Do I need a Handicap to play Golf?

Golfing Handicap Picture

Do I need a Handicap to play Golf?

People often think you need a handicap to play a round of golf. The truth is that you do NOT need a handicap to play the game of golf. However, you will need a handicap to join and compete in a golf tournament. Especially if you are a member of a club. Let me explain where and when you might need a golf handicap and what we use it for.

You might hear the phrase ‘What do you play off’ or ‘What is your handicap’? But the fact of the matter is that if you’re a beginner you won’t necessarily need a handicap.

In my personal experiences many people begin playing golf by joining a friend on a neutral course; perhaps the local municipal, who already plays. Or they might book a lesson at their local course or driving range. When starting up it doesn’t require you to have a technical advantage or be able to read a course particularly well.

How does the Golf Handicap System Work?

Historically, you needed 3 signed scorecards to acquire your handicap from an official body or your local golf club. You would play three games of 18 holes to score an average and a place to begin.

You would then use it to play against the better club players or compete in the weekend tournaments on a level playing field. It might be considered a bit old hat for an ever-changing sport, but it certainly holds its value, if not overly mathematical.

Using algorithms, handicap systems are calculated to give the player a better understanding of how he or she can navigate a course and at which level of difficulty. 

Based on 0 to 28. 28 is the highest handicap index and everybody will start there. 0 is the point at which you can navigate a course to an index of par. A sub-zero handicap means you have a better skill level than what the course is asking of you; therefore, you have the advantage over the course.

Golfing handicaps are nothing new and varying across different countries and inevitably can become slightly confusing especially across continents.

The R&A alongside the USGA is rolling out the new WHS (world handicap system in 2020) intending to hopefully bring about a global understanding of how to use your handicap to play a course on a global/universal scale.

What’s is the point?

It’s the age-old saying that you must be able to run before you can walk! Well, in this case, you must be able to swing before you can play, or at least sort of!

You will want to make sure you have a basic competency with a club in your hand and you’ll want to know the lingo. Sure, we’ve watched golf on TV, but it is slightly different when playing, especially if you’re playing around with differing levels of skill amongst groups of players. You’ll want to know where you stand, and you’ll give others a clear indication of how good you are.

Golf Course Picture

If you are not confident in your swing yet there isn’t much you’ll need in the way of a handicap, that certainly doesn’t mean you shouldn’t play a few rounds – in fact, quite the opposite, you’ll certainly want to play a few practice games before you tee off.

Should I Practice Before Getting a Handicap?

When I was first starting to play it was easy for me to play my local municipality around 06.00 am as we had a small child at the time, and I was up most of the night and working limited hours.

This was the place I cut my teeth on my technique and developed a feel for my swing and what was working and what wasn’t. I would also chip in the garden in the evening and putt in the spare bedroom.

There is nothing wrong with this approach, but I’d think you’re better practicing alone in the first few weeks, you’ll have a better knowledge of what you need to work on and have more lessons on.

By the time you are comfortable with your technique and your basics feel solid, I would then look at joining a club or playing with a member of another club and acquiring a handicap.

After all, you are gaining a handicap to measure your skill level against a fellow player to then ascertain if one player is at a disadvantage and whether or not you can find a balance.

You will want to get a handicap for your satisfaction. If you plan on investing heavily into the game, and it can become an obsessive hobby, it’s a very good tool to measure exactly where you sit on the scale in terms of skill level. And of course, you will have a badge of honour to accompany your ego!

Can I Measure my Handicap in Other Ways?

Of course, you don’t have to get an official handicap. In the modern digital age, we are blessed with apps and golf tech that can give you an accurate reading of what index you’re currently playing off.

I’ve tested and used free apps like VPAR and GOLFSHOT in the past to measure my handicap and I find it very helpful when you’re just having a few games alone or with friends casually.

You can keep your own score as you would on a normal scorecard but the difference being is that it won’t need to be signed off by a fellow player or club.

The app will simply give you an average over two or more rounds and output your handicap based on those scores. So, if you want to apply yourself on the course and seek out a true reflection of skill level these apps do work very well.

Note that there are plenty of handicap calculators online should you wish to have a deeper understanding of how it’s measured and where exactly you would like to end up.

My assumption would be all players looking to get seriously into golf would be solely focused on being a single digit handicapper or perhaps even scratch – I know I dream of being a scratch golfer!

It took me around 18 months before I was comfortable enough to seek out an official handicap but that was before all the available apps on the market.

Club Head

The Takeaway

So, if you are a seasoned pro playing off scratch or a complete novice the bottom line is you do not need a handicap to play the game of golf, but you do however need one to play to a fair advantage against a fellow player or to understand how best you can navigate a course or to play in a competition at a club. Unless you plan on becoming a tour professional then you should be ok should you choose to play without.