Scratch golfers are among the best golfers in the world and it’s not because they spend their time rolling around in poison ivy. It’s because they spend many hours on the driving range practicing to master one of the most difficult sports to play.
So, what is a scratch golfer?
A scratch golfer, according to the United States Golf Association Handicap Manual, is a player that can play to a Course Handicap of 0.0 on any rated golf course. In simpler terms, a scratch golfer is a player that will shoot around par or better for any course they play.
Scratch golfers account for just under two percent of the golfing population. Becoming a scratch golfer is very difficult and because of that, they’re used to provide a baseline measurement for evaluating the overall difficulty of a golf course.
When determining the difficulty of a golf course, the baseline skills of a scratch golfer are measured against the baseline skills of a bogey golfer, or a golfer that averages close to a bogey on each hole.
What Is the Origin of the Term ‘Scratch’ Golfer?
The origin of the term scratch to describe a golfer that shoots par or better is a bit obscure. However, one solid explanation for the use of the term ‘scratch’ comes from running races. To make races more exciting, faster runners would be told to start behind the scratch, or line on the ground, while slower runners would start ahead of the scratch.
Tying it back to golf, the starting line scratch in the ground for a foot race represents a golf course’s par. This means a scratch golfer is both a player that is considered the best type of golfer and one who does not need the assistance of handicap strokes to compete with other golfers.
Is a Scratch Golfer Good?
Yes, a scratch golfer is a very good golfer. Scratch golfers play to a handicap of 0.0 meaning their average scores for any round played will be at or just above or below par for any given golf course.
How Many Scratch Golfers Are There in the World?
Scratch golfers account for roughly two percent of all golfers in the world. According to the National Golf Foundation, there were 24.8 million people who played golf on a golf course in 2020. That means there are approximately 500,000 scratch golfers in the world.
Scratch Golfer Handicap
The handicap of a scratch golfer will be a 0.0, meaning their score on any given golf course will be at or near par. A handicap is a measure of a golfer’s current ability over an 18-hole round where the best golfers have the lowest handicaps. The golf handicap system is designed so golfers of differing skill levels and abilities can compete against each other in competition on a fair and equitable basis.
Par, on the other hand, is “the score that a scratch player would generally be expected to achieve on a hole under normal course and weather conditions, allowing for two strokes on the putting green.”
Scratch Golfer vs Bogey Golfer
As stated before, the United States Golf Association (USGA) defines a scratch golfer as a golfer that can play to a Course Handicap of 0.0 on any rated golf course.
The USGA Course Rating System assumes a “the male scratch golfer hits a 250 yard tee shot and can reach a 470 yard hole in two shots at sea level. The female scratch can hit 210 off the tee and reach a 400 yard hole in two.”
A bogey golfer on the other hand is a player that averages a score between 90 and 100 for an 18-hole round. A bogey is a golf score that is one over par. So, a golfer that scores a bogey on every hole of par 72 golf course will shoot a score of 90.
The USGA Course Rating System defines a male bogey golfer as one that “has a Course Handicap of about 20 and can hit 200 off the tee, reaching a 370 yard hole in 2 shots. A female bogey golfer has a Course Handicap of about 22 and can hit 150 off the tee and can reach 280 yards in 2 shots.”
So the biggest difference between a scratch and a bogey golfer is how far they hit the golf ball. Applying the logic that distance provides the biggest difference between a scratch and a bogey golfer, it can be inferred that the farther a golfer hits the ball, the better chance they have of becoming a better golfer.
Alternatively, golfers that have maxed out their potential distance should play their rounds of golf from more forward teeing grounds to effectively shorten the golf course, thus making it easier to record better, lower scores.
Scratch Golfer vs Professional Golfer
Professional golfers are golfers that play in officially sanctioned golf tournaments for the chance to win prize money. A professional golfer’s full-time job is to play in professional tournaments almost every week. Thus, they spend countless hours in the gym, on the driving range and on the golf course finding ways to improve their skill and ability.
Professional golfers often carry plus handicaps which are considerably better than a golf handicap of 0.0. A plus handicap (for example, +2.7) means that in a handicapped golf tournament, the professional golfer would be adding approximately 3 strokes to their final score. However, when professional golfers play in official golf tournaments, they only play as scratch golfers.
So, all professional golfers are scratch golfers but not all scratch golfers are professionals. Scratch golfers encompass a broader scope of golfers and include amateur golfers or those that do not play golf for money.
What Is a Course Handicap?
A Course Handicap is the number of strokes a golfer needs to receive to play to par. The strokes received are reduced from the golfer’s final score for the round.
To determine a golfer’s course handicap, they need to have an established Handicap Index, which per the USGA, “provides [the golfer] with a portable measure of playing ability” that is applicable at any authorized golf club around the world.
The handicap index is often a number with a decimal point (i.e. 15.2). The handicap index is used to determine each player’s course handicap at any golf course they play. In the case of a scratch golfer, their handicap index number would be 0.0, meaning they would receive zero strokes for any round played at any golf course in the world.
