What Is a Handicap in Golf? Complete Guide-What Golfers Should Know

By Anthony Mahone
Updated on
Chalkboard with a bunch of math calculations depicting how to explain golf handicaps.

Practically living on a golf course growing up, one of the most common questions our team heard was, “What’s your handicap?” Being new to the game, we had no idea what a handicap was or how it worked. As a ten-year-old, no one took the time to explain what a handicap in golf was. It has taken some time to understand handicaps in golf. However, working as an assistant golf professional sped up the learning process and showed me exactly how a golf handicap system works. So, what is a handicap in golf?

What Is A Handicap In Golf?

A handicap in golf is a numerical representation of a golfer’s historical playing ability. The handicap in golf is a number that represents a golfer’s skill level in relation to par

Handicaps have three critical components required to establish a handicap. The three required are the course rating of a course, the slope rating of a course, and the golfer’s scores.

Having a calculated golf handicap is a great way to have a fun, enjoyable time on the course by leveling the playing field amongst your competition. Golf handicaps allow you to get “strokes” from the competition. Obtaining a handicap is an excellent way to ensure that golf is fun for all, regardless of playing ability.

Understanding Golf Handicap

While learning the handicap system sounds like rocket science, it is pretty straightforward. A golfer’s handicap is calculated by a few metrics that we will discuss further in this article, where we will dive into how the handicap system works. Before we head into a detailed handicap calculation, let us explain why it benefits you to get a golf handicap.

Golf Handicap Explained

Imagine you’re playing golf with a friend who is an excellent player. It might seem unfair for you to compete on equal terms because your skill levels are different. That’s where a golf handicap comes in. A golf handicap is like a little helper that makes the game fair for everyone. It’s a number that represents how good you are at playing golf while allowing you to compete against someone better or worse than you.

Golf Handicap Examples

Golf is about having fun and challenging yourself, but it’s more enjoyable when everyone has a fair chance to win. Some of the main reasons why having a golf handicap matters:

  1. Handicaps help players of all skill levels compete daily in local friendly golf games, evening leagues, or certain golf events. So, even though your friend is an outstanding player, and you are a 20 handicap, you can both compete and maybe win the match.
  2. Establishing a handicap in golf allows you to enter USGA or regionally sanctioned tournaments. The USGA maintains specific requirements as far as skill level required for entry. For example, the US Open requires a handicap index of 1.4 or lower for amateurs.
  3. A handicap allows you to be flighted in local tournaments or pro-ams based on skill level. It also lets you compete in your club championship at your home course.
  4. Best of all, getting and maintaining a handicap lets you track your progress toward getting better (hopefully not worse) at this great game. A golf handicap system allows you to view your handicap trends.

Whats Your Handicap?

When starting golf, is it required to know what your handicap is? No. That is the quick answer. It is not required to understand what your handicap is, and most likely, as a new player, your handicap would be above the maximum handicap. What’s your handicap is a common question often heard on the golf course.

The benefits of obtaining and maintaining a handicap far outweigh the risks. There are no risks to getting a golfer’s handicap established. From the beginner golfer to the single-digit handicap, all players can see a numerical value trend line that directly corresponds with their playing ability over the last few rounds.

What is a Good Handicap in Golf?

A good handicap in golf is a handicap index of 10 or better. While this might not be the answer you’re looking for, there is hope that your game will improve and lower your handicap.

However, we believe that a good golf handicap is a widely relative term. Many variables come into play when determining what a good handicap is. 

Factors such as age, gender, disabilities, and years of playing are all things that could determine what your best handicap could be. Let’s look at what the average handicap index is for golfers.

According to golf.com, the average golf handicap for men is 14.2, while the average for women is 27.5.

Handicap Index

  • Scratch Golfer: Zero handicap to a plus handicap (Professional Golfing Ability). Read more about: What Is A Plus Handicap In Golf?
  • Low-Handicap Golfer: 1-10 (Skilled Golfer)
  • Mid-Handicap Golfer: 11-18 (Slightly better than bogey golfers)
  • High-Handicap Golfer: 19 and above ( Mix of bogey and double bogey golfers)

Where does your golf handicap fall into the above? 

How to Calculate Handicap in Golf

In this section, we will discuss how the handicap is calculated in golf.

Handicap Differential

Think of the handicap differential as your starting point. It’s a number that demonstrates how well you played during a particular round at a specific course. To calculate, you need three things. You need the course rating of the course, the slope rating of the course, and the players’ adjusted gross score.

