A golf handicap is a number that measures a golfer’s potential, helping those of different abilities compete in a fair manner. The best players have the lowest handicaps.
The term “handicap” wasn’t used in golf until the late 19th century, but it’s often said that the earliest example of a golf handicap dates back to the 17th century, when a student in Scotland wrote it in his diary.
Throughout the decades, countless handicap systems have been developed around the world, making it difficult to accurately profile a golfer’s handicap as they traveled. In 2020, the United States Golf Association (USGA) and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club (R&A) came together to create the World Handicap System (WHS), which offers a standardized handicap.
So, let’s dive into how the WHS works and take you step-by-step through the process of calculating your golf handicap.
What Your Handicap Means in Simple Terms
If you want to play tournament-style golf games, or if you just want to take your game more seriously, calculating your handicap is a must-do.
According to the WHS, you’ll need to play at least 5 rounds to calculate your golf handicap. Golf handicaps depend on a set of scores from your 5 most recent games.
Most men have a handicap between 0 and 28, while most women have a handicap between 0 and 36.
The lower the handicap, the better the player. If your handicap is 5, that roughly means you averaged 5 over par in your last 5 rounds of golf.
Most tournaments will use a player’s handicap to calculate their score, allowing less skilled golfers to compete against highly skilled golfers on a level playing field.
Using Your Handicap: Basic Example
Handicapping allows all golfers to complete on a more even playing field on any given day. When everyone is playing against their own handicaps, they are really competing against themselves on their best days.
So, if you’re heading to an 18-hole course and 72 is par for the course, you can use your handicap to calculate how many strokes you’ll likely hit to finish.
Say your friend has a handicap of 8; they should expect to hit about 80 strokes (8 over par). Likewise, if you have a handicap of 18, you should expect to hit around 90 strokes (18 over par).
During the game, if your friend hits 83 instead of 80, they will be “3 over” their handicap because they exceeded their expected strokes. If you hit 88, you’ll score “2 under” because you hit fewer strokes than expected. So, even though your friend hit fewer strokes overall, the handicapped scores make you the winner.
Typically, you don’t see golfers comparing their handicap to every other golfer. Instead, you can best use your handicap to compare yourself to others who play about the same amount of time each year or at the same level of competitiveness.
How To Calculate Your Golf Handicap (Step by Step)
Using your golf handicap to calculate your scores will become second nature, and it can really help you improve your golf game. However, before you can run to the course and put your handicap to work, you need to make sure that you calculate it correctly.
1. Play at least 5 rounds of golf.
The WHS system has been updated from 3 rounds to 5 rounds on an 18-hole course. If necessary, you can use a combination of 9-hole scores to count as one 18-hole score.
2. Calculate your handicap index.
Your handicap index is the first component used in calculating your course handicap. Your handicap index requires a minimum of 5 scores and a maximum of 20. The USGA has a table that explains how many of your scores should be used to calculate your handicap index.
If you have 5 scores in your record, use the lowest score to calculate your handicap index. If you have 6, 7, or 8 scores in your record, use the lowest two scores to calculate your handicap index, and so on. Adjustments depend on the number of scores in your record, so consult the USGA’s chart.
A Handicap Index is calculated from the lowest Score Differentials in the scoring record. If a scoring record contains fewer than 20 Score Differentials, the table below is used to determine the number of Score Differentials to be included in the calculation and any adjustment that may apply. Round the result of the calculation to the nearest tenth.Calculation of a Handicap Index, USGA
|Number of Score Differentials in scoring record||Score Differential(s) to be used in calculation of Handicap Index||Adjustment|
|6||Average of lowest 2||-1.0|
|7 or 8||Average of lowest 2||0|
|9 to 11||Average of lowest 3||0|
|12 to 14||Average of lowest 4||0|
|15 or 16||Average of lowest 5||0|
|17 or 18||Average of lowest 6||0|
|19||Average of lowest 7||0|
|20||Average of lowest 8||0|
3. Calculate your course handicap.
The USGA has a handy tool to help you calculate your course handicap, and it requires you to enter your handicap index, course rating, slope rating, and course par.
