What Is A Golf Handicap, And How To Calculate Yours

by Bill Winters

The golfing community is laced with jargon and vernacular unique to the sport. From fore to the sweet spot, any new golfer will spend some time learning not only the rules, but the language. Part of that language includes understanding how a handicap works.

Golf handicaps have been around for a pretty long time - even longer than I have! While the system is more regulated and formulaic today, it can be seen as early as the mid-1800s in Scotland. Back then, the goal was just to help match the lesser player when up against a more accomplished golfer. Typically, this manifested as "third-one" or "half one," indicating the less experienced player would get a stroke every three or two holes. The system was rated or enforced and was often left up to the individuals or committee to determine.

In the late 1800s, a more systematic approach started to emerge in various methods. One such method averaged out the best three scores for the year and subtracted par from the average. This method didn't last long as it significantly favored better players. Today's method opts for a variation approach since it is intended to measure a player's potential.

A rating system was created so handicaps could translate and move to different courses around the country and adapt based on course difficulty. Slope emerged in the late 1900s.

These days, handicaps are common and used by every type of player - from the pros like Tiger Woods to novices just discovering their love for the game. To show you this system in action, I'll dive into what a golf handicap does and how it helps golfers of varying skill levels.

My Golf Handicap

Whether I talk about academics, jobs, or any other field including games, there is a method of measuring your performance in it. Your grades tell how well you perform at your studies and there are ways to measure employee performance as well. In the case of golf, a handicap is what tells you how great of a player you are.

Measuring one's golf handicap is a method to determine how good that individual is at the game. The greater the player, the lower the score for the golf handicap. If you are currently introducing yourself to golf, you should never oversee such things. Knowing your golf handicap is not only necessary for the expert players, it is equally essential for the beginners.

It helps you learn how deep in the water you are and it makes you aware of your strengths and weaknesses. Knowing where you lack can be really helpful for someone who is determined to get better at their game. If you are among those people who are thriving to get better at golf, this article is for you!

In this article, you will learn about several things. Starting with an introduction to what is actually meant by golf handicap and then talking about the method to measure the golf handicap. By the time you have reached the end of this article, you will have a pretty good idea about the golf handicap and its importance.

So let's begin with the most simple and literal definition of golf handicap to give you a basic idea of what it is about:

What is a Golf Handicap?

What Is a Golf Handicap?
What Is a Golf Handicap?

A golf handicap is a numerical value that is the measure of the average number of strokes that it took a golfer in order to finish the game. This explains what I mentioned earlier in the introduction part of the article. A lower value for the golf handicap indicates how great a player is because it means that it only takes a few strokes for the player to hit the golf ball into the hole.

Handicaps are an indication of a player's skill and their potential on a golf course. The lower a handicap, the better the golfer.

For example, someone with a 2-handicap will be expected to play better than someone with a 6-handicap, and so on. Handicaps are used to determine how many strokes below or above par a golfer can play. For anyone truly new to the sport, par is the average number of strokes, or swings, a golfer should need to complete a golf course. Golfers then produce a net score - which is the gross score minus the handicap stroke. This is intended to even the playing field for players with different skill levels to ensure fairness.

Courses also have Course Handicaps, which are different from a player's individual handicap. A Course Handicap is the number of strokes necessary to be at the level of a scratch golfer. It is always a whole number. This handicap is on a chart at individual golf courses. The Course Handicap is applicable to all golfers and plays into the Course Rating, or overall difficulty of the course itself.

For the purposes of this conversation though, we are primarily focusing on the golf handicap for individual golfers.

What Is A Golf Handicap, And How To Calculate Yours
What Is A Golf Handicap, And How To Calculate Yours

Why Is Calculating Golf Handicap Important?

Golf handicap does not vary according to the experience level of the player. For instance, a beginner might have a lower golf handicap score than a golfer who has ten times more experience than a beginner player. This is one of the reasons why calculating golf handicap is so important.

This system of keeping track of the golf handicap score of golfers ensures greater but also fair competition. It does not neglect any good players on behalf of their experience level. A golfer having experience of only a couple of years can stand in a game against a player who has a decade of experience only if their golf handicap is similar. This eliminates the chances of one-sided competitions. Players get opponents that are just as skilled as them which makes the game even more thrilling and interesting.

