What is a Handicap in Golf? What is it and How Does it Work

by | Last updated May 23, 2024

What is a Handicap in Golf

Ever feel lost on the golf course when people start talking about their “golf handicap”?

It sounds way more complicated than it is! A handicap is simply a number that helps make the golf game fair, no matter your skill level.

Think of it as a way to even things out. Let’s break down everything about golf handicaps – what they are, how to get one, and why they matter.

We’ll even explain terms like “handicap index,” “course handicap,” and more.


What is a Handicap in Golf?

  • A golf handicap is a number that shows your skill level and helps you compete fairly with other golfers, no matter how good they are.
  • It’s calculated based on your scores, the difficulty of the course, and how much harder it is for beginners.
  • Your handicap changes over time as you improve, reflecting your current playing ability.
  • Having a handicap allows you to play in tournaments and compete with golfers of all skill levels.
  • To get a handicap, join a golf club or association. They’ll help you track your scores and calculate your handicap for you.

Why Do We Even Need Handicaps?

writing on golf handicap

Imagine golf courses as bowling lanes: some are easy (with bumpers!), some are tough.

Golfers are like bowlers, too – we all have different skills. Handicaps even things out, like giving the faster runner a head start in a race.

Better golfers have lower handicaps. The best players, called scratch golfers, have a handicap of zero. In the US, we use the USGA handicap system.

It looks at your scores, the difficulty of the course, and the difficulty level for beginners.

This gives you a handicap for each round, and your overall handicap is based on your best few.

Think of handicaps as a way to make sure everyone can have fun playing together, no matter how good they are. With practice, you get better, and your handicap goes down.

What Exactly IS a Golf Handicap?

Alright, let’s dig a little deeper.

Your golf handicap isn’t just one number – it’s a few things working together:

  • Handicap Index: This is like your home base handicap, showing roughly how well you can play. It goes up or down depending on how well you’ve been playing lately.
  • Course Handicap: Your handicap is adjusted when you play a specific course. Some classes are harder than others, so the course handicap makes it fair for everyone, no matter where they’re playing.
  • Net Score: This is a really important number! It’s your actual score (number of strokes) MINUS your course handicap. This levels the playing field.
golf handicap

To get a handicap, you’ll need to join a club or the local allied golf association.

You’ll play a few rounds and turn in your scorecards. Then, they use a special handicap calculation to figure out your handicap index.

This calculation considers a few things:

  • Your score compared to the course’s par score: Par is the number of strokes a good golfer should take to finish a hole or the whole course.
  • The difficulty of the course (course rating): A harder course gets a higher rating.
  • How much harder the course is for beginners compared to pros (slope rating): This tells us how much of an advantage better golfers have on this course.

They take all this information and figure out your handicap differential for each round (basically, how much better or worse you did than expected).

Your handicap index is then the average of your best few differentials.

There’s also a maximum handicap for each course so that scores can’t be changed too much.

And to keep things fair, there are limits on how low your score can be on each hole (called maximum hole scores), even if you have a big handicap allowance.

Remember, your handicap isn’t about bragging rights – it’s about making golf more fun for everyone! It helps you measure your progress and compete fairly with golfers of all skill levels.

How Do I Get a Golf Handicap?

Alright, if you’re ready to get your handicap, here’s what to do:

Scoring on golf handicap
  1. Join a Club or Association: Most golfers get their handicap through their golf club or a local allied golf association. This gives you access to an official handicap and lets you play in tournaments and events where handicaps are used.
  2. Play and Post Scores: You’ll need to play a few rounds of golf (usually five or more) and turn in your scorecards. Each scorecard needs to show your gross score (total number of strokes), the course you played, the tees you played from, and the date you played.
  3. Let the Math Happen: The club or association will use a special course rating system to figure out the relative difficulty of the course you played. Then, they’ll calculate your score differential for each round (how much better or worse you did than expected based on the course difficulty and your potential playing ability).
  4. Your Handicap is Born! Your handicap index is calculated by taking the average of your best few (usually 8 out of 20) differentials. This is your official handicap! The lower the number, the better you are at golf.

Keep in mind that getting a handicap isn’t about instantly becoming a pro golfer.

It takes time and practice to improve your score differentials. But having an official handicap is a great way to track your progress, compete fairly with other golfers, and have more fun on the course!

Don’t worry if this sounds complicated. The club or association will do most of the math for you. All you need to do is play golf and post your scores.

So, are you ready to join the world of playing handicaps?

How are Handicaps Calculated?

Calculating a handicap is like baking a cake: there’s a recipe, but you don’t need to know every detail to enjoy the result.

Here’s the basic idea: your handicap is supposed to show how well you could play on a good day, not just your average score. That’s why they look at your best recent scores, not all of them.

Here are the main ingredients in the handicap recipe:

golf handicap
  • Your Adjusted Gross Score: This is your score for the round but with a little tweak. If you had one really bad hole (we all do!), it might get adjusted so it doesn’t mess up your whole handicap.
  • Course Rating: This is a number that tells you how difficult the course is for a scratch golfer (someone really good!). A harder course means a higher course rating.
  • Course Slope: This shows how much harder the course is for a regular golfer compared to a scratch golfer.

Once you have these ingredients, they’re plugged into a special formula that calculates your handicap differential for that round. It’s like your score but adjusted for the course’s difficulty.

The cool thing is that most golfers don’t have to do any of this math themselves! Your golf club or association will use a computer program to do it for you.

