If you are a low handicapper on the links, congratulations. You're among the elite of the elite. According to the United States Golf Association, which created and runs the handicapping system, only about 4 percent of women golfers are considered to be low handicappers. Although there is no official definition of a low handicap, generally speaking it is considered to be a handicap in the single digits -- less than 10. The lower the number, the better you play the game.
The Handicap System
The USGA handicap system is quite ingenious. The purpose is to allow golfers of any and every ability level to compete equally in a golf match. For example, a golfer with a handicap of 5 would have to "give" a golfer with a handicap of 10 a total of five strokes in a match. In addition, the USGA rates golf courses according to their degree of difficulty and adjusts your handicap accordingly. So if you play an exceedingly tough course and shoot an average of 80, your handicap will be lower than your friend who shoots an average of 80 at a relatively easy course.
If you have a handicap of less than 10, you'll generally shoot in the 70s or 80s. A mid-level handicapper carries a handicap of roughly 10 to 19 and shoots in the 80s to 90s. A high handicapper sports a handicap of 20 and above and shoots in the 90s or over 100. Handicaps relate to par, but in a rather generous way. The USGA counts the best 10 of your 20 scores to determine your handicap, which the USGA says measures your "potential ability," or your ability when you are playing your best or close to it.
A lower handicap is significant for reasons that go beyond creating equal matches between players of different skill levels. More proficient golfers usually require different equipment in order to play their best. For example, if you carry a low handicap, you likely have a relatively high swing speed and hit the ball squarely on the club face most of the time. If so, you'll play better with golf shafts that are less flexible and golf club heads that are smaller than those designed for high handicappers.
You can establish a golf handicap by turning in scores after you play at most courses which are linked to the USGA handicap system. If you intend to become a low-handicap golfer -- or already are one and want to become a scratch golfer who shoots around par -- it will take time, effort and good instruction. You'll also want to be fitted for clubs that are precisely tailored to your swing, although golfers of every handicap level can benefit from proper club fitting. Professional golfers, such as Michelle Wie and Annika Sorenstam, as well as the very best college players and amateurs, often sport "plus" handicaps, which means they shoot better than par on a regular basis. If you reach that level, competing on the Ladies Professional Golf Tour might be in your future.
Jim Thomas has been a freelance writer since 1978. He wrote a book about professional golfers and has written magazine articles about sports, politics, legal issues, travel and business for national and Northwest publications. He received a Juris Doctor from Duke Law School and a Bachelor of Science in political science from Whitman College.