So, now that you are superficially aware of what is meant by a golf handicap and why is it important let's move on to the next section of this article. This section will discuss the most important question that may have been flooding your mind since you became familiar with the concept of golf handicap. Let's find out what it is:

How Is a Handicap Determined?

So, to answer the question, "what is a handicap in golf," the actual number is essential. But arriving at the number is a task in and of itself. The official number for a golfer will come from the Course Handicap and the Handicap Index.

The Course Handicap measures the difficulty level of a course for a scratch (0-handicap) player. According to the USGA, a male scratch player is one who is able to drive the ball 250 yards (at least) and reaches a 470-yard hole in two strokes. The rating also considers the cumulative length of the holes and the difficulty of obstacles like water or sand.

The Handicap Index involves plugging raw scores and computing them through a formula. This formula involves the Course Rating from USGA and the Slope Rating of the course. The Slope Rating looks at the difficulty level of a course when comparing a scratch versus bogey player. It looks at aspects that might affect the bogey golfer more. This can include topographical factors like elevated greens, fairway width, trees, and water that affect the game of the weaker player.

Determining the handicap calculation can be done in one of two ways. If you are an official, card-carrying member of USGA, the calculation can be done for you. If you are looking for a more unofficial handicap, there are golf handicap calculators available online.

Determining a Golf Handicap on Your Own

If you prefer to really understand the ins and outs of everything that goes into a good golf game, here is more on exactly how that handicap number is determined. Over time, a formula was created that allowed for continuity of handicap numbers across different skill levels, courses, and geographic locations. This formula allows the handicap to travel with the player and adapt to different course needs.

What You'll Need

There are some numbers and critical pieces of information needed to execute an unofficial handicap calculation. The formula requires the following pieces of information:

  • Your scores from previous rounds of golf, particularly somewhere between 5 and 20, that are adjusted gross scores - which means they adhere to per-hole maximums of the equitable stroke control
  • USGA course ratings where those scores happened
  • USGA slope rating of where those games where played

Equitable stroke control is the limit on a stroke number a player can make on a hole and is determined by the handicap

Once that is all squared away, here are the details on how to dive into the formula itself.

Step One: Differential Calculations

Taking the three sets of numbers mentioned above (adjusted gross scores, slope ratings, and course ratings), you'll first determine the handicap differential based on each individual round by utilizing the following formula:

Step One: Differential Calculations
Step One: Differential Calculations

Just for those who learn by example, let's say the score is 95, the course rating is 72.4, and the slope is 134. The formula would look like this:

let's say the score is 95, the course rating is 72.4, and the slope is 134
let's say the score is 95, the course rating is 72.4, and the slope is 134

The solution to the formula is the handicap differential. The differential must be calculated for all the rounds being used. To have a solid pool of numbers, you need to use a minimum of 5 rounds and a maximum of 20 rounds.

Also, please note the number 113 is a constant and won't change. It represents a golf course of average difficulty slope rating.

Step Two: Differentials Continued

Even after calculating all those differentials, not all of them will need to be used for the final outcome. The number of differentials used depends on the number of rounds calculated. For example, if you used 20 rounds, only the lowest 10 differentials will be used.

You may be asking, "why are only a certain number of rounds used?" The goal of a handicap is to try to measure a golfer's potential. If all of a player's scores, or even all 20 scores were used, scores from a bad day or a rough round will exponentially increase a handicap. Then, when the golfer is back on their game, they'll have an inordinate advantage over others. Essentially, the goal is not to inflate the handicap by using too many rounds. Here's a handy chart to help with knowing exactly how many differentials to use based on the number of rounds:

Rounds Differentials
5-6 Rounds 1 lowest differential
7-8 Rounds 2 lowest differential
9-10 Rounds 3 lowest differential
11-12 Rounds 4 lowest differential
13-14 Rounds 5 lowest differential
15-16 Rounds 6 lowest differential
17 Rounds 7 lowest differential
18 Rounds 8 lowest differential
19 Rounds 9 lowest differential
20 Rounds 10 lowest differential

Got it? Ready for the next step?

