Golf Handicaps Explained: How to Calculate & How to Get One

golf handicap GHIN card

The origins of golf can be traced back to sometime in the 15th century.  As the fledgling sport grew in popularity over its first hundred years or so, golfers eventually began to realize, even back then, that something needed to be done to create an environment in which players of varying skill levels could compete with one another on a fair basis.  

And, consequently, the concept of “handicapping” in golf came into being.  It wasn’t referred to as handicapping initially (and wouldn’t be for another 200 years), but an informal system began to take shape that provided a way for stronger players to give strokes to weaker players on various holes.

How do we know this?  Because many years later, a diary from the late-17th century was found in which the diary’s owner, Thomas Kincaid, a medical student in Edinburgh, Scotland at the time (and a fan of golf), had made some side comments about an arrangement through which better golfers were giving strokes to inferior players during their rounds at the local courses.

The way that handicapping has evolved over the centuries, and the many iterations it has gone through, is an interesting topic in and of itself. Perhaps we’ll also write about that someday.  But through all of its variations, the overall goal of golf handicapping has never changed from the 1600s to today:  to level the playing field for golfers of different abilities so that they can compete on an equal footing.

In this article, we’ll take a close look at what a golf handicap is, the calculation that is used to determine a golfer’s handicap index, how your handicap stacks up against other golfers, and for those who don’t yet have a formal handicap index, how to go about getting one.

So let’s start with the basics…

What is a Golf Handicap?

Put very simply, a handicap is a numerical representation of a golfer’s ability based upon previous golf scores that they have completed and posted, and its purpose is to give golfers a way to compare themselves to other golfers and to track their own progress.

An individual’s handicap number is derived from a calculation that considers their previous scores — it factors in the eight best scores of the last 20 rounds played — and is referred to as their handicap index.  It indicates how many strokes over par you would be expected to accumulate during a round at a neutral course.  So the lower a golfer’s handicap index is, the better the golfer is.

Keep in mind that your handicap index is a generic figure and is a statement of your overall golfing ability.  It’s not linked to any particular golf course or set of tees.  Therefore, in its practical, everyday application, your generic handicap index must be “translated” into a course handicap to reflect the number of strokes you will receive (or give) on a specific golf course and from the specific set of tees you are playing from.  To do this translation, the system considers the difficulty of the course, among other things.

For example, let’s say that a particular golfer’s generic USGA handicap index is 15.0.  But the course he’s about to play is a difficult one, with a high course rating and a high slope rating, so it is necessary to convert this generic handicap index to a course handicap.  So, for this round of golf, instead of receiving 15 strokes as his handicap index would suggest, he may actually receive, say, 17 or 18 strokes (the handicapping system can be accessed pre-round to determine the precise number of extra strokes you may be entitled to).

Under the current handicapping system, the maximum handicap index that a player can have is 54.0 for both men and women.

A Handicap Reflects a Golfers 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 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

Although it would be pretty rare to find golfers who manually calculate their own handicap index, it technically is possible.  It is rare because it is a pretty complex undertaking and is a fairly onerous task to compute and maintain over time.  

That is why the vast majority of golfers who carry a handicap index do so through one of three methods: 

  1. Subscribing to a handicapping network and then entering scores on the computerized systems that are available at most golf courses, or by entering them through your computer at home that is linked to this network.
  2. Through the use of a free app that you can download to your smartphone
  3. Utilizing one of the many online websites that offer a free handicap service. 

1. Golf Handicap Information Network (GHIN)

For a relatively small annual fee, golfers can sign up for an official USGA handicap service through the Golf Handicap Information Network (GHIN) and, simply by entering your score after each round, have the system automatically record your scores and tabulate the results, which yields your updated handicap index.

Keep in mind that if you intend to compete in any tournaments or club-sanctioned events that require submitting a handicap index, you will need to acquire an official GHIN (a service offered by the USGA) handicap. Only by utilizing a handicap service from a USGA-conforming golf club can you obtain a fully sanctioned and truly portable handicap index.

