How Does a Golf Handicap Work: A Quick Guide for Beginners

A golf handicap is a numerical representation of a golfer’s playing ability, allowing players of varying skill levels to compete on a more level playing field. This system takes into account your past performance, course difficulty, and a range of other factors to generate a handicap index. With this index, skilled and novice golfers alike can track their progress and participate in friendly or official competitions.

To establish a golf handicap, you’ll need to submit scores from a minimum of 54 holes, as indicated by the United States Golf Association (USGA). The handicap index calculation uses your 8 best score differentials from your most recent 20 scores played on various courses. Manual calculations involve playing at least ten rounds, discovering the course rating and slope, and applying a specific formula to determine your handicap.

Understanding and maintaining an accurate golf handicap is essential for participating in tournaments and enjoying fair, competitive play. As you continue to improve and develop your skillset, keeping track of your handicap index will ensure a balanced experience for both you and your fellow golfers.

How Does a Golf Handicap Work

Understanding Golf Handicap Basics

Handicap Index

A golf handicap is a system that allows players of different skill levels to compete on a level playing field. The handicap index is a key component of this system, calculated based on a player’s scores from recent rounds of golf. The index provides a numerical representation of a player’s potential ability and is used to determine the course handicap.

Course Handicap

The course handicap represents the number of strokes a player is allowed to take on a specific course to play at the same skill level as a scratch golfer. It is calculated using a formula that takes into account the player’s handicap index, as well as the course’s rating and slope. This allows for a fair comparison between players and adjusts for the difficulty of the course being played.

Slope Rating

The slope rating is a number representing the relative difficulty of a course for bogey golfers compared to the course rating. It measures the difference in challenge between a scratch golfer and a bogey golfer on a particular course. The higher the slope rating, the more difficult the course is for bogey golfers. The average slope rating is around 113, with more difficult courses having a higher number.

Slope Rating Difficulty Level
55-90 Easiest
91-119 Average
120-155 Most Difficult

Course Rating

The course rating is an estimate of the average score that a scratch golfer would achieve on a specific course. It takes into account factors such as course length, layout, obstacles, and weather conditions. A course rating of 74.8, for example, means that 74.8 is expected to be the average score of the best 50-percent of rounds played by scratch golfers on that golf course. The course rating is an essential factor when calculating a player’s course handicap.

In summary, understanding golf handicaps involves becoming familiar with terms like handicap index, course handicap, slope rating, and course rating. These elements work together to create an equitable system for golfers of all skill levels to compete and enjoy the game.

Calculating a Golf Handicap


The first step in calculating a golf handicap is determining the differential for each round. To do this, you will need to know the following:

  • Adjusted Gross Score: Your total strokes for a round, after applying any necessary adjustments.
  • Course Rating: A measure of the difficulty of a golf course, taking into account various factors such as course length, obstacles, and terrain.
  • Slope Rating: A value that indicates the relative difficulty of a course for a bogey golfer (a player with a handicap of around 20) compared to a scratch golfer (a player with a handicap of 0).

The formula for calculating the differential is as follows:

Differential = (Adjusted Gross Score - Course Rating) x (113 / Slope Rating)

Adjusted Gross Score

Before calculating your handicap, you need to adjust your gross score for each round, as it will ensure a fair comparison across various courses and conditions. Factors that might affect the adjusted gross score include:

  • Equitable Stroke Control (ESC): A system to cap the maximum number of strokes you can take on any hole based on your current handicap.
  • Out-of-qualification scores: Scores that should not be considered in handicap calculations due to incomplete rounds, poor weather conditions, or other circumstances.

Handicap Calculation

Once you have the adjusted gross score and differential for your most recent rounds, you can calculate your handicap. The handicap is based on the average of your best 8 differentials out of your last 20 rounds. If you have fewer than 20 rounds, a different number of differentials will be considered based on the rounds you have played.

You need to calculate the average of these best differentials, multiply the result by 0.96, and round the result to the nearest tenth:

Handicap Index = (Average of Best 8 Differentials x 0.96)

To calculate your Course Handicap for a specific golf course, use the following formula:

Course Handicap = (Handicap Index x (Slope Rating / 113)) + (Course Rating - Par)

Remember to round the Course Handicap to the nearest whole number.

By systematically calculating a golf handicap that accounts for adjusted gross scores, differentials, and unique course characteristics, golfers of differing skill levels can fairly compete against each other on any course.