Step Three: Average Out the Differentials

Next, you will want to add the differentials together and then divide by the total number of differentials used to determine the average of all of them. For example, if five are used, add up the five numbers and then divide the total by five. Once the average of the differentials has been determined, it is time for the last step.

Step Four: Learn the Handicap Number

For the last step, take the result from the previous step and multiply it by 96%, or 0.96. Do not round and drop off anything after the tenth. The result is the handicap. If you want to think about steps 3 and 4 as one formula, it would look like this:

Learn the Handicap Number
Learn the Handicap Number

Of course, with technology these days you certainly don't have to calculate your handicap by hand. As mentioned before, there are online calculators and golf clubs that will gladly do this work for you. Understanding the process is always useful though!

A Different Approach to Explain about How to Measure Golf Handicap?

Did I get it right? I am sure this is the first question that came to your mind after getting to know about the golf handicap. Well, let me tell you, calculating your golf handicap score is no rocket science. In fact, it is a fairly simple process.

However, you cannot calculate your golf course unless you have a scoring record of three or more than three 18-hole rounds. Although for your convenience, by doubling a 9-hole round, a golfer can easily make a single 18-hole round score.

A lot of elements are taken into notice to calculate the score for golf handicap. You will learn about them as we proceed further. For now, mentioned below is the step by step process of calculating the golf handicap score:

Step 1: Find Out Adjusted Gross Score

In order to calculate the adjusted gross score, you need to minus the value of equitable stroke control from the value of your original score. Here comes the next question: what is equitable stroke control?

Well, to assist a golfer in calculating their golf handicap score, there are certain adjustments that are made in their score which is then referred to as equitable stoke control.

Step 2: Find Out the Course Rating and Course Slope Rating

To move on to the next step, you first need to know these two things: course rating and the rating for the slope of your respective course. The level of difficulty of the course according to the skills of a beginner player is called the course rating. Whereas, for the bogey golfers, the golf course difficulty level is known as the course slope rating. Bogey golfers is a term used for golfers having a score greater than equal to Par +1.

Figuring out these values will lead you to our next step which is calculating the handicap differential.

Step 3: Inserting the Values in the Accurate Formula to Find Handicap Differential

Once you have all the values, you need to put them in the formula. This will give you the value for handicap differential. Here is what to do next:

  • Subtract course rating from adjusted gross score.
  • Divide the answer with the course slope rating.
  • Multiply the final answer with 113.

There you go! This is how you calculate handicap differential.

Step 3: Inserting the Values in the Accurate Formula to Find Handicap Differential
Step 3: Inserting the Values in the Accurate Formula to Find Handicap Differential

Step 4: Take an Average of the Lowest Values for Handicap Differential

Out of twenty handicap differential values you have calculated, pick out the ten lowest and calculate their average. To calculate an average, simply add up all 10 values and then divide their sum by 10.

Now don't get confused if you don't have twenty handicap differential values. We can also work with less than twenty. If you only have 15, find out the average for the six lowest ones. And if you just have 10 handicap differential values, just calculate an average for the three lowest ones and you are good!

This leads us to our fifth and final step:

Step 5: Find Out the Value for Golf Handicap

This step is the simplest of all. Got your average? Now all you have to do is multiply the average value by 96% and you are done! This is your golf handicap score.

Moving on, I am positive one of the questions might be constantly bothering you if you are new to golf. You know a lower golf handicap score means the player is good at the game but what is the average handicap score for golfers?

Well, that varies as per the gender. Just like everything else in golf is slightly different for male and female players, the handicap score has a bit of a difference too. The average score for male golfers is 36.4 whereas for females it is 40.4. Now, this is for an 18-hole golf course. If a 9-hole golf course is talked about, men have an average score of 18.3 while females have a golf handicap index of 20.2.

If you feel like your mind might be going crazy with all of this information, know that I understand. It is a lot to take in for someone who has only been introduced to it a few minutes ago. But I am here to make it easy for you. Just reading content and going through formulas is not going to make you remember it. This is why for the next part of this article, we will be going through some examples.

In the examples mentioned below, you will find out the golf handicap index for different shooting values. What are shooting values? Glad you asked! It refers to the overall adjustment score of a golfer. Or in other words, this is the adjusted gross score, a term that we came across when we learned how to calculate the value for golf handicap in the paragraphs above!