2. Getting a Handicap Through an App on Your Phone

If you don’t belong to a golf club or don’t otherwise have access to the official USGA handicapping network, there are many handicap apps (some free and some paid) that you can easily download to your smartphone, through which you can enter your scores and get a handicap. 

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. I would definitely recommend either of these.

Here are some of the better handicapping apps that you should consider if this option appeals to you.:

AppDownloadCostOfficial/Unofficial
The Grint Golf Handicap Tracker  iPhone or Android$20/yrOfficial USGA
Diablo Golf Handicap Tracker  iPhone or AndroidFreeOfficial USGA
Golf Handicap Tracker App  iPhone or AndroidFreeUnofficial
Golf GPS & Scorecard by SwingUiPhone or AndroidFreeUnofficial

3. Getting a Handicap Through Website Software

In addition to the smartphone apps you can use, several websites allow golfers to enter scores to maintain a handicap index.  Handicaps determined through sites like these are often unofficial but can certainly enable you to obtain an index that you can use for any casual, non-tournament play. These can be great to use for leagues.

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

GolfSoftware.com

FreeGolfTracker.com

The Golf Handicap Formula

The formula for calculating a handicap index is a fairly intricate exercise.  There isn’t room in this article to explain the actual computation in detail, but it involves several components and multiple steps.  The actual formula utilizes sophisticated concepts like adjusted gross scores, handicap differentials, the course rating, the course’s slope rating, etc.

To begin, for each score that you post, a score differential is calculated.  This is to determine which scores are your eight best scores of your last 20 rounds played, factoring in the course difficulty.  The formula to determine a score differential is:

Score Differential = (Adjusted Gross score – Course Rating – Playing Conditions Calculation adjustment) x 113 / Slope Rating

Without going into a detailed analysis of the formula itself (fortunately, the computerized handicap systems do all of the heavy lifting for you in that regard), it may be helpful to define the terminology that is used in that formula: 

  • Adjusted gross score: After each round, an adjustment is made to your gross score through a process that yields an “adjusted gross score.”  Why is this adjustment made?  According to the USGA’s Rules of Handicapping, “a score for handicap purposes should not be overly influenced by one or two bad hole scores, which are not reflective of a player’s demonstrated ability.”  So, for handicap purposes, the number of strokes on each hole is adjusted as follows:
  • The maximum hole score is limited to net double bogey
  • The maximum course handicap is limited to 54.
  • If the score on any individual hole exceeds net double bogey, the score is adjusted to net double bogey.
  • If a player starts a hole but does not hole out, the score on that hole is set as net double bogey.

Here’s how net double bogey is calculated:

adjusted gross score - net double bogey
  • Course Rating: You’ll find the course rating indicated on the scorecard for each of the available tees (black, blue, white, etc.) at the courses you play.  It is a numerical assessment (expressed in strokes) of the overall difficulty of a particular golf course.  You should be aware that the course rating is calculated based on how difficult the course is for scratch players.  That rating is an estimate of the average scores of the best 50% of rounds played by scratch golfers at that course.

So a par-72 course that has been assigned a rating of 68.5, for example, would be considered relatively easy, as the rating is well below the actual par.   On the other hand, a rating of 74.5 on a Par-72 course would indicate that the course is much more difficult by comparison. 

To put these ratings into perspective, on the 68.5-rated course in the example above, a scratch golfer would be expected to average 68.5 strokes on his better rounds. In the other example, a scratch golfer would be expected to average 74.5 strokes. 

  • Playing Condition Calculation: The playing conditions calculation (PCC)  is a new variable introduced to the handicap system calculation in 2020.  Basically, the PCC determines whether the playing conditions on the day that you played differed from normal conditions to see if an adjustment is needed to compensate. It is a daily statistical procedure that compares the scores submitted by players on the day against expected scoring patterns.

