Golf Handicap Explained: A Definitive Guide to the Golf Handicap System

Golf Handicap Explained

Handicaps make golf great for all types of players and millions of players have a golf handicap. 

In fact, according to the USGA, “There are approximately 15 million golfers worldwide who have a Handicap Index and there are more than 16,000 authorized clubs within the United States. These clubs provide an opportunity to get in the game and start tracking your progress.”

A handicap allows you to play against other golfers of different skill levels and create a fair match. Plus, it can help you track your progress over time so you can hit your golf goals. But there are a lot of myths and misconceptions about handicaps in golf.

Keep reading to learn more about the history of handicaps, how to create your handicap index, easy ways to lower it, and other commonly asked questions.

Golf Handicap Explained

Handicap can be a complex subject but we’ll do our best to keep it simple and easy to understand. Let’s first start with how they got created in the first place.

The History of Golf Handicaps

Golf has been around for centuries and apparently handicapping has too. According to Wikipedia, “The earliest record of golf handicapping is thought to be from the late 17th century, in a diary kept by Thomas Kincaid, who was a student in Edinburgh, Scotland, although the word handicap would not come into use in golf until the late 19th century.”

This early version of handicapping would allow players to give other players a certain number of strokes during each round. But it’s very different from today’s version. Instead, they would have terms like “third one” which meant a player would get a stroke from another player every three holes. While “half one” meant a stroke every two holes.

However, problems arose as players questioned the fairness of handicaps. During the 19th century players got their handicaps from a three round average. But it didn’t factor in the difficulty of golf courses as there was no course rating system at that time. 

Related: How Long Does 18 Holes Take

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Modern Day Handicap in Golf

It wasn’t until the 1900s that a course and slope rating system was developed to assess the difficulty of the golf course. The creation of the slope rating system (which assigns difficulty of courses to par and bogey golfers) made handicaps even more detailed. Not to mention other factors like equitable stroke control.

As the game continued to grow there were a myriad of handicap systems including the USGA, EGA, CONGU, and others. Most of them had similar rules; there were some discrepancies and confusion among golfers. 

Luckily, the USGA and R&A came together in 2020 to develop the World Handicap System. This made it a single system to easily determine a players handicap and make it easy to play with golfers around the world. 

Now, any golfer can enter their scores and get a handicap to compete in amateur events. Or, use a handicap to give or receive strokes during a round of golf. Let’s explain how they’re calculated. 

How Handicaps Are Calculated 

Handicapping in the past was simple as it was an average of your three most recent scores. However, it’s become much more complicated and not an average of your scores anymore. Now, it’s a combination of slope rating, course rating, scoring (which includes a handicap allowance), and other factors. 

While it sounds complex it’s not something you manually need to calculate. Instead, you can enter your score into a program that will calculate your handicap over time. The more rounds you enter, the more accurate your handicap. 

But it’s important to remember that handicap is NOT your anticipated score, it’s your potential score. For example, let’s say you have a 7-handicap. Most golfers think “I’m a 7 so I should shoot about 79 every round.”

Golf Scorecard

However, handicaps are determined based on your best scores, not your average scores. After you’ve entered more than 20 rounds into the handicapping system it takes your lowest 10 to calculate your handicap (among other factors). 

The same Wikipedia article referenced above said, “The handicap differentials are rounded to one decimal place, and the best 10 from the last 20 submitted scores are then averaged, before being multiplied by 0.96 (the “bonus of excellence”) and truncated to one decimal place to produce the handicap index.”

Please, do not confuse handicap with expected score. While you might shoot your handicap, it’s not necessarily your expected score. 

Why Handicap Matters

Handicaps are so important in golf because they allow you to compete vs. other golfers even if you aren’t the same skill level. Thanks to the complex formula used to calculate your handicap, it gives you a good estimate of your game. Then you can play golf at any course with any other golfer and have a fair match.

For example, let’s say you’re an 18 handicap golfer and playing with someone who is a zero handicap. In this instance, the zero handicap (known as a scratch golfer) will give you a stroke each hole. So if you make a five and he makes a four, you actually tie the hole (5-1=4).

It’s a little more complicated if it’s not a perfect 18 strokes separating two players. For example, if you’re an 18 playing a nine handicap golfer, you get nine strokes. But you don’t take nine strokes off your score at the end of the round.

Instead, you get a stroke on the nine hardest holes. On the scorecard each hole on a golf course is ranked from 1-18; number one is the hardest hole while number 18 is the easiest. On the nine hardest holes (1-9), you will receive a stroke and on the other holes you won’t get a stroke.

Handicapping is great as it makes it fair to play with other golfers of different skill levels. This is something that doesn’t exist in other sports for the most part. For example, there’s no real fair way to let an NBA player compete with a high school player.  