So let's look at the following examples:

Value for Golf Handicap Index if Shooting Value is 120

As I have said before as well, this is no rocket science. It is just simple steps that you need to follow and you will be rewarded with a golf handicap index once you are finished.

To begin with, you need to know the course rating and the course slope rating. Since this is not a real example, we will just assume the course rating and the course slope rating to be 72 and 113 respectively.

Now that we have the value for all three initial quantities demanded i.e. adjusted gross score (120), course rating (72), and course slope rating (113), we can easily calculate the handicap differential.

To do so, we will have to subtract 72 from 120 then divide this by 113. Multiply the answer you got with 113 and that is the value for the handicap differential. In this case, the answer is 48.

Golf Handicap Index if Shooting Value is 120
Golf Handicap Index if Shooting Value is 120

So, What Is My Golf Handicap If I Shoot 120? Now, multiply the handicap differential by 96%. 48 multiplied by 0.96 is 46.08 and this is your golf handicap index if you shoot 120!

Value for Golf Handicap Index if Shooting Value is 115

Golf Handicap Index if Shooting Value is 115
Golf Handicap Index if Shooting Value is 115
So, What Is My Golf Handicap If I Shoot 115? Now multiply the value of handicap differential with 0.96 to calculate the golf handicap. In this case, where the adjustment gross score is 115, the golf handicap index will be 41.28

Value for Golf Handicap Index if Shooting Value is 110

We are just going to repeat the steps we just did in the above-mentioned example. The course rating is supposed to be 72 and the course slope rating will remain 113 here as well.

Now with the values for adjusted gross score, course rating, and course slope rating, we can do all the magic! Start calculating the handicap differential by subtracting 72 from 110 and then multiplying and dividing the answer with 113. You will get 38 which is the value for your handicap differential.

Golf Handicap Index if Shooting Value is 110
Golf Handicap Index if Shooting Value is 110

So, What Is My Golf Handicap If I Shoot 110? Now you can easily find out the golf handicap index by simply multiplying 38 with 0.96. The answer is 36.48. Hence, the golf handicap for 110 shoot will equal 36.48.

Value for Golf Handicap Index if Shooting Value is 105

The presumed values for golf course rating and golf course slope rating will remain the same again. That is 72 for course rating and 113 for course slope rating. In the first step, you need to calculate the handicap differential.

Handicap differential can easily be calculated by subtracting course rating from shooting value and then multiplying and dividing the answer you get by course slope rating. Just repeat the steps done in the previous example and replace 110 with 105. The value for handicap differential that you will get for this one is going to be 33.

Golf Handicap Index if Shooting Value is 105
Golf Handicap Index if Shooting Value is 105

So, What Is My Golf Handicap If I Shoot 105?Moving on to the simplest part, multiply 33 with 0.96 to find out the golf handicap for shooting value 105. The answer should be 31.68.

Value for Golf Handicap Index if Shooting Value is 100

I am hoping that with every example you are doing with me, things are starting to look more clear and vivid. Let's look at this fourth example where the shooting value or the adjustment gross score is 100.

Again, we will use the same values for course rating and course slope rating i.e. 72 and 113 respectively. I am not changing these values in every example because it is just going to complicate things. We don't want that, we want to make it simpler for you, right?

So, let's begin with finding out the handicap differential. And how do we do that? By simply subtracting 72 from 100 and dividing and multiplying the answer with 113. You will get 28.

Golf Handicap Index if Shooting Value is 100
Golf Handicap Index if Shooting Value is 100

So, What Is My Golf Handicap If I Shoot 100? The value for the handicap differential is multiplied by 0.96 to obtain the value for the golf handicap. Once you do so, you will get the answer 26.88 which is your golf handicap index if you have an adjustment gross score of 100.

Value for Golf Handicap Index if Shooting Value is 95

Let's just do three more to ensure that you have really grasped the concept. In this example, the adjustment gross score is 95 whereas the values for course rating and course slope rating have not been changed, again. But I still prefer to mention them to the readers to avoid any confusion. So, for the record, the course rating equals 72, and the course slope rating is 113.

