Whatever your handicap is, no matter how high or how low, there is a maximum score you can take on any hole. It is called Equitable Stroke Control, or ESC, and is designed to account for the very penal nature of golf.

Here’s how it works:

Your handicap is comprised of your best, i.e. lowest score, 5 – 10 recent rounds. No matter how badly you score on a given hole, even if you pick up the ball, you are allowed to put in a score that reflects your true ability. Therefore, you can have one or two blow-up holes (we’ve all been there!) but because of Equitable Stroke Control they don’t trash your entire round.

Handicap                           Max Score

40 or more           –              10

30 – 39                 –              9

20 – 29                 –              8

10 – 19                  –              7

0 – 9                     –              double bogey

The reason for playing is to have fun, there is no point in beating your head against a wall (or your club against a stubborn ball), when the ultra-strict USGA has developed a system that accounts for gaps in your scorecard.

This year I decided to stick to the USGA rulebook and handicap system 100%. This means that if I move my ball by accident while moving a leaf, or even on my backswing, I have to call a penalty on myself and add a stroke. ARGHHHH. That hurts so badly! It also means that I don’t play winter rules when it’s actually summer, or if I lose a ball or hit one out-of-bounds I have to re-tee and hit another one. I take all the drops with their appropriate penalty stroke and I don’t ground my club in a bunker. I even check my pace to make sure I’m not playing too slowly. I’ll be honest; sometimes it really sucks to play so strict when I am all alone just sneaking in a quick 9. When I get to play with my husband and I do such things he looks at me wide-eyed and says: “Wow, you’re harsh to yourself!”


There was a time when I would be playing along just fine, with 5s and 6s and then disaster would strike and a big fat 12 or 13 or 14 would be sitting on my scorecard. Sometimes I could recover but more often than not, and especially back when I was new to the game, it would ruin my entire day. Even my good holes would turn bad and my bad holes would turn worse. I couldn’t relax and just play thinking of score looming over and panicking as it spiraled upward. Unfortunately, back then I also played in a league that didn’t go by the handicap system and you shot your score no matter how high. I once carded a 16 on hole. I also shot a 91 once, ON NINE HOLES (I still have the scorecard to prove it and it is NOT yellowed with age, unfortunately).

Now when I play I step up to the tee knowing that I will never shoot over a 7 on any hole. That’s my cushion, that’s my comfort. That’s what I can hang my hat on and I don’t have to fear the blow-up holes that destroy my entire round.

There’s a par 4 at my home course that actually plays like a par 5. It’s the toughest hole on the front 9 with out of bounds just 10 yards to the right of the ladies’ tee. Needless to say my balls sail over there from time to time. Instead of panicking I immediately relax. “Well I’m not getting worse than a seven” I think to myself. I re-tee the ball to hit again. I was so relaxed once (and so focused) that I hit it out-of-bounds, gave myself the two stroke penalty then re-teed it, and still got a six on the hole.

Once you know that scores like 12, 13, or 14 can never again destroy your round you can relax and simply swing the club and make shots. Knowing you’ll never shoot a 14 again means you can relax and just play.♣

For more information about handicapping visit the USGA website which explains in detail how it works.