Are You Average? A Complete Guide to Average Golf Handicaps

One of the great things about golf is that you can play a legitimate game against anyone in the world. And that is because of the handicapping system which enables all abilities of players to play against each other.

Anyone reading this could play against one of the best golfers in the world – say Tiger Woods or Brooke Henderson – and have a proper competitive match. That is a highly unusual thing for any sport and one of the reasons why golf is such a fun game to play.

The healthy competition that handicaps bring to the game of golf then inevitably leads on to the most common question any golfer will ask another – what is your handicap? Golfers are typically pretty obsessed with how they measure up against their peers so we did some research to find out what the average handicap for golfers is. Here’s what we found out:

AVERAGE HANDICAP
MENWOMEN
USA14.426.4
UK1625
England 17.226.5
Australia16.926.7
Sources: USGA, R&A, England Golf, Golf Australia

The general similarity of the average handicap for both men and women in these countries suggests that golfers across the world play on average to a very similar standard.

That is true to an extent but when comparing handicaps with players outside your own country the science is not an exact one.

Although they follow the same general principles different handicap systems operate across the world operate according to their own guidelines. In 2020 though with the introduction of the World Handicapping System, that looks set to change it will soon be possible to compare your handicap much more easily with your international golf-playing friends.

Worldwide Average Men’s Golf Handicap Breakdown

While knowing how you compare to the average handicap is good to know – knowing you are better or worse than the average is an ok measure of where your game is at – golfers almost always want to know more.

When you first meet somebody and you tell them you play golf the most common question they will ask you is what is your handicap.

Claire Bates, R&A

How does my handicap compare against other people my age? How many people play off a single figure handicap? What percentage of golfers play off the same handicap as me? Golfers are always keen to know more about their stats and handicaps are no different.

There is no universal and detailed information on handicaps available everywhere but for those interested in a bit more detail the following graphs and tables will help give you an idea of how you match up to other golfers in various parts of the world.

In the biggest golf playing country in the world – the USA – where roughly 8% of the population (24.2 million) play golf – the average golf handicap for men is 14.4.

If your handicap is less than 12.9 you can claim to be better than 50% of the golfers in the US while if you are a single figure handicap player you can justly say you are in the top 1/3 of players in the country.

The largest group of players though – just over 33% – have handicaps of between 10 and 15 with just under 2% of the players in the US having a handicap of scratch or better.

Source: USGA

In other major golf playing countries the picture is slightly different. In Australia for example the average handicap for men is higher at 16.9 and only 17% of players approximately have a single figure handicap.

The largest group of players – 28.1% – again fall into the 10 to 15 handicap group although in general as we can see from the distribution below Australian players’ handicaps appear to be higher in general than in the USA.

Source: Golf Australia

In England the average handicap of men golfers is higher still – 17.2 – which compares to a UK average of 16. Given the data available it is unfortunately not possible to give a % of the single figure handicap players in England however it would seem reasonable to suggest given that it is somewhere in the region of between 15-20%.

Source: England Golf

Unfortunately, beyond the UK average handicap for men – shown to be 16 -no more detailed handicap information was available relating to golfers in the rest of the UK or Ireland.

In addition, for those of you keen to know how you match up against golfers of a similar age again that information was not found to be publicly available unfortunately.

Worldwide Average Women’s Golf Handicap Breakdown

In women’s golf we found that handicaps in general are much higher than in the men’s game. In the US the average handicap is 26.4. Over 70% of women golfers have handicaps of over 21 with only just over 4% enjoying single figure handicap status.

Source: USGA

In Australia the average handicap for women is again slightly higher at 26.7 although the number of golfers with a handicap of over 21 was 66.6% by comparison.

Source: Golf Australia

For women golfers in England the average handicap in England was again higher than the UK average at 26.5 while over 75% of players have a playing handicap of 21 and above.

Source: England Golf

Once again no more detailed information was publicly available about handicaps in the rest of the UK and Ireland.

The Average Handicap is Getting Lower and Lower

When looking at average handicaps golf commentators point out that the average as reported in any country is likely to be artificially low.

