Golf Handicap Explained: What it Means & How to Calculate

golf handicap GHIN card

A golf handicap is a numerical measure of an amateur golfer’s potential ability. It allows amateur golfers of different abilities to compete on an equal footing. In other words, a handicap is a way of adjusting the score of a less-skilled golfer so that they can compete fairly with a better golfer.

In golf, the lower your handicap, the better you are. So, a one-handicapper is better than a nine-handicapper.

A one-handicapper should take 73 shots to complete a golf course with a par-72 rating to play to their handicap. However, a nine-handicapper should take 81 shots to complete a par-72 golf course to play to their handicap.

So, a golf handicap is the number of extra shots over par you should expect to take on a golf course.

A nine-handicapper is allowed nine extra shots over par, while a one-handicapper is allowed one extra shot over par.

How Do Golf Handicaps Work?

Golfers use handicaps to measure how good they are at the game. Most handicaps for male golfers range between 0 and 24. However, the handicap system goes up to 54 for both men and women.

Golfers with a handicap of zero are called scratch golfers. They should shoot the par for the course – i.e., take 72 shots on a par-72 golf course.

However, some amateur golfers have a handicap better than zero. These golfers have a ‘plus’ handicap.

Let’s say you have a handicap of +2 and play on a par-72 golf course. You should take 70 shots to complete the course to play to your handicap.

So, you give shots back to the course instead of getting them if you have a plus handicap.

Using a Golf Handicap

A golf handicap is easy to use for any game, whether stroke or matchplay. It makes these games fair between players of differing abilities.

Stroke

Let’s say your buddy has a 10 handicap while you have a 15 handicap. You guys are going head-to-head on a par-70 golf course in a game of stroke.

After 18 holes, you shoot an 85 while your buddy shoots an 83. He beats you by two shots if we don’t consider your handicaps.

However, the handicaps even the playing field for players of differing abilities. So, we minus your handicap from your score of 85 and get a net 70 (85 – 15 = 70).

Now let’s subtract your buddy’s handicap from his score to even the playing field (83 – 10 = 73). You win by three shots when we take the handicaps into account.

So, you can see how handicaps make golf fairer for players of differing abilities.

Matchplay

We can do the same thing for matchplay, but it works a little differently. For convenience, let’s keep the handicaps the same as in our previous example.

There’s a difference of five shots between your and your buddy’s handicaps. So, your buddy must give you five shots because he has the lower handicap; he’s the better player.

The wider the difference in handicaps, the more shots a player needs to give. For instance, a scratch golfer (zero-handicapper) needs to give a 20-handicapper 20 shots.

But back to the example with you and your buddy where he needs to give you five shots to make the game equal. In your match, your buddy would give you one stroke on each of the five hardest holes on the course.

So, he must beat you by two strokes on those holes to win them. You half the holes if he only beats you by one stroke.

However, you win the holes if you both record the same score. For instance, you win the holes if each of you par them because he needs to give you a shot.

The handicap ensures there’s an equal playing field between you.

Senior golfers high five at driving range

Why Does the Handicap System Exist?

The handicap system in golf exists so that golfers of different abilities can compete on an equal footing. Golf is a game that can be enjoyed by players of all skill levels, and the handicap system allows players with different abilities to play together and compete fairly.

Fair Play

Without the handicap system, it would be difficult for golfers of different abilities to compete against each other fairly. A great player would have a significant advantage over a less-skilled player, making it difficult for the worse player to compete.

Imagine your buddy has played golf for 20 years, but you’re just beginning. They would win every time you played without a handicap system. But the handicaps give you a chance because your buddy needs to give you shots to make it fair.

Track Progress

Additionally, the handicap system allows golfers to track their progress and see how their skills improve over time. As a golfer’s skill level improves, their handicap will decrease.

This offers a measure of your progress and helps you set goals for future improvement. The handicap is an awesome marker to see how well your game is developing.

The handicap system in golf exists to make it fair and equitable when golfers of different abilities compete against each other. Also, it allows golfers to track their own progress and see their development.

A Handicap Reflects a Golfer’s Potential

Many, if not most, golfers have a basic misperception about handicaps that we should correct. A player’s handicap is a representation, not of their average score, but of their potential playing ability. It actually reveals how you would be expected to score when you have one of your best rounds, not the average of your most recent scores.

How does the handicap calculation ensure that this is the case? Because your handicap index is based only upon your best scores posted for a given number of rounds. Since the process incorporates only your eight best scores out of the last 20, that means that, by design, it tosses out your 12 worst scores. This is why your handicap index reflects your potential as a golfer.

Not understanding this may explain why so many golfers get frustrated when they cannot consistently play to their handicap, assuming that they should always be scoring at or near their index. But in research performed by the USGA, golfers should only perform to their actual handicap about 20-25% of the time, and will on average, score three strokes higher than their index.

How to Get a Golf Handicap

You can get a handicap through golf clubs, apps, and websites.

Golf Clubs

Joining a golf club registered with a governing body – the United States Golf Association (USGA) or the R&A – allows you to get an official handicap. You must submit scores for three 18-hole rounds to your golf club. Also, you can submit six 9-hole rounds.

