How Golf Handicaps Work

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.

What Is a Golf Handicap?

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.

How Golf Handicaps Work

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:

How Golf Handicaps Work

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:

How Golf Handicaps Work

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:

How Golf Handicaps Work

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!

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.

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.

About the Author Bill

Hi! I'm Bill and for me golf is the greatest game there is. It’s probably the only game that a player’s biggest challenge is himself. It reflects this struggle this called life, the struggle to bring out the best within each and every one of us, a beautiful process that can only happen when facing seemingly insurmountable adversities which, in the game, is represented by the unevenly sloped trap-filled golf course.

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