What Is a Scratch Golfer?

How Many Golfers are Good Enough to Be Called 'Scratch'?

Male scratch golfer in silhouette
A 'scratch golfer' is one who can play to a zero course handicap - a very good golfer, in other words. Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

In general usage of the term, a "scratch golfer" is a golfer who typically shoots at or better than par. When a golfer is referred to as a "scratch golfer," you can be sure of one thing: That person is a very good golfer.

But there is the common meaning of the term, and there is the technical definition of the term that appears in the USGA Handicap System Manual. We'll give both definitions and provide some more context, including the percentage of men and women players who qualify as scratch golfers.

'Scratch Golfer' In Common Usage

In common usage, "scratch golfer" means that the golfer being referred to has a handicap of 0 or below. Among golfers who don't have handicaps, references to "scratch golfer" are to a golfer whose average score for a round of golf is par or better.

When used by golfers discussing handicaps, "scratch golfer" is sometimes shortened to just "scratch." For example: "What is Bob's handicap?" "He's scratch." Or: "Bob plays off scratch" or "plays to scratch." In these examples, "scratch" is a way of saying that Bob's handicap is 0.

The Official Definition of 'Scratch Golfer' In USGA Handicap System

The term "scratch golfer" is an important one in handicapping systems, and in the USGA's course rating and slope rating systems. The technical definition of the term used by the USGA once did not actually have anything to do with specific scores or handicaps. It was this: "An amateur player who plays to the standard of the stroke play qualifiers competing in the United States Amateur Championship."

However, that definition in the USGA Handicap System has been updated to refer to a specific handicap. And that handicap is ... 0. But it's a 0 course handicap rather than a zero handicap index.

Here is the way the USGA currently defines the term in its handicapping manual, broken down into its three parts:

  • A "scratch golfer" is a player who can play to a course handicap of zero on any and all rated golf courses.
  • 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.

What do those "for rating purposes" references mean? When a USGA ratings team visits a golf course to examine it and produce a USGA Course Rating, team members examine the course from both the perspective of a scratch golfer and the perspective of a bogey golfer. Those golfers have different playing abilities, hit the ball different distances, and therefore will face different challenges on the same golf course. So in this usage, "scratch golfer" is an important part of how a golf course gets rated.

But golfers at large aren't thinking about that meaning of the term. When golfers say "scratch golfer," it means: zero handicap or better. (Those with handicaps below zero are more specifically called "plus-handicappers.")

How Many Scratch Golfers Are There?

According to the USGA, 1.6-percent of male golfers who have a USGA Handicap Index have indexes of zero or better. Among women golfers, the percentage is even smaller: 0.37-percent. So the percentage of golfers who are scratch is very, very small.

What about among golfers who don't have official handicap indexes? There's no way to know for sure, but we can say this: The percentages are even lower. After all, if you're really that good, wouldn't you want everyone to know it? (Something else we can confidently say about unhandicapped recreational golfers: A lot fewer are scratch golfers than claim to be.)