The purpose of this feature within the handicap calculation is to recognize that an average score submitted in harder playing conditions (e.g., high winds, rain, etc.) may be better than a good score submitted in easier playing conditions. 

On those days where the golfers at your course played in harsher conditions, an automated adjustment will be made to your posted score, and to the posted scores of all the golfers who played that course on that day.

  • The use of ‘113’ as a divisor: the number 113, as used in the handicap formula, represents the slope rating of a golf course of average difficulty, as set by the USGA.
  • Slope Rating: the slope rating of a particular golf course simply tells you how “proportionately” more difficult a particular set of tees (black, blue, white, red, etc.) plays for higher handicap golfers as compared to lower handicap golfers.  The more difficult the tees play proportionately for the higher handicappers, the greater the slope rating that will be issued.   Slope ratings range from 55 to 155, with the average being 113.  That is why you see the divisor 113 in the formula above.

Contrary to what golfers generally think, the slope rating does NOT contrast the difficulty of one golf course to another.  When trying to ascertain which of the two courses is more difficult, it is much better to compare their respective course ratings.  That is far more determinative than comparing slope ratings.

How Your Handicap Compares to Other Golfers

Have you wondered how your own handicap index stacks up to other golfers?  The Grint, a well-known golf statistical analysis organization, did a fairly exhaustive study to identify the distribution pattern of golf handicaps.  In this analysis, they analyzed millions of golf scores to see what that distribution looks like and identify the “average” handicap.

In their chart below, you can see the results.  They determined that the average handicap for men is 13.2.  How do you compare to the average?

The bell curve also shows what percentage of golfers fall into each handicap level (i.e., the “normal distribution, “as statisticians refer to it).  As you can see, a full 25% of golfers fit in the middle of the curve, with handicaps between 10-13, with another 40% falling in those handicap levels immediately on either side of that (20% in each adjacent category).  This is where most golfers fit, with 65% having an index between 6 and 17. 

HDCP_Distribution_Final
Source: TheGrint

The World Handicap System (WHS)

Over the years, there’s been a periodic fine-tuning of the handicap system, with each new variation improving in some way upon its predecessor version.  

Unfortunately, as new versions were completed and rolled out to the golfing world, some countries elected to adopt the new version, but some chose not to.  And, to make matters worse, some countries began to make their own custom modifications.  The eventual result was a collection of six disparate handicap systems worldwide (USA, UK, Europe, Australia, South Africa, and Argentina) that obviously weren’t under the control of a single governing body.  

And so to address this hodgepodge of systems, the United States Golf Association (USGA) and the R&A from the UK, along with some of the other handicapping authorities, began working together about a decade ago to produce a new handicap system that would replace all of the individual ones that had sprung up around the world.

And in 2020, the brand new World Handicap System (WHS) was finally introduced.  It was so named because, for the first time, the rules that govern handicapping have been standardized around the world.  Now, the original promise of handicapping can, at last, be achieved; that golfers everywhere can play golf together on a fair and equitable basis.

Conclusion

In a word, golf handicapping is all about fairness.  You can think of the purpose of handicaps like this:  no one reading this article would want to enter a track event and compete against a world-class sprinter in a 100-meter race….unless you were given a 20-30 meter head-start.  Getting that head-start (i.e., that “handicap”) would make the race fairer by giving the slower runner an actual chance to compete with, and maybe even beat, the speedier runner.

Golfers of all skill levels want to have this same opportunity to compete fairly with other golfers.  The handicap system makes that possible.  It enhances the enjoyment of the game of golf and gives as many golfers as possible the opportunity to compete, or play a casual round with anyone else on a fair and equal basis.

Joe Morelli

Joe's been playing golf for 25 years, starting as a junior golfer in his early teens. He loves getting out on the links with his dad and friends -- whether an early weekend foursome or his weekday, afternoon league.

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