Why Handicap is NOT the best measure of a golfer’s skill

In the early 20th century, the USGA devised the handicap system to “level the playing field” to allow golfers of differing abilities to compete. The system was overhauled in the early 1980s to include the ‘slope rating’. For over 100 years, the USGA handicap system has been used by amateur golfers to compete with players better or worse than they are.

While the system does a good job of “leveling” the game, when it comes to the measure of a golfer’s skills and weaknesses in his/her game, the handicap system doesn’t provide much insight. Let’s take a look at an example:

Golfer A, a 15 handicap, is a fair ball striker. He hits nearly every fairway and nearly every green, rarely hitting a ball out of bounds. He is accurate with the longer clubs in his bag, having learned how to manage his normal ‘fade’ ball flight. Get him in a bunker, however, and the wheels fall off. He’s not much better with a putter, often 3 putting a green he hits in regulation.

Golfer B, also a 15 handicap, is an awful ball striker. He hits a HUGE banana slice with every full shot he takes. He loses 2 or 3 balls in a round by hitting them out of bounds. As bad as he is from tee to green, however, get a wedge or putter in his hands, and he’s magic. Bunker shots are no problem for him, he gets out of the bunker and near the hole every time, and with that magic flat stick, he doesn’t miss many putts under 10-12 feet.

According to the USGA, these golfers, both 15 handicaps are equal. But as you would agree from our example, they are only equal in the scores of their last 10 best rounds. Their games are completely different.

When it comes to improving your game, or as most of us put it, “lowering your handicap”, simply looking at the handicap isn’t an adequate measure of if you are improving. What’s needed is a system for evaluating each area of your game. What you need is the 7 Principles of Golf Improvement; the anatomy of a scratch golfer.

We developed the 7 Principles through years of playing competitive professional and amateur golf, learning from other touring pros, and learning that out on tour, and handicaps meant VERY little.

The 7 Principles are:

  1. Develop a Sound, Repeatable, Powerful swing of ease by modeling Moe Norman’s Single Plane swing.
  2. Develop an efficient Short Game (50% up & down with the wedges)
  3. Become a GOOD putter (Under 30 putts per round)
  4. Buy or build clubs that fit YOU and YOUR game
  5. Learn to play on the course using developed skills (Course Management)
  6. Learn how to Practice efficiently
  7. Learn how to Think (on the course)

A close look at the 7 Principles reveals that the game of golf is in reality 3 games in one; Long/Power Game, Short (Wedge) game, Putting game.

When it comes to improving the game, or “lowering the handicap”, a golfer must know which of the 3 games they need to improve on, and which areas they simply need to maintain.

To help our students in analyzing their own games, we have developed the following statistical table using USGA statistics:

Category Scratch Golfer 10 Handicap 20 Handicap 30 Handicap
Fairways Hit 65% 60% 55% 40%
Tee Shot Distance
242 yds. 230 yds. 215 yds. 200 yds.
Green in Regulation
66% 50% 41% 25%
Pitch % Up & Down
(15 to 50 yds.)
50% 42% 33% 15%
Chip % Up & Down
(Edge of Green to < 15 yds.)
75% 60% 45% 30%
Putts per Round 30 34 39 45
Sand Save % (Out of bunker and 1 putt) 45% 35% 30% 15%
Penalty Shots per Round .5 1.6 4.5 6.0

If we go back to our example of Golfer A vs. Golfer B, you can see how Golfer A would be stronger in the long game statistics, Fairways Hit, Tee Shot Distance, Greens in Regulation. In fact, he may measure out as a 10 handicap in the long game or better. When it comes to the short game statistics, however, he may measure out as a 20+ handicap. And the inverse is true for Golfer B.

When it comes to golf improvement, “lowering the handicap”, you can see how using the 7 Principles table will allow you to gauge each area of your game, improving the weak areas and strengthening the areas you are most adept at.

To help you reach your goals, our entire teaching philosophy is built around these 7 Principles, starting with Principle #1, Developing a fundamentally sound golf swing modeled after Moe Norman’s Simple, Single Plane golf swing.

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