In Sports, what is a Handicap?

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

The concept of a sports handicap helps to provide some means of equalizing the competition between persons of various levels of skill within the sport. There is not any one universal method of determining the handicap for all types of sports, although the basic principles of creating a level playing field and providing each player a decent change to excel is part of all sports handicaps.

In golf, a handicap refers to the number of strokes above par a player averages over four games.
In golf, a handicap refers to the number of strokes above par a player averages over four games.

The underlying function of the handicap is to encourage scoring processes that will allow all players a chance to excel. In golf, for example, to determine the current handicap of a player, it is necessary to know the number of strokes over par that the player averaged over four rounds of golf. This provides the personal handicap for the golfer. To determine how much it will be honored during an actual scoring, it is important to compare the handicaps of the participants. For example, if one player has a handicap of ten and is playing a person with one of two, the player with the ten will be allowed one extra stroke on eight different holes. These extra strokes are usually applied to the most difficult holes on the course.

A different approach to determining a handicap takes place in the game of polo. Here, it is based in goals. A rating between two and ten is assigned, based on the determination of the worth of the player to the team. The cumulative individual ratings of the players determines the current handicap for the whole team. At this point, the handicap for both of the competing teams is compared, and the difference between the teams results in the award of points to the lower rated team before the competition begins.

Bowling is another example of a sport that makes use of the handicap. This is based on the bowlers accumulated average. A lower average for one player when compared to the average of other players who are competing will result in the issuing of a handicap that is understood to help equalize the competition in a given event. Some leagues choose to arrive at the handicap in a manner similar to golfing, where it is based on a short period of activity. In other cases, the bowling handicap is based on the average of the last two or three completed games.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

After many years in the teleconferencing industry, Michael decided to embrace his passion for trivia, research, and writing by becoming a full-time freelance writer. Since then, he has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including wiseGEEK, and his work has also appeared in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and several newspapers. Malcolm’s other interests include collecting vinyl records, minor league baseball, and cycling.

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Discussion Comments


I really have to wonder who was the one that devised the system for handicaps in a variety of sports and how they thought to conceive such a complex thing?

There is so much emphasis put on handicaps, especially in bowling and golf, that these are the what usually determines what lets people into larger tournaments.

That being said I have to wonder when this emphasis began and if they simply thought that this was a much easier way than just having qualifier tournaments that would allow checks to determine if someone should not be allowed to enter the tournament and that they just may be way in over their head?


@Izzy78 - The only problem with doing that though is the fact that different courses may be harder to play than others and handicap is a way to average them out.

The same thing goes for bowling as lanes may not have as much, or have more oil on them and this can drastically affect scores if someone were to enter a regional tournament.

Usually people that lie about their handicaps are caught right away and although there may not be much done about it, they will be ostracized by the honest players and say they go to a larger scale tournament they will be exposed for the hacks they are.

I play in a lot of golf tournaments that require you to have a certain handicap and one can tell when someone has lied about their handicap to get into a tournament simply because their skill level will not be present there and they will be exposed by their actual score.


@Emilski - You are correct and there are also several problems with handicap in all sports than utilize it.

Taking golf for example if someone were to play in a handicap tournament, they could simply tank a few shots in order to raise their handicap, so that when they play in the handicap they get more shots taken off of their actual score.

I have seen people do this and it is a little disgusting to see it happen, because great players, that are say a 5 shot and under handicap do not usually have very many shots taken off of their score in a handicap tournament, unlike someone with a 15 shot handicap.

Usually handicap tournaments are where the most cheating occurs and it makes the game very frustrating to play at a competitive level. To be honest I really wish that they would simply go back to using a regular scoring average at individual clubs to determine players skill level.


I will say that handicap is a rather complicated thing and it has a lot of misconceptions. First of all, taking golf for an example, a persons handicap is basically, although not fully, determined by an average of how many strokes they shot over par during a round of play, but this can be very misleading.

The way a handicap is determined in golf is the person's ten best scores out of their last twenty rounds of play are averaged together, with the other scores thrown out. Naturally this makes the person's handicap lower than their actual average, which leads some people to claim that they are better golfers than they actually are.

Despite this misconception a lot of emphasis is put on handicap and usually that is what is used to measure how great a players game is and not necessarily their skill level or their average score.

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