Scratch Golfer: What Does it Mean & What Does it Take?

Do you have what it takes to become a scratch golfer?  If you do, you’d become part of a very select and exclusive club.  Based on data from the USGA, less than two out of every hundred golfers are ever able to scale that mountain.  That means that, of the approximately 2.4 million golfers in the U.S. who carry an official handicap index, fewer than 36,000 (or roughly 1.85%) are actually considered to be scratch or better.  It takes a lot to get there.  Joining that elite group is a real testament to someone’s skill, determination, work ethic, and commitment.

In this article, let’s take a look at what it really means to become a scratch golfer and how you can apply some tactics to your own game.

What is a Scratch Golfer?

In layman’s terms, most people usually think of scratch golfers as either those who routinely play to par (or better) or those who receive no strokes in any net competition.  But the USGA has given us the actual definition in their Rules of Handicapping.  They define a scratch golfer as “a player who can play to a Course Handicap of zero on any rated golf courses.”   

They go on to further clarify the term by adding that “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 210 yards and can reach a 400-yard hole in two shots at sea level.”

Where Does the Term “Scratch” Golf Come From?

There’s speculation that the term originated from an old practice initiated centuries ago in running competitions.  With varying levels of runners competing in a race, they began the custom of placing a “scratch” in the ground at the starting line and requiring the best runners to start from a point somewhere behind the scratch.  The weaker runners were allowed a “head start” by starting somewhere ahead of the scratch.   By staggering the starting positions in this manner, in relation to the “scratch,” the race was considered to be fairer and could allow athletes of different skill levels to have a more even competition.

You can see how this concept may have been a precursor to the handicap system that eventually came into popular use in golf events worldwide, allowing players of different skill levels to compete on a fair basis.

A Closer Look at Scratch Golf…by the Numbers

To get a better gauge of where your game stands now compared to where it needs to be to attain scratch status, it’s helpful to look at some data.  Knowing the statistics of how scratch golfers perform on average will indicate where improvements may be needed to take your game to the next level and just how much improvement is needed.

For purposes of comparison, I’m spotlighting below several different important performance metrics contrasted by handicap level.  It shows how a scratch golfer performs in each of those areas and how low single-digit handicappers (1-5) and high single-digit handicappers (6-10) rate by comparison. 

Note that, even though I’m highlighting just single-digit players and comparing them to scratch golfers, I’m not suggesting that players with handicaps above 10 aren’t capable of reaching scratch.  They are, but obviously, it’s a much bigger task and takes an extraordinary commitment.

Here’s a table that summarizes these comparisons.  If you’re currently a single-digit handicapper, this will let you know how you stack up and in which areas you need to focus your improvement plan:

ScratchHcp. 1-5Hcp. 6-10
Average Score*75.379.884.8
Putts Per Round31.532.633.7
Greens in Regulation (GIR)57%48%37%
Greens Hit Per Round11108
Fairways in Regulation (FIR)62%55%51%
Chip/Pitch Up and Down % (from <50 yds)43%33%28%
Up and Down % – Greenside Bunkers42%26%20%

*Note:  Average scores by handicap take into account course difficulty, slope, and course rating.  That’s why the average score of a scratch golfer can result in a score above par.

Reference:  Data above collected and reported by 1) The Grint Application and Website working with My Golf Spy, analyzing 20,000 golfers with 400,000 reported 18-hole scores, 2) ShotByShot.com

Related Article:What’s an Average Golf Score for an Average Golfer?

How to Become a Scratch Golfer

As I said, this article is not meant to be a tutorial on how to improve your swing mechanics to achieve scratch status.  What I want to get across, though, are some of the things that are unique about the way highly-skilled golfers – both pros and scratch-level amateurs – approach the game, their practice regimen, their on-course strategy, etc.

These are the things that differentiate them from the rest.  Yes, their technique and skill level are exceptional, and those aspiring to be scratch players obviously need to work hard on their swing and ball striking.  But it’s these other aspects, some of which are intangibles, that distinguish the elite players.  Emulate these, and you will start to see your handicap plummet.

The first notable part of the scratch golfer formula, one that the best players follow religiously, is a dedicated approach to tracking and analyzing their own statistics.  

1. Track Your Numbers

If you want to become a scratch golfer, you must first identify your specific tendencies and weaknesses.  One of the most significant things that differentiates scratch and professional golfers from those with higher handicaps is that they work hard to identify exactly where they need improvement. They then “practice with a purpose” to get better in each of those areas. 

At this level, the objective of your practice sessions shouldn’t be to mindlessly hit hundreds of shots on the range, hoping to find a “groove” and some solid ball-striking.  Your range time needs to be targeted, with time spent on the key areas you’ve identified as needing some development.   

How do you ascertain which areas need improvement?  The process of identifying the weaknesses in your game begins with an honest assessment of your abilities, which are revealed only by a meticulous tracking of your statistics from each round.

How many fairways did you hit?  When you missed a fairway, did you miss it right or left?  How many greens did you hit in regulation?  And, when you missed a green, how many times did you get up and down?  What was your average proximity to the hole from various distances?  How close to the hole were you able to get on your greenside chips?  What was your proximity to the hole on lag putts from 30+ feet?  

There are obviously many different statistics like these that you can record and track.  This is how the best players get better.  They determine where they have liabilities, and they then proceed on a path to turn them into assets.   

As just one example, if you learn that your pitch shots from 50-60 yards end up, on average, 20+ feet from the hole, you know that this particular category of shot-making needs to get some targeted attention in each practice session.