  • Course Rating- The course rating of a golf course is the number of strokes a scratch golfer should shoot when playing that course. A shorter, more straightforward course with minimal hazards may have a lower rating.
    • Community Golf Course, a local golf track near me, has a course rating 70.0. I also frequent Heatherwoode Golf Club, which has a rating of 71.0. Meanwhile, a longer, more challenging course with more hazards will have a higher course rating. For example, Bethpage Black in Farmingdale, NY, has a rating of 77.5 from the blue tees.
      • ***Note*** There can be different course ratings for the same course. Course ratings are given to golf courses by the tees that you play. So, when putting your scores in, ensure you are putting in the correct course rating for the tees you played.
  • Slope Ratings– The slope rating of a course is a numerical value given to a course that indicates the level of difficulty for the average bogey golfer compared to a scratch golfer.
    • Using the same golf courses from above, Community Golf Course has a slope rating of 110, Heatherwoode Golf Club 124, and Bethpage Black has a course slope of 155 from the blue tees.
  • Adjusted Gross Score Rating– Your total score after applying Equitable Stroke Control (ESC) is your total score. ESC is a system that limits your maximum score on any given hole based on your playing handicap. To learn more about equitable stroke control, visit this USGA page.
What is a handicap in golf? Scorecard showing course rating and other features of scorecard

How To Calculate Handicap Differential

For each round of golf you play, you need to calculate the handicap differential. It is the difference between your adjusted gross score (your actual score adjusted for any Equitable Stroke Control) and the Course Rating, divided by the Slope Rating and then multiplied by 113. The formula is:

Handicap Differential = (Adjusted Gross Score – Course Rating) x 113 / Slope Rating

  • Community Golf Course Example: (78-70) x 113/110 = 8.22
  • Heatherwoode Golf Club Example: (78-71) x 113/125 = 6.33
  • Bethpage Black Example: (78-77.5) x 113/155 = 0.36

Notice we have the same score but different courses. But as you see, having a 78 at Bethpage Black Golf Course is way better than having a 78 at Community.

How to Calculate Handicap Index

To calculate your Handicap Index, you use a formula that considers the best handicap differentials from your most recent rounds. The procedure involves finding the average of the eight lowest differentials and multiplying by 0.96.

  • Choose the lowest eight handicap differentials from your last 20 rounds (or fewer if you haven’t played that many).
  • Calculate the average of these lowest differentials.
  • Multiply the average by 0.96.
  • Round the result to the nearest tenth.

Handicap Index = (Average of Lowest Differentials) x 0.96

Using Differentials Above (8.22 + 6.33+ 0.36) /3 = 4.97

Handicap Index = (4.97) x 0.96 = 4.77 or 4.8 (to the tenth)

How to Calculate Course Handicap

The course handicap is like a customized version of your handicap index. It takes into account the specific course you’re playing on. Different courses have different levels of difficulty. So, your course handicap adjusts your handicap index to match the challenge of the course you’re playing on.

Your Handicap Index is then used to calculate your Course Handicap for a specific course. The formula for calculating the Course Handicap is:

Course Handicap

Handicap Index x (Slope Rating / 113)

Let’s assume that I am playing at Heatherwoode Golf Club again. Using my handicap index of 4.8 and their slope of 125, we can calculate the course handicap.

Course Handicap Calculations

4.8 x (125/113) 5.3 or 5

Course handicap is the number of strokes you’ll receive or give on the course you’re playing. We would get five strokes in the scenario above while playing this round.

Please remember these calculations might vary slightly based on local golf associations’ rules and regulations. It’s essential to check with your local golf association or club for specific guidelines on calculating handicaps.

Golf Handicap Calculator

Score 1Score 2Score 3Score 4Score 5
Course Rating

Your Golf Handicap:

Please try our sample golf handicap calculator. Input your last five gross scores, five course ratings, and five slope ratings for the courses you played. Our calculator is not an official replacement for a complete golf handicap system. This calculator will, however, provide a quick snapshot of your average golf handicap for your last five rounds.

Golf Handicap Examples

So, how does golf handicap fit into the everyday golf round? This section will discuss how your handicap will apply to your golfing world.

Gross Scores

When you play a round of golf, you try to get the ball into the hole in as few strokes as possible. Your adjusted gross score is your actual number of strokes. Gross score is the score that you need to use when you calculate your golf handicap.

What Is A Net Score In Golf?

Your net score is your raw score adjusted by your handicap. Net score allows players of all skill levels to compete against each other. Golf handicaps level the playing field using the handicap system to obtain our net score. Beginner golfers reap the benefits of obtaining and maintaining an official handicap.

If we play in a league, a club tournament, or another match-play style event, we can calculate the number of strokes we give or receive.

