What Is A Scratch Golfer?

A scratch golfer is someone who has a handicap of zero (or better). Unlike the majority of golfers, they don’t have any strokes to deduct from their score at the end of the round. If they have a plus handicap then they actually have to add shots back onto their score!

Under the World Handicap System (WHS) this means the eight best rounds out of your last twenty qualifying scores would need to average out at par or better in order to have a handicap of scratch or plus.

what is a scratch golfer

How Good Are Scratch Golfers?

If you’ve had the pleasure of playing with golfers of this standard then you’re probably well aware of the level of skill that they have managed to achieve.

To play scratch golf means being able to hit the ball a reasonable distance, consistently and also to possess solid iron play and a good short game and putting stroke.

For example, it would be quite difficult to play scratch golf if you only hit the ball two hundred yards from the tee. Similarly, if your ball striking with your irons is inconsistent then it would also make it difficult to keep such a handicap on a rated golf course. 

Scratch and plus golfers also possess the happy knack of being solid chippers and putters and are therefore able to recover from the mistakes they do make by getting up and down a good percentage of the time.

“Golf is not about the quality of your good shots, it is about the quality of your bad shots.”

Sir Nick Faldo

In addition to working on the technical side of their golf games to reduce mistakes, they are also going to have a solid mental attitude or their handicap would quickly start to rise! Confidence in your own ability is an important aspect of becoming good at any task.

According to the United States Golf Association (USGA), only around 2% of male golfers have a golf handicap of scratch or better out of those that have a recognized handicap. The percentage for ladies is less than 1%. Only half of “golfers” in the US have handicaps so that means about 1% of all golfers are scratch or better. 

They have also come up with their definition of a scratch player in order to produce their course ratings.

“A male scratch golfer, for rating purposes, can hit tee shots an average of 250 yards and can reach a 470-yard hole in two shots at sea level. A female scratch golfer, for rating purposes, can hit tee shots an average of 210 yards and can reach a 400-yard hole in two shots at sea level.”

James Robinson v A Scratch Player

Why Is A Zero Handicap Called Scratch?

“Originally, the scratch was the starting line in a race, likely from such a line being scratched into the earth when races were held on soft terrain.”


Slower runners would be given a head start as an early form of handicapping. Since zero-handicap golfers don’t need a start that became a “scratch” handicap.

Scratch Golfers Versus PGA Professionals

You may not realize that qualifying to become a PGA professional golfer only requires a handicap index of 4.4 or better (6.4 for ladies).

It is probably fair to say that many PGA professionals are quite a few shots worse than a typical scratch player since they are spending most of their time giving lessons or working in the Professional shop rather than on their golf game.

It also takes several years of study in various aspects of being a club pro as well as a playability test.

A professional can also earn a living from playing and teaching while a scratch amateur cannot.

Scratch Golfers Versus Touring Professionals

Scratch golfers are head and shoulders above most other amateur golfers and they could probably give many PGA professionals a run for their money but comparing scratch golfers to tour pros is an entirely different level. 

No doubt that a good scratch golfer could in theory beat a PGA or European tour player on a given day. However, there is also no doubt that over a number of matches the professional would win out. 

The difference in class would become even more apparent if you ask the players to play on a variety of different golf courses. A tour professional has to be comfortable moving from course to course and living out of a suitcase from week to week yet still manage to produce golf that can earn them a living. By contrast, a scratch player only needs to play well at their home club to maintain their handicap.

Peter Sanders published an interesting comparison between PGA Tour and scratch golfers. He showed that PGA Tour players are around 5.5 shots per round better than a scratch player.

So based on that you need to be a solid +4 or +5 handicapper to have a decent chance on tour these days.

How Do I Become A Scratch Golfer?

Getting to the point where you have a course handicap of zero is quite a tall order. Only about 2% of men and 0.7% of women manage to get a handicap index that low. In fact the number is even smaller than that since those percentages are only those players with handicaps. A great many “golfers” don’t have official handicaps.

What Does It Take To Become A Scratch Player

  1. You need to be able to hit the ball a reasonable distance. In order to play to a course handicap of zero or less you will probably need to hit the ball around 250 yards with your driver. You may be able to get to scratch on a shorter course without hitting the ball this far but for your handicap to travel you will need to hit the ball a reasonable distance.
  2. Your bad shots need to be not too bad most of the time. Even pro golfers can hit some shocking shots but most of the time they are there or thereabouts. During a round of golf they will usually hit a fair number of fairways and greens.
  3. To reach scratch golf standards you will need to have a good short game. You won’t get a handicap of 0 if you miss lots of putts inside 8 feet.
  4. You must play the percentages. While taking on difficult shots can save you shots sometimes knowing the right time to do it is part of the game if you want a lower handicap.
  5. You need to have the right mentality. Most scratch players will have the right attitude. They won’t give up at the first setback.

Scratch Versus Nett Competition

The overwhelming majority of golfers play in net (nett) competitions when playing golf. This means the number of strokes they receive is deducted from their score at the end or on a hole-by-hole basis if you are playing Stableford, bogey or match play formats.

Players with low enough handicaps may enter scratch competitions where only their gross score counts in terms of their finishing position. Their handicap would still be adjusted based on the scores that they post in these events.

The two most prestigious amateur events would be the Amateur Championship run by The R&A and the US Amateur Championship run by the USGA. Entry into these events would be limited by handicap to scratch or better players. There would also be a ballot since the events are usually oversubscribed. A ballot basically removes the highest handicapped players from the starting line-up.

Here is a list of some top amateur events that you could try to enter if you get your handicap down to scratch (or more likely better):

  • U.S. Amateur
  • British Amateur
  • European Amateur
  • Western Amateur
  • Northeast Amateur
  • Pacific Coast Amateur
  • Sunnehanna Amateur
  • St. Andrews Links Trophy
  • US Public Links
  • Asia-Pacific Amateur
  • Lytham Trophy
  • Australian Amateur
  • Irish Amateur
  • North & South Amateur

What Is A Scratch Golfer: Summary

A scratch golfer is a very good golfer. Only around 1% of golfers worldwide have managed to get a handicap this low.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m likely to get below 5! Do you/have you played off scratch? How difficult did you find getting and keeping that handicap?

Frequently Asked Questions [FAQ]

What is the difference between a scratch golfer and a tour professional?

You might be surprised that the difference between a tour pro and someone with a scratch handicap is probably greater than the difference between an average golfer and a scratch player.

Tour professionals have to be able to play on all courses in all conditions under the pressure of needing to make a living. You might think playing in your club championship is difficult but imagine that you need to play well that week to make your mortgage and car payments!

What is a golf handicap?

A golf handicap is a system that allows players of different abilities to compete against each other. Higher handicaps equate to less skillful golfers while a lower handicap means the golfer would play better golf on average.

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