It’s one of the most frequently asked questions on the first tee or the 19th hole.

“What’s your handicap?”

It’s also one I have never had an answer to.

But that’s something I’ve set out to change. As I’ve grown more attached to golf, both personally and professionally, one of my goals this summer has been to establish my first handicap.

In the world of the United States Golf Association, that’s known as a handicap index. Simply put, it measures a player’s current ability over an entire round of golf, signifying how many strokes above (or below) par a golfer should be able to play.

A handicap index is established by using three things: your gross scores, as well as the rating and slope of the course or courses you’ve played. To establish a handicap, you’ll need a minimum of five rounds played, with a maximum of 20. When you reach 20, the lowest scores of the 10 are used to compute your handicap.

After you’ve done the fun part, which is playing the rounds, the handicap is calculated with a formula that uses the course’s rating and slope, which will vary depending on the set of tees you play from. The rating of a course is its measure of difficulty of a “scratch” golfer, one who shoots even par. The slope, meanwhile, in the simplest terms, is the difficulty of a course for a “bogey” golfer.

A course’s rating and slope are almost always found on the scorecard, so hang onto it at the end of your round.

The good news is that’s all you need. Establishing a handicap is a fairly simple process, one that’s been made even easier over the years thanks to the Internet. The first step is to become a member of a golf club that uses the USGA Handicapping System. That doesn’t mean signing up at Park or CCB, nice as that may be.

A golf club, as defined by the USGA, is an organization of at least 10 members that has a handicap committee. Golf clubs also supervise golf activities, provide peer review and maintain the integrity of the handicap system.

Most courses, public and private, have clubs based there that can help establish your handicap. Once you’re in a club that’s part of the USGA system, you simply turn your scores in to the handicapping committee.

If, however, you’re not a member of a private club and don’t have a public course you play more frequently than others (like myself), there are no shortages of handicap options online.

One of those is offered by the New York State Golf Association, which has eight “eClubs” it runs throughout the state. All of the eClubs are fully operating NYSGA member clubs with an annual membership fee of $35 for adults (free for juniors).

As eClub members, golfers get an official USGA handicap and are eligible to play in NYSGA championships and state days series tournaments. They also get an NYSGA associate membership card and bag tag, a copy of the USGA Rules of Golf and the use of an eClubhouse that has tools to evaluate your game.

There are about 700 eClub members throughout the state, according to NYSGA Executive Director Bill Moore.

“We’ve had a lot of growth over the last three or four years,” Moore said. “I think it’s had a lot more to do with the golf economy, with people leaving clubs or not being a member of a club anymore. They tend to play their golf all over. It’s easier not to pay for a handicap at a facility, but just to pay us and keep track of it online.”

Don’t confuse that with a sales pitch, though.

“We still try to get people to go and join a club to get a handicap,” Moore said. “We’d rather have them get it through the club. It’s better for peer review. It’s tracked a little better in terms of keeping the sandbagging type of problems down.

“When I look back to when I started, a handicap was the No. 1 way to gauge how my game was either improving or not improving. It will actually give you that quantitative feedback that you’re looking for.”

While I’ve yet to decide on whether to join a club or use an online service that’s licensed to do USGA handicaps, I have started hanging onto my score cards, along with the dates of the rounds played and the set of tees I used. I’ve completed four of the five rounds I need so far, with the following scores: 88 at Hunter’s Pointe in Welland, Ont. (course rating of 70.7 and slope of 129), 94 at Odana Hills in Madison, Wis., (69.2, 114), 89 at Niagara Falls Country Club (71.2, 129) and 89 at Deerwood (70.7, 118).

After playing my next round, if I decide to obtain a club membership, I’ll be able to submit those five scores and have my first handicap. Until that happens, I used a free online calculator to give an estimate. I play a lot at Hickory Stick in Lewiston, so I used an estimated round of 92 there with the rating/slope 70.4/126. Those five rounds would give me a handicap of 14.5, better than bogey golf, but short of my goal of becoming a single-digit handicap player.

I’ll update my progress from time to time in this column.


• Patrick Hinkson of Lyndonville and Marissa Delmonaco of Little Valley were the boys and girls winners of the 2013 Western New York Junior PGA Championship last week at Harvest Hill.

Hinkson and Delmonaco qualified for the 38th Junior PGA Championship, which will be played from July 30-Aug. 2 at Trump National Golf Club in Potomac Falls, Va. Hinkson, 17, shot a final-round 76 for a two-round total of 149 and a two-stroke victory over Matthew Van Niekerk of Rochester. Delmonaco, 14, had a final-round 85 for a total of 160 and a five-stroke win over Jennifer Lee of Rochester.

• The latest issue of the Canadian publication SCOREGolf Magazine ranks the country’s top 59 public courses. Those close to us making the cut include the Rees Jones-designed Grand Niagara, at No. 45, and Whirlpool, designed by Stanley Thompson, at No. 55. Glen Abbey, where the RBC Canadian Open will be held next week outside of Toronto, is No. 26, while Hamilton’s municipal course, King’s Forest, is No. 51.

The top course is Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge in the Canadian Rockies, north of Calgary.

In terms of value, King’s Forest, at $63, is No. 4. Whirlpool, at $80, is 11th, and Grand Niagara, with its $110 greens fees, is 27th. That goes to show it can be a bit pricey to play up north.

• Local golf news of note is welcome at the email address below.