Your Realistic Guide to Becoming a Scratch Golfer in a Year

When I was a young golfer (about 15 years old), I thought a handicap was a bad limp. It wasn't until I started playing competitively that I understood that a handicap is meant to level the playing field among golfers. My Dad was a bowler and the lower his bowling average got, the higher his handicap was and that figure was added to whatever his three-game total was for that night. If his handicap was 33 and he bowled below his average, the handicap gave his team a boost. If he had the same 33 handicap but bowled like a pro one night, that would be added to his total, very likely giving his team a three-game victory!

The golf handicap system is more complicated and the rules vary from country to country. In the United States, the US Golf Association (USGA) handicap system is generally based on a player's ability according to a recent history of rounds played. There are variables which are factored into the equation, such as the slope and course rating. These are all used to calculate a "handicap differential," which in turn is used to calculate a player's handicap. Even though golfers with lower handicaps consistently post lower scores than higher handicapped players, the handicap is not meant to just measure a golfer's average score. It is calculated to show a player's potential, i.e., how many strokes above or below par a golfer should be able to play. Therefore, a handicap is not a fixed figure; it is regularly adjusted according to the increases and decreases in scoring on official courses.

To keep from boring my readers with arithmetical formulas and minutia about how handicaps are determined, I'll make it simple. The lower your scores, the lower your handicap. The more consistently you shoot lower scores, the better chance you have of improving that handicap and reaching the "Holy Grail" of the game - a zero handicap. That is what makes a "scratch golfer," so named because, without a handicap, you are starting from scratch, from zero. Every golfer would give their favorite golf hat to be able to walk onto a course with other golfers and write a "0" in the handicap column. It means you are good, even better than good. Unless there was a "plus" golfer around (one with less than a zero handicap), you'd be the best and golfers everywhere want to know how long it will take to be a "scratch golfer."

If you ask around, you'll hear everything from a few years to a lifetime and there are some who will answer, "Never! I'll never make scratch!" One friend I played with for years, was a 5 handicap and thought that was probably it for him. He played almost every day and after six years finally hit a 5 and is happy to be there. With the percentage of golfers in that handicap range being around 1%, he feels like he's in the top echelon and that's enough for him.

Not everyone wants to stop there. I am asked regularly how long it should take to become a scratch golfer and there is no one answer. Everyone plays at a different skill level so there is no way to make a generalized estimate, like five years or ten years. Also, everyone plays a different number of rounds a week and scores depend on so many variables - weather, course condition, quality of clubs and balls used, and especially the golfer's mood - that it's impossible to predict how long it would take any one person to achieve this lofty goal.

That being said, there are things you need and can do to begin your climb to the pinnacle of the golfing world. Here are some things you need:

Natural ability - good hand-eye coordination and accuracy. If you are a serious klutz who cannot manage a steady, smooth swing at the golf ball without chopping divots off the tee or endangering your playing partners, you will likely not achieve even a lower than "bogey handicap" (18 or above).

Determination to attack and conquer the learning curve. Golf is not an easy sport to master. It takes concentration and consistency which can only come from spending lots of time on the course trying to improve your game.

A drive to succeed (pun intended). Not only do you need the inner drive to be a better golfer, you need a solid and consistent drive to put the ball as near to the cup as you can on the first swing.

Time to practice. Occasional golfers who only play when the spirit moves them and never, never in the rain or cold or when there's a football game on TV, will likely not hit the lower handicap figures in their lifetime.

Of course, the best chance of being a scratch golfer belongs to the young. I don't mean the young men who decide to hit the course with their friends or business colleagues for fun and some "schmoozing." I mean the really young - children who have played golf since they could hold a club. In those early years, the suppleness and flexibility of the body allow them to mold their swing into a natural and easy stroke that they can do in their sleep. Golfers who started golfing at an early age, practiced diligently, and kept at the game into adulthood have a serious "leg-up" over the weekend golfer who thought a driver was what made the mouse work on a computer.

Being a "scratch golfer" also takes a lot of effort. Here are some things to do if you really want to have a zero handicap:




When you do that, practice some more. You cannot ever play too much golf (regardless of what golf widows say). The more you swing the club, the better you will play, as long as you are swinging it correctly.

Take lessons until you are swinging the club correctly. Learn the right way to grip the club, the correct stance, and an easy, smooth swing that connects solidly with the ball.

Practice even more.

Play as many rounds of golf as you can each week so that you internalize the rhythm of hit-and-walk, hit-and- walk, hit-and-walk, hit. The more you play, the more stamina and energy you will build up so you don't lose your punch on the last few holes.

Pay attention to the golfers you play with and copy those with consistently good shots. Try to think like a child with no preconceived notions of what a good golfer looks like. Learn their strategies and emulate their successful play; develop the yearning to "play like a pro." When you get it right, practice, practice, and practice some more.

Learn from the best. Get the right information and "K.I.S.S." - "Keep it Simple Stupid." Good chipping, accurate putting, and straight drives will mean lower scores and lower handicaps.

One last word of advice to anyone who wants to lower their handicap: play golf with the best. Competitive play will keep your skills sharp and if you play with golfers who are better than you are, you will have a constant stream of good models to emulate. There is nothing more valuable than regular competition (keep it professional with no gloating and razzing) in an environment that encourages improvement by rewarding good shots with sincere compliments and admiration while still giving you the edge you need to get closer to that goal - "scratch golfing."

Remember, theories are for scientists; find an effective swing, a smooth rhythm, and a positive attitude; low golf scores do not come from clever techniques you read in a book, they are the result of good play.


This article was written by Keith Matthews. Keith is keen to share more of his golfing tips and experience so sign-up for his free weekly emails at

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