What is a scratch golfer and how good are they?

Thomas Tanner
Sep 08, 2020
6 minutes
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Handicaps are what make the game of golf great. They one golfer to play against any other golfer and the contest (in theory) should be pretty close. However there is a group of golfers who play off scratch, but what exactly does that mean? And how good are they in reality?

Now if you play golf, you've probably heard there's a player at your club who plays off scratch. What playing off scratch means is that player has a handicap of 0 (or better). If your handicap is 15, you expect to be about 15 over every time you play; a scratch player expects to play level par or better whenever they play.

The term scratch also encompasses players who are better than 0, or said to have a positive or plus handicap. For example, a +3 handicap golfer has to add three shots to their score in a nett competition.

The USGA love their numbers, and they define a male scratch golfer as being able to hit tee shots an average of 250 yards and can reach a 470-yard hole in two strokes. In comparison, a female scratch golfer to hit tee shots on average 210 yards and be able to reach a 400-yard hole in two shots.

What about PGA Professionals?

A scratch golfer shouldn't be confused with a PGA Professional golfer. To be a PGA pro, a male needs a handicap of 4.4 or better, and a female needs a handicap of 6.4 or better - and you have to relinquish your amateur status and earn your way in one of the most competitive environments in existence. But, importantly, you don't need to be a scratch golfer to be a professional golfer. Ian Poulter turned pro off a handicap of four, and he didn't do too badly for himself!

Why scratch?

The origin of the word 'scratch' comes from a line that was scratched in the ground to denote the start line of a running race. To make the race fairer and more interesting, the fastest runners would start on the scratch line; while the slower ones were given an advantage and could start in front of the scratch. It was an effective form of a handicapping system, and at the end of the race, the result should be very close.

The common phrase "starting from scratch' meaning you start with nothing comes from this. The scratch golfer has nothing while the weak golfers have the advantage of being able to subtract their handicap from their score at the end of the round.

How good is a scratch golfer?

A report into how scratch players perform on the course showed the following:

  • Hit at least one out of two fairways of the tee with their driver,
  • Hit just over 6 out of 10 greens in regulation,
  • Very rarely three-putt,
  • Chip and single putt more than 50% of the time, including out of bunkers!

A scratch player essentially is one who can manage every aspect of their game, consistently, and can plot their way around the golf course hitting the right shots at the right time. A Scratch golfer will very rarely hit two bad shots in a row and has the mindset to recover rapidly from setbacks in a positive way.

How good are the plays on the PGA Tour?

Mark Brodie, in his book "Every Shot Counts", analysed millions of strokes by both scratch and Pro golfers and concluded a measurable 5.5 stroke difference between a scratch player and a PGA Tour player.

Realistically if you want to try to get onto the PGA Tour, your handicap needs to be +3. If you're going to earn a living on Tour, you need to perform to a handicap of +5. Over his historic 2000 season, Tiger Woods played to an equivalent handicap of +9!

What does it take to be a scratch golfer?

So if you're good at golf becoming a scratch golfer and getting into that 1% bracket can be a great goal and one that can take years to achieve!

You'll need natural ability, undoubtedly help in the form of lessons or a coach, a lot of practice and hard work, a powerful will and a positive attitude.

And for the rest of us, we can only dream. Thank goodness for the handicap system that gives us a head start and allows us even to beat the scratch players if we play well.