would be successful in all competitions.
Throughout the world, a golf handicap is recognised as representing the number of strokes that need to be deducted from the player’s actual (gross) score so that, when he plays to his average ability, his nett score equals a "Standard Score". The amount deducted (i.e. the player’s "handicap") is calculated so as to be representative of the player's current ability and potential at the point in time that they play in a competition.
Generally, amateur golfers have handicaps and, the better the player, the lower the handicap. Professionals tend not to have handicaps as they play in competitions without handicaps.
As a player improves, his handicap will reduce. Some highly-skilled players reach the stage where their handicaps are zero, better known as "scratch". A select few may even become so good that their handicap enters positive figures (e.g. +1, +2), which means they have to add strokes to their total for the round.
In stroke play, a handicap is a certain number of strokes that a player is allowed to remove from his total gross score for a round. For example, if a player with a 15 handicap has a gross score of 87, his nett score would be 72.
In match play, the situation is a little more complicated. In a match played off scratch, handicaps are not used at all. In a handicap match, however, a player may give strokes to his opponent, or receive them from his opponent, depending on their respective handicaps and the handicap allowance that is in force.
The R&A and Handicapping
The R&A is the Governing Authority for the Rules of Golf and the Rules of Amateur Status; matters relating to handicapping do not form part of The R&A's jurisdiction. For detailed information about handicapping, you should contact your national golf association or handicapping authority.