This time we are going to subtract 72 from 95. Then repeat the previously mentioned steps of multiplying and dividing the answer by 113. You will get 23 which is your handicap differential. Now you need to find out your golf handicap with this value of handicap differential.

olf Handicap Index if Shooting Value is 95
olf Handicap Index if Shooting Value is 95

So, What Is My Golf Handicap If I Shoot 95? Simply multiply 23 by 0.96 and you will get your answer. 23 multiplied by 0.96 is 22.08. This means the golf handicap index if the shooting value is 95 will be 22.08.

Value for Golf Handicap Index if Shooting Value is 90

For this second last one, the adjustment gross score value has been reduced to 90. But of course, the other two values are the same. 72 for course rating and 113 for course slope rating. By this time, I think you should be able to do the math on your fingertips because this should really be a piece of cake by now!

So just calculate the handicap differential by subtracting 72 from 90. You will get 18. Now multiply and divide 18 with 113. The value will remain the same. I don't know if you have noticed, but multiplying and dividing with the same number cancels it off so you are just left with the previous value. So, you can skip this step right now as it is basically pointless.

Anyway, now that you have the handicap differential value you can easily find out the golf handicap index. You know how to do that! Just simply multiply 18 with 0.96 and you will get your answer.

Golf Handicap Index if Shooting Value is 90
Golf Handicap Index if Shooting Value is 90

So, What Is My Golf Handicap If I Shoot 90? Hence, the golf handicap for 90 adjustment gross score will equal 22.08. Isn't it so easy? I am sure you will agree. Let's check out this last example now:

Value for Golf Handicap Index if Shooting Value is 85

For this last example, the shooting value is further reduced to 85. Let's find out what the golf handicap index for this one will be! I would really like for you to first try this out on your own to know where you are at. You have all the values, just substitute them in the formula and calculate your answer. View the solution done below once you have calculated an answer on your own.

Assuming that the golf course rating is again 72 and the course slope rating is unchanged too i.e. 113, let's start calculating the handicap differential. To do so, we will have to subtract 72 from 85 now. The difference is going to be 13 only. I am skipping the step where you have to multiply and divide this by 113 and I have already mentioned the reason for this above.

Golf Handicap Index if Shooting Value is 85
Golf Handicap Index if Shooting Value is 85

So, What Is My Golf Handicap If I Shoot 85? Now multiply the value of handicap differential with 0.96 to calculate the golf handicap. In this case, where the adjustment gross score is 85, the golf handicap index will be 12.48.

Value for Golf Handicap Index if Shooting Value is 80

Golf Handicap Index if Shooting Value is 80
Golf Handicap Index if Shooting Value is 80

So, What Is My Golf Handicap If I Shoot 80? Now multiply the value of handicap differential with 0.96 to calculate the golf handicap. In this case, where the adjustment gross score is 80, the golf handicap index will be 7.68.

So, did you get this one right? It's great if you did but even if you did not, it is completely okay. Go through all of these examples again and you will eventually figure it out!

Now that we are done practicing a few examples on how to calculate golf handicap, did you notice a trend in all of the answers? If not, go back and run a quick glance on them again in the top to bottom order. Do you see what I am talking about?

As we reduced the adjustment gross score, the golf handicap value also decreased significantly. This concludes that players with the lowest gross adjustment score are considered to be better golfers since they have a low golf handicap.

Moving towards the next part of this article, let's talk a little about how to get this score better.

Improving the Golf Handicap Index

As you already know, the golf handicap index is a measure of how well an individual is at playing golf. So the only way to improve this score is to get better at your game. When you notice a positive change in your golf playing skills, calculate your golf handicap again and you would have definitely improved.

But here the question arises, how to improve your game? Well, I have a few pieces of advice on that as well. Continue reading to find out what they are.

Tips on Improving Your Golf Game:

  • Maintain Your Physique

If you are into any type of sport, you should never neglect your physique. Take a healthy diet and follow a proper exercise schedule. Take care of your body and in return, it will ensure that you can manage to play a good game without exerting too much physical pressure.

  • Keep Practicing

We have all heard of the quote "Practice Makes a Man Perfect". It certainly holds some degree of truth in it. You can never ace anything as long as you are not consistent. So, in order to improve your game, make sure to keep practicing it on regular basis.