The formula it uses is Handicap Index X (Slope rating/113) + (Course Rating-Par). If you don’t know the slope rating of a course, you can look it up using the USGA’s tool.
When calculating your course handicap, remember that the maximum handicap index that a player can have is 54.0 and the slope rating for courses ranges from 55 to 155. If you’re calculating your course handicap for a 9-hole course, you’ll need to use half of your handicap index and keep all other numbers (slope rating, course rating, etc.) whole.
4. Keep your handicap updated.
If you want to follow all the rules as they’re written, you need to plan to update your handicap on the 1st and 15th of every month. If you’re using a tool to track your golf handicap, you’ll want to update your scores before midnight in order to have them updated on a daily basis.
Of course, if you’re playing casually, you don’t need to fret about tracking your scores so often. You can play leisurely, and as often as you like, and simply calculate a new handicap index as you feel your abilities change over time. Unless you’re playing tournament-style games or competitively against another individual, it’s not a big deal for your handicap to be slightly high or low — after all, you’re playing for recreation and enjoyment above anything.
5. Know the rules for scoring with handicaps.
If you decide to use handicaps to score your games, you need to know the appropriate way to apply your handicap. The latest formula is the course handicap multiplied by the handicap allowance.
If you’re not sure of the course handicap, you can always ask someone at the facility. Typically, you can find the handicap and other information on the website and somewhere inside the facility or check-in area.
Improving Your Golf Handicap
Once you get around to calculating your golf handicap, surely the next thing on your mind will be figuring out how you can improve it. Setting goals to lower your golf handicap is a great way to add a little bit of friendly competition (even against yourself) to your next round.
With that said, there are no shortcuts. Improving your handicap starts with improving your swing. Practicing your swing often is important, but you also need to make sure that you’re practicing it correctly. It never hurts to take a lesson or two, even if you’ve been playing for a while, as an expert can help refresh your memory of the basics that we often let slip over time.
Another big part of improving your handicap in golf is making sure that you have the right equipment. While picking up the most expensive club isn’t going to make you a great player on its own, you should make sure that your equipment fits you and your playing style. Using ill-fitting equipment can hurt your scores and put you at a higher risk of injury.
Lastly, you know the old adage: Practice makes perfect. Always score your games, push yourself, and remember to have fun. As you begin to grow more passionate about golf, it’s only natural that you’ll want to improve your game, and you can make it a very enjoyable journey. Set goals and try to play with a variety of other players so you can learn different styles, techniques, and tips to improve your performance.
Once you get going with golf, you’re going to have a hard time stopping, so don’t let a high handicap discourage you. We all start somewhere, and in a matter of time, your game is sure to be much improved.
Your golf handicap is a function of the difficulty of the course and your average scores. The official formula is: Handicap differential = (Adjusted Gross Score-rating of the course) X 113 / Course slope ratings. The course rating is the scores of a new golfer on a normal course under a normal playing condition. Slope rating is the difficulty rating of a course on a scale of of 113 (higher is more difficult).
The Slope Rating for a golf course is a measure of the difficulty for a bogey player (about a 20 handicap for a male golfer) compared to a scratch player. The higher the Slope Rating, the harder the course is for the bogey golfer, relative to the difficulty of the course for the scratch golfer.
Having a single digit handicap is a goof golf handicap. Professional golfers will have positive handicaps. A scratch golfer has a handicap of around 0. A handicap in the teens means that you are proficient. A handicap of 20 means you are a bogey golfer. A handicap of 25 or more is a high handicapper.
Positive handicaps means that a player usually shoots under par. When playing in competitive rounds the golfer must add strokes to their score.
If you shoot around 100, your handicap will be around 20 to 25. The actual handicap will vary based on the difficulty of the course (shooting 100 on an easy course if very different from shooting 100 at a difficult course).
A scratch golfer is someone who has a handicap of around 0.