The golf club then calculates your handicap through the USGA’s Golf Handicap Information Network (GHIN). You need an official GHIN handicap to play in any tournaments or club-sanctioned events that require a handicap.

golf handicap GHIN card

Apps

You can get a handicap on an app if you aren’t a member of an official golf club. However, most apps only give you an unofficial golf handicap.

You can download golf handicap apps on your phone (some free and some paid). These allow you to enter your scores and will calculate your handicap automatically.

Most apps out there will not provide an official USGA or R&A index. However, they maintain your scores and produce an unofficial handicap index that you can use for casual (non-tournament) play.

TheGrint and Diablo both let you obtain an official handicap through the USGA. We recommend either of these.

Websites

Several websites allow golfers to enter scores to maintain a handicap index. However, these sites only offer unofficial golf handicaps.

You can use these handicaps for any casual, non-tournament play or for games with your buddies. Also, these can be great to use for leagues and social play.

Here are examples of websites that offer free online handicap tracking: 

GolfSoftware.com

FreeGolfTracker.com

How to Calculate Golf Handicap

A golf handicap is calculated using a standardized formula. In 2020, the introduction of the World Handicap System (WHS) slightly changed how handicaps are calculated. The USGA has adopted this system to calculate handicaps.

Calculating handicaps isn’t as straightforward as it may seem. However, we’ll break it down as simply as possible.

To start, here’s the formula:

Handicap Index x (Slope rating/113) + (Course Rating-Par).

We first need to understand the terms to comprehend the formula.

Golf Handicap Terms

Handicap Index

This is a measure of playing ability based on your previous scores. As mentioned earlier, new players must submit scores for three rounds (54 holes) to get a handicap.

For veteran players, the handicap is calculated from the best eight scores of their last 20 rounds. We take the average of the best eight rounds to get the handicap.

Let’s use an example from a par-70 course so that you get a basic idea of calculating a veteran’s handicap. So, their best eight rounds from the last 20 are these: 80 (10 over par), 82 (12), 78 (8), 84 (14), 82 (12), 86 (16), 80 (10), and 84 (14).

Taking the average of their strokes over par allows us to estimate their handicap. So, it’s 10+12+8+14+12+16+10+14 = 96. Now we divide 96 by 8 to get the average of 12, giving us the estimate of the player’s handicap.

Slope Rating

This is described by the USGA as demonstrating the “measurement of the relative playing difficulty of a course for players who are not scratch golfers, compared to scratch golfers.”

The higher the slope rating is, the harder the course is on any given day when comparing scratch golfers to bogey ones. Variables like tee placement and even weather conditions can affect the slope rating. The slope rating starts at 55 (easiest) and ends at 155 (hardest).

So, the slope rating isn’t exactly an indication of a course’s difficulty. It measures the difference in difficulty for scratch golfers and bogey players.

Course Rating

This is how hard a scratch golfer would find the course on a normal day. It doesn’t take conditions into account as slope rating does.

Not all golf courses are created equally. Although two might have the same par, say 72, one might be harder than the other.

So, an easy par-72 course might have a course rating of 70, while a hard one could have a course rating of 74. Scratch golfers are expected to shoot 2-under par on the easy course but 2-over par on the hard one.

Why is 113 in the Formula?

Yes, you may be wondering why 113 is included in the formula. This number relates to the slope rating, which ranges from 55 to 155.

The 113 is considered the average difficulty when it comes to golf courses. So, we divide the slope rating of a course by the average when using the formula.

Par

This is the number of shots it should take a scratch golfer to complete the course. So, a scratch player should take 72 strokes to complete a par-72 course.

Calculating Golf Handicap

Let’s use an example to calculate a player’s golf handicap for a given day. Firstly, we’ll outline the number for each handicap term before using the formula.

Player’s Handicap Index6.5
Course Slope Rating124
Course Rating74
Course Par71

Handicap Calculation Formula:

Handicap Index x (Slope rating/113) + (Course Rating-Par).

Our Example:

6.5 x (124/113) + (74-71) = 6.5 x 1.09 + 3 = 10.

So, the player in our example has a handicap of 10 for that course on that day. Remember, the slope rating can change depending on variables like the weather. In bad conditions, the slope rating could be even higher, meaning the player’s handicap would be higher on that day.

Conclusion

Golf handicaps ensure the game is fair when players of differing abilities compete against each other. It allows golfers new to the game to play against experienced players without experiencing a disadvantage.

That’s what’s so great about golf. Everyone can play on an even playing field because of the handicapping system.

It enhances the enjoyment of the game of golf because everyone can compete on a fair basis. You would soon get bored and frustrated if your buddy beats you every time without a handicap system.

Having a handicap is also an excellent way to track your progress. It feels awesome when you see your handicap coming down as you get better at golf.

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Shane Curry

Shane Curry is a professional writer and an avid golfer who’s been involved in the sport for over three decades. He is a student of the game and keeps up to date with all the latest developments.