Charlotte discusses handicap divisions in club competitions following an interesting email she received last week.

Last week, I received an email from one of our readers about the best way of determining handicap divisions in club competitions. Specifically, she asked whether divisions should be based on a player's Handicap Index or their Playing or Course Handicaps.

As someone who hasn’t competed in club competitions since a long time before the World Handicap System was introduced, I felt somewhat less than qualified to answer. However, I’ve also written (on multiple occasions) that competition divisions could be a fair solution to the “higher-handicappers are dominating club competitions” argument, so I felt really compelled to find the answer.

After tying myself in knots through Google, I decided to reach out to an expert and spoke to a handicap advisor at England Golf.

“It is strongly recommended that the limit is set using the Handicap Index,” she told me. “Because this is something which the player will know or can easily find out.”

Here’s why this approach is beneficial and how it simplifies the process for everyone involved.

What is a Handicap Index?

First, let’s clarify what a Handicap Index is. The Handicap Index is a numerical measure of a golfer's skill level, allowing players of different abilities to compete equitably. It’s a standardised metric that reflects a player’s potential ability on a course of standard difficulty.

Handicap Index is calculated from the best eight rounds from your last 20 scores and can be played on any golf course around the world.

The other key terms to point out here for clarity are:

  • Course Handicap: The number of shots you’ll receive for a specific set of tees on a specific golf course.
  • Playing Handicap: The total number of shots you’ll receive when you play with or against other players, depending on the format of play and the handicap allowance.
  • Course rating: The measure of playing difficulty from a set of tees when played by a scratch golfer.
  • Slope rating: The relative playing difficulty of a course for bogey golfers compared to scratch golfers from the same tees.

Why use Handicap Index for competition divisions?

  • Consistency and familiarity: Handicap Index is a value that every golfer is familiar with. Unlike Course or Playing Handicaps, which can vary depending on the course and tee selections, most golfers know what their Handicap Index is without having look anything up or use any calculations.
  • Fairness across courses: Using Handicap Index ensures that divisions are set based on a stable and universally recognised metric. Course and Playing Handicaps fluctuate based on the difficulty of the course. Handicap Index, however, provides a standardised way to group players, maintaining fairness regardless of where the competition is held.
  • Less admin: Organising competitions using Handicap Index streamlines the administrative process for everyone. Because let’s face it, golf is hard enough without having to adjust divisions for each event. Handicap Index keeps it simple – it’s easier for clubs to manage competitions and for players to understand their placement.

Implementing Handicap Index-based divisions

As far as I understand (and please feel free to email me to tell me if I’m wrong!) handicap divisions can be adjusted to reflect the demographic of the individual golf club.

So, at your club, an equal division split might be:

  • Division 1: Handicap Index up to 10.0
  • Division 2: Handicap Index 10.1 to 20.0
  • Division 3: Handicap Index 20.1 to 30.0
  • Division 4: Handicap Index above 30.0

Or it could be as simple as:

  • Division 1: Handicap Index up to 23.00
  • Division 2: Handicap Index above 23.1

It is up to the Handicap Committee to define and split divisions equally and clearly state it in the competition conditions before play.

Smaller women's sections

I know that all of this comes with one big caveat: A lot of women's sections aren’t big enough to justify multiple divisions.

And whilst I’ve heard from a lot of clubs about how they divide competitions and prizes, I’d love to know what the “norm” is within smaller sections.

I’ve read about players being paired with similar handicaps, which I can see the benefit of. However, that does mean you’re likely to end up playing with the same people. Aside from being boring, there is so much value in playing with different people; it fosters a more inclusive community at the club and I really think you learn so much from playing with different golfers, whether they’re a lower or higher handicap.

I’d be really interested to hear what happens at your club and your thoughts about handicap divisions. Please email me at [email protected].

You’ll find more information and support about WHS at, as well useful documents about defining handicap limits in competitions.

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