The handicap index is an incredibly useful tool as no two golf courses in the world are exactly alike. Some golf courses are considered very easy while others are considered to be very hard. The more difficult the golf course is, the higher the golfer’s course handicap will be.
To determine the difficulty of a golf course, the USGA has developed a Course Rating System that accounts for the many different features of a golf course that can add to or subtract from its overall difficulty.
All USGA-rated golf courses will have a Course Handicap conversion chart where golfers can determine the number of strokes they will receive for their round. The USGA also provides a formula so golfers can calculate their course handicap.
All a golfer needs to do is grab a scorecard, determine which tees they wish to play and plug that particular set of tee’s Course Rating and Slope Rating into the following formula:
Course Handicap = Handicap Index x (Slope Rating/113) + (Course Rating – Par)
Example: 15.2 x (133/113) + (71.7-72) = 17.59 or 18 Handicap Strokes (rounding up)
What Is a Course Rating?
Per the World Handicap System, “a Course Rating represents the expected score for a scratch player (a golfer with a Handicap Index of 0.0) under normal playing conditions while a Bogey Rating represents the expected score for a bogey player (a golfer with an Index of 20.0 to 24.0).”
Together, these two figures are used to calculate a golf course’s Slope Rating or the “measure of the relative difficulty of a golf course between a scratch player and all other players.” On a golf course with a higher Slope Rating, a higher-handicapped golfer will need more strokes to compete equally with a scratch player. A golf course with a relative standard level of difficulty will have a Slope Rating of 113.
To determine a Course Rating, the Allied Golf Association will send a team of course raters (usually from 4-10 people) to the golf course to calculate the effective playing length of the course and weigh the severity of obstacle factors all to determine the difficulty of a golf course.
The course rating team will travel the golf course hole by hole to calculate the effective playing length and evaluate 10 obstacle factors for four types of golfers: scratch and bogey, male and female.
The effective playing length of a hole is determined by starting at each tee’s yardage plate, or in the absence of a yardage plate, the spot where the tee markers are normally located, and measuring the distance to the center of the putting green.
Adjustments are made based on the impact of roll (firmness of the ground causing the ball to roll), wind, elevation changes, altitude (a higher altitude will result in further distances carried by a golf ball), dog-legs (left or right bend of a hole) and forced lay-ups (design features of a golf course that force the player to hit a conservative shot to avoid a hazard).
Utilizing charts, table values, adjustments and formulas, the course rating team evaluates the following 10 categories of obstacles: topography, fairway, green target, recoverability & rough, bunkers, crossing obstacles, lateral obstacles, trees, green surface and psychology.
Upon completion, the course rating team returns to the course to play every hole as a means of verifying the results or making adjustments to the effective playing length or severity of the obstacles. A few days later, the course rating team will upload all the information to USGA software that computes the new course rating.
Golf courses are rated approximately every 10 years to account for changes due to the addition or movement of a new set of tees or because of the effects of mother nature (i.e. erosion or loss of trees).
How to Become a Scratch Golfer
Get to Know Your Distances
Scratch golfers will generally know exactly how far they hit any club on any given day at any elevation in any weather condition. To do this, they spend hours on the driving range hitting at targets in which they know the exact distance, often using laser range finders.
Additionally, if faced with a shot to the hole that is, for example, 156 yards away, they understand how to manipulate 1, 2 or even 3 of their clubs to hit the ball that distance, especially if specific yardage does not fall within the range of a full swing.
Once you’ve determined a solid 5-yard range for each of your clubs in your set, write them down. If you are playing at elevation (i.e. above sea level), adjust your yardages to account for the increase in distance, anticipating an additional 2% increase for every 1,000 feet above sea level.
Track Your Stats
Tracking your stats will allow you to pinpoint specific areas in your game that need improvement. Here is a list of stats worth tracking:
Putts Per Round
Total up the number of putts per round and divide by the number of holes played. Anything less than 2 on average is pretty good. A sub-category to track is the number of times you require 3 or more putts to finish a hole. If this number is high, spend more time working on making putts inside five feet during your practice sessions.
Hitting approach shots from the fairway rather than the rough or fairway bunkers will drastically improve your ability to hit the ball on the green. A typical golf course will have 14 holes with fairways (par 3 holes are not counted) so anything that is 50-75% is pretty good.
A sub-category to track here is noting which side of the fairways you miss regularly as this may indicate a fault or tendency that could be easily corrected.
Greens in Regulation (GIR)
A green in regulation is when a golfer hits the ball on the green in one shot on a par 3, two shots on a par 4 and three shots on a par 5. The more greens you hit in regulation, the more birdie and par putts you will have a chance of making.
A sub-category to track here is what side of the green you miss from short and right, short and left, long and right or long and left.
Practice Smarter, Not Harder
Scratch golfers tend to have better practice routines. The idea is not to work harder but smarter and to vary what skill is being practiced to improve all-around ability. Treat your practice like you would treat your homework in high school, don’t spend all your time on chemistry and forget to do your math and English homework.