Having a course handicap of 5.0 means that I will receive five strokes throughout an 18-hole round. The holes I receive a stroke on are determined by the difficulty and individual handicap numerical value associated with each hole.

With a course handicap of 5, I will receive a stroke on the five most challenging holes on the golf course. Hole handicaps are on a scorecard and labeled as HCP 1-18. Regarding individual hole handicaps, one is the toughest, while 18 is the easiest.

Let’s say that the number 11 hole is the #1 handicap on the golf course. I will receive a stroke on this hole. The hole is a par 5, and I get a par 5. My adjusted gross score is a 5. My net score is a 4. I would state this score as “five net four.”

How To Lower Your Golf Handicap

First of all, we all want to improve and consistently get better. The goal of playing golf is to have fun and get better, and by lowering our scores, we naturally improve our golf handicap. We can do many things to improve, but this section will highlight the five essential items to improve your golf handicap.

Golf Lessons

We firmly believe that taking golf lessons is the number one way to get better and improve your handicap. We recommend you find a PGA golf professional who specializes in golf instruction. If you are a beginner, begin by taking golf lessons; your swing and game will improve, leading to better scores. 

Golf Practice

Spending time on the driving range as a junior golfer was one of my favorite things. When you practice golf, you consistently strive to hit each shot in the best way possible. When we say practice golf, we mean practice golf. Hitting balls at the driving range and seeing how far it can go is not practicing golf.

We suggest practicing each integral part of your game with focus and intensity. You can see dramatic results on the golf course by working on a particular piece of your game in great detail and with direction. By doing this, you will lower your handicap.

Play More Golf

To get better at golf, you have to play more golf. It goes without saying that to become a better player, you must play more golf. We believe that taking what you learned on the practice range, taking golf lessons with golf professionals, and applying it to the golf course will dramatically improve your handicap by producing lower scores.

Eliminate The Big Miss

How often have you been playing a good round of golf when suddenly, you have a ball out of bounds and take an eight on a hole? By eliminating the bad shot on that hole, we have dramatically improved the chances of lowering our golf handicap. Having a controlled miss reduces the chances of our maximum score. Instead of an eight, we take a five.

On one hole, that is three shots. Let’s assume we do that two or three times throughout a golf round. Depending on the hole’s par, that could be 9 to 12 shots in a competition by eliminating penalty strokes from bad holes.

Game Improvement Golf Clubs

There is a reason why we put this one last. If you don’t commit to the first four we listed, the fifth will not improve your golf handicap. We certainly believe that golf clubs play a significant role in lowering your golf handicap. Still, it is certainly not the most important.

We should invest in proper game-improvement golf clubs once you have committed to the first four items listed. Manufacturers of golf clubs today continuously strive to produce the most forgiving golf clubs known to the game. Once you have committed to lowering your handicap, it is time to find the golf clubs that work best for your game.

How To Get A Golf Handicap

Getting your golf handicap index established is relatively easy. There are two options for obtaining a golf handicap index. The first is finding an online resource to calculate your golf handicap index. 

Some pros are that it is easy to use, cheaper, and or free, and you can do it from anywhere. The con to using an online resource is it is not USGA-sanctioned and will not allow you to pay to play competitively in USGA or other local events.

Secondly, the preferred method is establishing a golf handicap index through GHIN (Golf Handicap Information Network). GHIN partners with regional or state golf associations that maintain administrative duties.

Golf Handicap Summary

A golf handicap is an excellent, numerical way to track the golfer’s playing ability. By establishing a handicap, you will have a numerical method of monitoring your progress throughout this great game. Handicaps allow you to play friendly matches with opponents of more remarkable playing abilities and keep it fun for all involved.

Handicaps enable you to play in club tournaments, weekly golf leagues, and USGA events. We hope you consider obtaining a golf handicap from your local or state golf association.

Handicap In Golf Frequently Asked Questions

Do You Have To Play 18 Holes To Get A Handicap?

No. To establish a handicap index, you'll need to submit scores from a minimum of 54 holes. This can be any combination of 18 and 9-hole rounds.

What Is A Plus Handicap In Golf?

A plus handicap in golf signifies a golfer’s handicap index lower than zero. Check out our article on What Is A Plus Handicap In Golf?

What Is The Maximum Golf Handicap?

As of this writing, the maximum handicap you can have is 54 for all golfers.

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Anthony is the founder of Swingcrafters and a lover of all things golf. Anthony was the individual champion of the 2005 West Virginia State Golf Tournament and worked as the Assistant Golf Professional at Heatherwoode Golf Club in Ohio. He is a career Firefighter/Paramedic and loves the outdoors.