This is simply due to the fact that there are a lot of players who ‘play golf’ but who don’t have a handicap.

Saying that if you look at the average handicaps we found in the US, UK and Australia it is unlikely that it is going to be wrong but such a factor that they give you no clue as to what the ‘average’ golfer in those countries is likely to score.

And the other part of the average handicap story is that the ‘average’ is falling. Since 1991 the average handicap for men in the USA has dropped from 16.5 to 14.4 – a drop of more than 2 strokes.

In the women’s game in the improvement is even greater with the average handicap falling 3.5 strokes from 29.9 to 26.4 over the same time period.

Source: USGA

So are golfers getting better or is something else going on? Whatever the exact reason this improvement is also being seen with another statistic – an increase in driving distance for all players.

Over the past 20 years or more amateur golfers are hitting the ball ever greater distances as huge technical advances in the manufacture of golf equipment have been made.

So the great news is not only are golfers hitting the ball further than ever before but this improvement is also being accompanied by a decreasing trend in the average handicap of all players.

How Often do Golfers Play to their Handicap?

As well as comparing your own handicap to the average another slightly different question follows – how often does any golfer play to their handicap on average?

And the answer is likely to be not very often. In fact, research by the USGA’s Handicap Research Team says that not only will golfers only play to their handicap or better only about 25% of the time but they will on average score 3 strokes higher than their course handicap.

That may seem odd but the simple reason for it is that the USGA handicap system is based upon a player’s ‘potential’ rather than an average of all his or her scores.

This is because a handicap is calculated from the best scores of a player’s recent rounds – ideally the best 10 of his or her last 20.

And as only the 10 best scores are counted the golfer’s handicap will reflect their best days or ‘potential’.

So the next time someone is boasting to you about their handicap (or indeed you find yourself bragging about how much your handicap has been cut recently!) just remember they may not be as consistently good as they think they are and that their handicap only reflects their ‘potential’ rather than give an exact indication of the what they score on average.

So you will have a better than even chance of catching them on one of their off days. The only problem with that however is that the odds of having an off day and not playing to your potential are the same for you!

Average Handicap Comparisons Will Get Easier

You will have heard of the phrase ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’. And I am sure there will be more than a few readers of this blog who will have been commenting – ‘Yes .. but’ – at some of the handicap information we’ve shown above.

Comparing handicaps is not always straight forward, particularly when you are comparing handicaps from different countries.

And the reason for this is that one of the aspects of handicapping systems throughout the world is that although they have many common threads they are different in different countries.

As a result it is not straight forward for example for a US player to compare their handicap to a golfer from the UK.

As we have seen a USGA handicap is based on the ten best scores of a player’s last twenty rounds and is calculated with a special arithmetic formula which includes a ‘slope rating’ (in brief a rated evaluation of the relative difficulty) for the course the round was played on.

In the UK by comparison there is no such ‘slope rating’ applied to each course a round is played on and instead a method involving a ‘standard scratch score’ is used to assess the difficulty of a course and thereafter a player’s handicap.

The administration for handicaps in the UK and Ireland is also different, albeit only slightly, across the individual countries of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

So you can see it is not just a straight forward matter of looking at the handicap of a player from another country and assessing whether you are better than them or not. Or more importantly how many shots you are going to be getting from, or giving them if you’ve got a match to play!

The good news though is that these issues will soon be a thing of the past when a ‘World Handicap System‘ is being introduced by the USGA and the R&A is introduced later in 2020.

The new system is bringing together six different handicap systems from across the world (USA, UK, Europe, Australia, South Africa and Argentina) and by doing so is aiming to enable golfers of different abilities across the world to play and compete on a fair and equal basis.

So very soon you should not only be able to compare your handicap to the average in your local club or country but also with a worldwide average!

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Graeme Hay

Graeme Hay is the owner of GolfingFocus.com. Graeme started playing golf when he was only 4 years old and has loved the game ever since. A single figure golfer all of his adult life and a member of Royal Troon Golf Club he lives in London and still enjoys playing whenever he can with friends and family.

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