Here’s the bottom line: your handicap is a number that tells you how many extra strokes you get compared to a scratch golfer.

If you have a ten handicap, that means you usually score about ten strokes higher than a scratch golfer on any given course.

Here are a few more things to know:

  • Playing Conditions Calculation (PCC): This is a fancy way of saying they might adjust your score if the weather was really bad or the course was in rough shape.
  • Not Every Round Counts: They usually only use your best scores from recent rounds to figure out your handicap. This helps make sure your handicap really reflects your current ability.

So, there you have it! Handicaps might seem a bit complicated at first, but they’re really just a way to make sure everyone can have fun playing golf together.

Using Your Handicap in a Match

Alright, you’ve got your handicap – now what? It’s time to use it in a game!

When playing with handicaps, your net score (actual score minus your course handicap) is the one that counts.

Here’s how handicaps work in the two main types of golf games:

A man is walking on the golf field

Stroke Play is the most common type. Everyone plays their own ball, and the player with the lowest net score wins. Think of it like a race but with golf clubs instead of running shoes!

Match Play: This is a head-to-head battle. You play against one other person, and each hole is its mini-match. The person who wins the most holes wins the overall match. Handicaps help here, too! The person with the higher handicap gets extra strokes on the hardest holes.

Here’s a quick example:

If you have a ten handicap and your opponent has a 5, you get five extra strokes.

On a typical course, you might get one stroke on the five hardest holes. This means you only need to tie your opponent on those holes to win them!

Using your handicap makes golf more fun, especially when playing with people who have different skill levels. It takes the pressure off and lets everyone enjoy the game.

Beyond the Basics: More About Handicaps

Alright, you’ve got the basics down.

But there are a few more things that might be helpful to know about handicaps:

  • Handicaps Change Over Time: Your handicap isn’t set in stone. It goes up or down, depending on how well you’re playing. This is a good thing because it means your handicap will always reflect your current skill level.
  • World Handicap System: The system we’ve been talking about is mainly used in the US. But there’s also a world handicap system that many other countries use. It’s pretty similar to the US system, but there might be a few small differences in how they calculate handicaps.
  • Net Double Bogey: Have you ever heard of this? It’s the highest score you can post on any hole for handicap purposes. Even if you totally blow up a hole, it won’t totally mess up your handicap.
  • Low Handicaps = Better Golfers: Remember, the lower your handicap, the better you are at golf. A really good golfer might have a handicap of 5 or even lower, while a beginner might have a handicap of 30 or higher.
  • Handicaps Aren’t Just for Pros: Anyone can get a handicap! Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned pro, a handicap is a great way to track your progress, compete fairly with other golfers, and have more fun on the course.
  • Calculators Online: If you’re curious about how your handicap would change based on different scores, you can find online calculators that can help you figure it out.
golf handicap

Hopefully, this clears up any confusion about handicaps. If you have any other questions, feel free to ask!

Misconceptions About Golf Handicaps

There are a few myths floating around about handicaps.

Let’s clear them up!

  • Myth #1: “Handicaps are only for good golfers.” Nope! Handicaps are for everyone, no matter your skill level. They’re designed to make golf fair for all players, from beginners to pros.
  • Myth #2: “A handicap will automatically make me a better golfer.” Not exactly. A handicap is like a measuring stick for your current ability. It helps you track your progress, but it won’t magically improve your swing or putting.
  • Myth #3: “My handicap is the same as my average score.” It’s close, but not quite. Your handicap is actually closer to your potential on a good day, not just your average. Remember, it only uses your best scores from recent rounds.
  • Myth #4: “I can just make up my handicap.” That wouldn’t be very fair, would it? To get an official and accurate handicap, you need to join a club or association and follow their rules.
  • Myth #5: “Once I get a handicap, I have to play perfectly all the time.” Definitely not! Everyone has bad days on the course. Your handicap takes that into account and allows for some off days.

The most important thing to remember is that a handicap is a tool.

It’s there to help you have more fun on the course and compete fairly with other golfers, regardless of your skill level.


golf ball and handicap on the table

Golf handicaps are all about making golf fair and fun for everyone, no matter your skill level.

They help track your progress, let you compete with anyone, and open the door to tournaments. So, whether you’re a beginner or a pro, getting a handicap is the first step to even more enjoyment on the course.

Would you be ready to find out yours? Head to your local golf club or association – they’ll help you get started!

Frequently Asked Questions

What if I have a really good or bad round?

Don’t worry; not every round drastically affects your handicap. The handicap calculation considers your best scores and allows for some off days, keeping your handicap a fair reflection of your usual playing ability.

Do I need a handicap to play golf?

No, you don’t need a handicap to play casually. But if you want to compete in tournaments or play fairly against golfers of different skill levels, then a good golf handicap is a must.

What’s the difference between a good and a bad handicap?

A lower handicap means you’re a more skilled golfer. Your handicap differential in each round is a numerical measure of your performance, and the lowest handicap differentials are used to calculate your handicap index.

Is my handicap the same everywhere I play?

No, your course handicap changes depending on the difficulty of the course (its course rating and slope rating). This ensures fair competition, regardless of where you play.

How often does my handicap get updated?

Your handicap is updated regularly, usually after each round you post. Some systems update daily, while others update less frequently, often at midnight local time. The number of scores used to calculate your handicap can vary.

Fahim Joharder

Fahim Joharder


An avid golfer and author, merges his passion for the sport with insightful writing, offering readers a unique perspective on golf.

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