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Sumedh Joshi

Applied Mathematician

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Hole 15 Colo Vista. Like 40 yards downhill.

A photo posted by sumedh (@ithacaisnotthatgreat) on

Hole #15 at Cola Vista Golf Course in Bastrop, TX.


A golfer’s skill is often measured by a handicap, which is the average number of strokes over par that it takes for the golfer to complete a course. According to the USGA, over half of all golfers are a +13.0 handicap or better, and almost 80% of all golfers are a +18.0 or better. This seems to suggest that the vast majority of golfers take about an extra stroke over par per hole. If you have never played golf, let me just say, shooting a +18 is not easy to do, and is not at all indicative of the average golfer.

First, the way a handicap is measured is incredibly complicated, but I will try to summarize. To compute your handicap, you first pick out the best few recent rounds of golf you’ve played. Then, you throw out the best scores among those (usually about half of your rounds get tossed out), and compute the average score of the remaining rounds. That average score is your handicap. Because you’re forced to discard your best few scores, to have a good handicap you either have to be consistently good, or be inconsistent and play a lot of golf.

The problem with using handicap to measure the average golfer is that most bad golfers don’t even know their handicap, if they keep score (accurately) at all. And even if they did keep their score (accurately), they probably are not paying to register it with the USGA. So essentially, nobody really knows how bad the average golfer is. I would hazard a guess (based on my playing experience) that the average golfer that plays enough to have a handicap probably shoots in the high 110’s which is a +45 handicap. The distribution of scores is certainly very asymmetrical and likely has a heavy tail, populated with folks like Angelo Spagnolo who owns the distinction of being the world’s worst avid golfer with a handicap rating of +56, and once shooting over a 200 on a professional PGA course.

My Handicap

I’ve only played about 20 or so rounds of golf in my life, and most of those I either didn’t keep score, didn’t finish, or don’t have my scorecard. But, I do have scores for the last five rounds I’ve played. It’s not pretty:

Course Score
Greatwood 141
Morris Williams 129
BlackHawk 110
Bluebonnet Hill 104
Colo Vista 125

Unfortunately, by the letter of the handicap rule, my handicap would be based on entirely my worst score, Greatwood, resulting in a course-adjusted score of about 140. To put that into perspective, it means that I take about twice as many strokes per hole as allowed! Greatwood is a tough course, especially for beginners (its slope rating is 145, the highest of any course I’ve played), but it’s not that tough; I am just a bad golfer.

But, and this is my point, handicap rating views me really unfavorably for the same reasons it views all beginning golfers unfavorably:

  1. I am inconsistent: There is a spread of 37 strokes between my best and my worst scores, that’s like 9 holes of golf!

  2. I haven’t played much: And worse, I have not played enough golf to offset my bad outliers with good outliers.

  3. I am not good at golf:

(possibly not in that order). So, to beginning golfers everywhere: ignore the handicap rating entirely; we’re not even playing golf yet.