While there are many more things you can do to improve your game, I just wanted to stick to the most basic and the most possible ones. You can get into the technicalities of the game and find out your strengths and weaknesses automatically when you are regular at practice. So as long as you do these two things, everything will ultimately fall into the path.

How to Improve Your Handicap

Handicaps in golf can sometimes incite feelings of pride or embarrassment depending on what that number ends up being. Most people look to decrease their handicap and hone their skill at golf. This is admirable, and with enough practice and hard work, completely feasible.

Golf handicaps improve by lowering those scores from the rounds used in the calculation. Definitely revisit your handicap formula every so often to track and changes. You can also always improve by investing in golf lessons and really learning from an expert.

Did I Play to My Handicap?

To really understand if the handicap is helping your golf game, you'll need to understand and recognize if you are really playing to your handicap or not. As we've looked at, the formulaic system around handicaps ties into course ratings - even though course ratings are tied to "scratch" golfers. When using your handicap, you take the number of strokes needed to put you on the same level as that scratch golfer.

When looking at whether or not you are playing to your handicap, you are seeking to hit your target score. The target score is determined by converting the Handicap Index to a Course Handicap. Then, add the Course Handicap and the Course Rating. Look at the result and if you play to that number, you are playing to your handicap.

Course Handicap
Course Handicap

As an example of this, if a player with a handicap of 16.3 plays on a course with a rating of 68.9 and a slope rating of 129, that player is able to convert the 16.3 to a Course Handicap of 19. After adding the 19 and 68.9, there is a rounded total of 88. If the golfer hits 88, they are playing to their handicap.

Playing to your handicap does not measure the net score in relation to par. It is not limited to just hitting the ball or number of putts but is supposed to be a measurable number.

Not everyone will be a scratch golfer - in fact, only 1.6% of male golfers are. But using a target score can help measure your success with a good golf game. Certainly, hold realistic expectations and don't be surprised if you only find yourself hitting your handicap less than 25% of the time.

Anything Else?

The idea of a handicap is pretty straightforward. It helps put everyone on even grounds and takes into account a player's potential on different courses. Individual courses can have handicaps based on their relative difficulty. There are a few other things to know about handicaps though! This includes knowing:

  • The maximum handicap for men is 28.
  • The maximum handicap for women is 36.
  • To be official and used in tournaments, the handicap must be determined by a golf club affiliated with a group like the USGA.
  • For the most accurate handicap, use scores from playing on the same course.

Helping Hand

All in all, a handicap is meant to be a helping hand on some uneven playing fields. If this is your first time on a challenging course or you are building up your golf game, use the handicap to your advantage. Over time, I've taken great pride in watching my handicap decrease and knowing that it is the result of many good (and many bad) games played.

Being able to answer the question "how does golf handicaps work" and knowing how to calculate them is a great step towards becoming a better golfer and ultimately lowering that handicap score.

Senior golfers: If you haven't adjusted your handicap lately, I suggest working with a pro to do so. As we age, our bodies can't handle the same stresses of golf as they used to.

Golf Handicap Conclusion

To sum it all up, I understand if some of you feel a little overwhelmed or pressurized after knowing the role played by golf handicap. But this was certainly not the purpose of this article. Instead, try and look at the brighter side.

Now that you know all about golf handicap, you have a perfect tool for self-evaluation in the palm of your hand. Before this, you were just practicing without knowing if you are even improving at all. But now, you can keep a track of your performance and find out how far you have come since the day you first stepped into a golf course!

About Bill Winters

Those who have not yet tried the sport just can’t imagine what is driving these golfers to brave the sun’s heat and go around a course bigger than several football fields combined. It seems like an awful lot of work considering that the ball is quite small that is must be hard to hit, the ground of the course is not flat and, most annoying of all, there are sand traps lying around seemingly bent on preventing a player from finishing the course.

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Thoughts on "What Is A Golf Handicap, And How To Calculate Yours"

About the Author

The game of golf may seem like an awful lot to take on when one considers that the ball is quite small, must be hard to hit and carry through windy conditions with little chance for error. The ground course has hillsides which make it challenging enough without adding sand traps who seem bent on preventing players from completing their round!

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