Likewise, don’t spend all your time hitting your driver and forget to work on chipping, pitching and putting. Additionally, develop specific drills for each aspect of the game that you can use regularly and be sure to track your stats to see how your skills in each area improve over time.
Find a Routine and Stick to it
A pre-shot routine is a fundamental thing that all successful golfers have. Imagine a baker that bakes cakes. They follow the same routine every time they make a specific cake to achieve the desired result at the end. Any change to the recipe may alter the end product.
The same can be said for a scratch golfer. Whether it is 1 or 2 practice swings, visualizing the target, taking breaths before the swing, or wagging the hips to keep them loose, every golfer’s preshot routine is different but the important thing to remember is they have one.
Remember that time is of the essence when playing golf so limit your preshot routine to less than 20 seconds per shot. If you need help establishing a routine, watch and observe what really good golfers do and try it out at your next practice session.
Hire a PGA Certified Golf Professional to Give You Lessons
PGA golf professionals are certified by the Professional Golfer’s Association to be experts in the field. Taking a lesson will allow you to develop a deeper understanding of your swing and its inherent flaws and tendencies.
Be sure to take notes during your lesson as oftentimes it is easy to forget from one lesson to the next what you worked on and it’s vital to have the resource at the ready should you face an existential crisis while playing a round of golf on your own.
Devote Time to Sharpening Your Mental Skills
Remember the intimidation factor listed above under the course rating obstacles? Have you ever had a 4-foot putt on the 18th hole to win a match against a friend you’ve never beaten? What about a 200 yard forced carry to a skinny fairway lined with bunkers?
The mental fortitude to handle the nervousness and intimidation of such shots will allow you to better control your emotions and thoughts in the moment. Focus on what you want to do, not what you don’t want to happen.
Find small targets to aim for so your brain has specific directions of what you want it to do versus generalized suggestions of what you hope will happen. Activities like meditation and yoga will help develop skills to quiet the mind and sharpen your awareness of the world around you.
Learn to Control Your Emotions, Both the Highs and the Lows
Have you ever made a really long putt to save par or make birdie and gotten up to the next hole only to slice your tee shot into the woods? Or have you ever chunked an easy shot into the water short of the green only to slam your club into the ground and then play terribly over the next few holes?
Developing the skill of keeping your emotions in check and maintaining a steady heart and breathing rate will allow you to better control your emotions and tension when both good and bad things happen during your round. And rest assured that both good and bad things will happen to you during your next round of golf.
Play with Clubs Fit to Your Swing
Getting fit for a set of clubs that matches your height and swing speed will optimize your accuracy and distance and allow you to begin to shoot better scores.
PGA golf professionals will have the equipment and ability to fit you for your next set of clubs and you may even be able to sweet-talk them into a few free lessons to go with that new set of clubs. Want to learn more about golf clubs, check out this article on Graphite vs Steel shafted golf clubs.
Develop a Strategy for Playing Each Hole and Course
One difficult aspect of golf is showing up to play a round at a course you’ve never seen before and playing well. Many times it takes playing a golf course several times to develop a strategy for playing each golf hole optimally. There are few things you can do to help yourself out the next time you play a golf course for the first time.
Go to the Golf Course’s Website
Some golf courses will share images and videos of each hole with suggested ways of playing them. Take notes and bring them with you to the golf course.
Buy a Yardage Book in the Pro Shop Before Your Round
Yardage books will provide a hole-by-hole overview of distances and tips for where to aim and what to avoid. If you have trouble reading a yardage book, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Would you rather get advice and play better or not know what you’re doing and play terribly?
Analyze the Scorecard Before Playing
The scorecard will tell you which holes are the hardest (highest ranked handicapped holes, i.e. 1, 2, 3, etc.) and the easiest (lowest-ranked handicapped holes, i.e. 18, 17, 16, etc.). The easiest holes are the ones that can be played a bit more aggressively to record lower scores while the hardest holes should be approached with caution and played conservatively.
The scorecard will also display the separate tee boxes available as well as the total distance of each set of tees. Choose the right tee box that fits your current skill level. You wouldn’t ask a kid playing Little League Baseball to play their first game at Yankee Stadium.
So why put yourself through the same ringer? Remember that the shorter the golf course, the higher the likelihood you will have a lower score and a better time.
Play with Golfers Better than Yourself
Playing a round of golf with a really good golfer can be an incredible learning experience. Observing, asking questions and taking notes can go a long way to increasing your understanding of how to become a better player yourself.
Study their preshot routine, ask questions on what they think about before difficult shots or have them demonstrate a particular shot that you do not know how to hit yet (i.e. a flopshot or a bullet).
However, be sure to do all of these things in a way that will not impede or distract them from their round. If the really good golfer is kind and patient with you, ask them to share a beverage after the round and pick their brain then rather than doing it in the middle of the round of golf.