How to Establish a Golf Handicap 

Establishing a golf handicap is easy and something I’d recommend for every golfer. Handicapping allows you to track your game over time and compete in tournaments as well.

Here are the steps to establish a handicap:

  • The easiest way is to visit USGA’s website or contact a local club near you to sign up. This usually costs $30-$50 per year and needs to be renewed annually. If you don’t renew it your account will freeze and cannot enter new scores (but it won’t be deleted).  
  • Once you’ve joined you’ll receive a GHIN number which is a number that you’ll use to enter scores. 
  • Next to start playing golf – you need at least 54 holes (a combination of 9 or 18 holes) to establish your handicap.
  • Once you have 54 holes entered, you will have an official handicap the next day. 
  • Keep entering scores until you have at least 20 rounds of 18 holes for the most accurate index. Make sure to always notate the tees played, date, tournament vs. normal round, and follow the rules of golf for your score to count. 
  • Additionally, note that there is a limit to the score you can shoot on any given hole (net double bogey). Or, you can enter your scores hole by hole and let the computer take care of the math for you. 
  • Lastly, make sure to keep entering scores. Your handicap is updated every night at midnight local time every time a score is posted. This is why it’s a good idea to post your scores immediately after the round is complete. 

Handicap Index vs. Course Handicap

Once you establish your handicap index, you will then get a course handicap depending on the place you’re playing. Think of it like this… your handicap is a portable number that represents your ability but it does change from course to course. Since some golf courses are more difficult and/or longer, you also get a course handicap.

When you decide which course you’re playing and what tees, your course handicap is determined. This accounts for the par, course rating, and slope rating to update your index. 

For example, if you’re playing a shorter course that has a lower rating, you might actually have a lower course handicap vs. your index. Conversely, if you’re playing a difficult course from a longer tee box than normal, it might increase your index. 

How to Lower Your Handicap

If you’re like most golfers chances are you want to shoot lower scores more consistently to lower your handicap. 

Here are some of our easiest strategies:

Lastly, don’t forget to play the right equipment for your game. Otherwise, you’re only making the sport even harder on yourself.

Top Questions

Have more questions about handicaps in golf? Keep reading to learn more now and figure out if you need a handicap or not.

How do I figure out my handicap in golf?

The easiest way to calculate your handicap is to play at least 20 rounds and enter all your scores on the computer. The fewer scores, the less accurate your handicap is but after 20 it gets to know your game pretty well. While there is a formal equation that is used by the USGA it’s quite complex and something you don’t need to manually do yourself anymore. 

What is the average golf handicap? 

According to the United States Golf Association (USGA), the average handicap index for men is 14.2 and the average for women is 27.5. The overwhelming majority of male golfers in the United States is between a 9-16 handicap index. 

However, it’s important to note this is only based on golfers with an official handicap as not every golfer chose to have one. Click here to read the average golf score. 

What does a 20 handicap in golf mean? 

A 20 handicap means you’re not quite as good as the “average” player who has a 14.2 index. A 20 handicap would typically shoot in the 90s but sometimes play well and shoot in the 80s. 

What is a scratch golfer?

A scratch golfer is a person who has a handicap that is right around zero. This means the person shoots around even par most of the time. This is quite rare in the golf world and a common goal among amateur golfers.

Related: How to Break 80 

Does each hole have a handicap?

Yes, each course has a course rating, slope, and handicap for each hole. Every hole is ranked from 1-18 for both men and women; one is the hardest hole while 18 is the easiest hole.

This is important to note as you give or receive strokes during the round based on the hole’s handicap. 

What is my golf handicap if I shoot 100?

If you shoot around 100 for 18 holes you’re close to a 22-25 handicap index. But there are tons of other factors including the tee boxes played and course rating. 

Can you enter match play scores for your handicap?

Yes… Here’s what the USGA said, “Match play scores are also acceptable! When a stroke is conceded or you do not hole out when the format of play allows, you can record your most likely score. 

A most likely score is equal to the number of strokes already taken (including penalty strokes) plus the number of strokes you would most likely require to complete the hole.”

Wrapping Up

Golf handicaps make this sport unlike any other. You can compete with all types of golfers from around the world and have a fair match.

If you take golf seriously, you need a handicap. This makes it easier to bet with other golfers and is needed to enter golf tournaments. For a small annual fee, it’s worth it (and helps you track your progress over time).

Do you have a golf handicap?

Let us know in the comments below. 

Phil Grounds

Phil Grounds

Phil is an avid golfer, and the creator of The Golfers Gear. He’s been playing golf for 30 years, and is obsessed with improving his game and sharing his experience helping fellow golfers score better.

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