If you’re already a single-digit golfer, you’re obviously doing a lot of things right.  But getting to scratch requires dedication and a commitment to improving, and that can’t happen unless you know specifically which areas need the improvement.

2. Chipping Excellence is Key

As a general principle, most golfers appreciate that skill in the short game is a prime determinant of your overall score.  But for scratch golfer ‘wannabes,’ I’d like to place particular emphasis on one aspect of the short game — chipping.  

Even elite players miss a fair number of greens during a round.  In fact, you’d probably be surprised to learn that even the PGA pros only hit about 12 greens on average per round.  Scratch golfers are not far behind, averaging about 11 greens in regulation.  This obviously reveals that even the cream of the crop needs to get up and down to save par on fully one-third of the holes!

That’s a tall order unless your short game (in particular, your chipping) is superb.  Obviously, scratch players and pros excel at chipping.  If they didn’t, they’d have a difficult time saving par when they miss greens.  They’d also struggle to shoot at or under par for the round.  If you want to be a scratch player, you need to elevate this part of your game.  

The key barometer of success is getting your chips to within 5-7 feet of the hole, on average.  Obviously, closer is better, but you definitely don’t want to exceed that average.  Why is that distance so critical?

It’s been shown that elite players will hole about 50-55% of their 5-7 footers.  The conversion percentage goes up significantly if you’re closer (e.g., makes from 3 feet are close to 99%), but it also goes way down if they’re farther away.  They will only hole about 40% of 10-footers.  So the message is clear.  Upgrading your chipping game so that you can consistently get within 5-7 feet (and preferably closer) is the recipe for saving strokes.  If you want to be a scratch player, put in the time to make this a consistent strength of your game.  

3. Dial In Your Long-Distance Putting 

When the importance of putting is discussed, most players think in terms of sinking more shorter putts.  There’s no doubt that short putting is critical, but I’d suggest that there’s a different aspect of the putting game that’s just as crucial to maintaining your momentum in a round — your lag putting.  

Scratch players and pros have an uncanny ability to lag their 30+ foot putts to within easy, stress-free, tap-in range.  Other higher single-digit players don’t always show the same expertise, many times leaving these putts 4-5 feet away and occasionally farther.  Often they’ll convert several of those in a round, but unfortunately, they’ll also miss a few as well.  The odds and the law of averages will eventually catch up with them.  The result?  Another 3-putt, which is a wasted stroke that scratch players can’t afford to throw away.

To be a scratch golfer, you must spend the time and practice to get better at lag putting.  Speed control on long putts is an underrated skill by most golfers, but not by the elite players. 

4. Don’t Always Play Hero Golf

The temptation to shoot right at the pin or go for a green in two on a Par 5 can sometimes be overwhelming.  You’ve done it before, so you know that it’s at least possible.  Unfortunately, that confidence can occasionally work against you.

Simply put, there are times when the safer play is the prudent play.  The elite players have a sixth sense for knowing when a conservative approach is called for.  Perhaps the pin is tucked on the far left part of the green just behind a deep bunker, with deep rough or a hazard to the left.  Or maybe that Par 5 has out-of-bounds to the right, or the fairway narrows significantly in the landing area, bringing rough or trees into play.  

Can you pull off the hero shot?  Yes.  Should you try?  Not always.  Those players are scratch because they understand when the risk-reward calculation is favorable and when it’s not.  And when it’s not, the smart play is to the middle of the green or accepting a layup to your favorite yardage on the Par 5. 

Confidence in your abilities is good.  Over-confidence and failing to take the risk-reward scenario into account can cost strokes.  Play with strategy the way that scratch players do.

5. Fairways and Greens…Patience is the Word

In many ways, the games of the best players can sometimes seem almost boring to watch.  They hit many fairways, hit a lot of greens, and make a lot of routine 2-putts for par.  Yes, they’ll make the occasional birdie or eagle, but they rarely seem to be in a lot of trouble.

That’s by design.  There’s an erroneous perception that these elite players are bombing drives on every hole, carving shots around doglegs, and otherwise playing a high-wire act on every hole.  They obviously have the skills to hit those kinds of shots, but they’ve learned on their way to the top that patience is needed and that they need to wait for the right opportunities to be aggressive.  

Most of the time, getting the ball in play, settling for fairways and greens, and playing smart to take bogeys or double bogeys out of play, is the route to scratch golf.

Wrapping it Up and Heading to the Clubhouse

If you’re a single-digit handicapper now, you’re already playing excellent golf, and you’re already in the top 70th percentile of golfers.  But if your goal is to become a scratch player, that’s an entirely different level of golf, and it will take a significant commitment to reach it.

Getting those last few strokes off your handicap isn’t easy.  At this level, shaving strokes is a challenge.  But, if you follow the suggestions that I’ve laid out here, along with maintaining and improving your swing, you’ll begin to see progress toward your objective.

Start with a plan to better understand your weaknesses by recording and assessing your personal statistics and then designing a practice protocol that focuses on improving them.  Unfocused or generic practice won’t get the job done.  If it’s not tailored to turn weaknesses into strengths, you’ll find it difficult to get down to that 0 handicap.

With a stronger game, along with a stronger mind that focuses on strategy and patience, you can become a scratch golfer and be rewarded with membership in one of the most exclusive groups in sport.     

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Joe Morelli

Joe Morelli is the founder of TopRankGolf, a passionate golfer with 25 years of experience playing and coaching golfers around the world. He's dedicated to helping golfers learn and enjoy the game of golf.