Purpose of a Golf Handicap


A golf handicap is a system designed to allow golfers of differing abilities to compete fairly against each other. By factoring in a golfer’s skill level, handicaps help to level the playing field in competitive events such as tournaments. In essence, a golf handicap represents the number of strokes a player would need to complete an 18-hole course compared to a scratch golfer, who is expected to complete the course in par.

Skill Level Assessment

Golf handicaps provide a useful way for both amateur and professional golfers to gauge their skill level in relation to others. By keeping track of their golf handicaps, players can monitor their progress and improvement over time. The lower the handicap, the more skilled the golfer is. For reference, a low handicap is generally considered to be below 10. On the other hand, a high handicap indicates a less skilled golfer who may be more of a novice or intermediate player.


One of the primary reasons for utilizing a golf handicap system is to ensure equitability during competition. In a match with golfers of varying skill levels, handicaps are taken into account when determining each player’s net score. This is done by subtracting the golfer’s handicap from their gross score (the raw number of strokes taken in a round).

For example, consider the following table representing two golfers’ handicaps and scores:

Golfer Handicap Gross Score Net Score
A 5 85 80
B 25 100 75

Despite Golfer B having a higher gross score, they have a lower net score when their handicap is taken into consideration. This means that even though Golfer A is more skilled, handicapping allows for a fair competition between the two players.

By allowing players of different skill levels to compete on a more equitable footing, golf handicaps encourage a friendly atmosphere and provide a clear assessment of performance during competition.

The World Handicap System

The World Handicap System (WHS) was launched in January 2020, aiming to provide a unified and more inclusive system for golfers around the world. This allows golfers to obtain and maintain a handicap index and use it to compete fairly across any format and course globally.

USGA Handicap System

The United States Golf Association (USGA) is a major component of the WHS, as they help create and administer the handicap system. The USGA works closely with golf associations and clubs to ensure accurate handicap indexes and fair play. The system calculates a golfer’s handicap index, which forms the basis for their course and playing handicap.

Golf Handicap Information Network (GHIN)

The GHIN is a service offered by the USGA to assist golfers and golf associations in managing their handicaps. The network provides a platform for recording and maintaining golf scores, as well as calculating course handicaps. Golfers input their scores into the GHIN, and the system automatically computes their handicap index.

Global Standard

The WHS integrates the previously used handicap systems from various countries and forms a global standard for golfer handicaps. This standard uses net double bogey as the universal point of reference, providing consistency in its application worldwide. Under this system, golfers can:

  • Obtain a handicap index that represents their playing ability
  • Use their handicap index to compete fairly against other golfers
  • Have their scores and handicaps updated regularly based on their performance

The World Handicap System has been designed to be beneficial for the general public and golf associations, making it easier to participate in golf events and to grow the sport globally. By consolidating the various handicap systems, the WHS streamlines administration and allows national associations to focus on golf development and strategic planning.

Using a Handicap in Tournaments

In this section, we will discuss how to use a golf handicap in tournaments, focusing on playing handicap, handicap allowance, and match play.

Playing Handicap

Playing handicap is a way to adjust a golfer’s handicap for a specific course and tee. It takes into account factors such as slope rating, which measures the relative difficulty of a course. To calculate a playing handicap, use the following formula:

Playing Handicap = Handicap Index * (Slope Rating / 113) + (Course Rating - Par)


  • Handicap Index is a numerical value representing a golfer’s ability
  • Slope Rating is provided on the scorecard and measures the course’s difficulty
  • Course Rating represents the expected score a scratch golfer would achieve on the course
  • Par is the standard number of strokes for the course

Handicap Allowance

Handicap allowance ensures a level playing field in a competition by limiting the number of strokes a player can receive. This is especially important in tournaments where skilled players and less-skilled players compete together. A common handicap allowance table might look like this:

Handicap Category Handicap Allowance
1 (0-5) 85%
2 (6-12) 80%
3 (13-20) 75%
4 (21-28) 70%

To determine a player’s adjusted handicap, multiply their playing handicap by the appropriate percentage based on their handicap category.

Match Play

In match play tournaments, handicaps are used to allocate strokes to individual holes based on the difference in playing handicaps between the two players. For example, if Player A has a playing handicap of 12 and Player B has a playing handicap of 18, Player B would receive one extra stroke on the six most difficult holes. These holes are identified on the scorecard by their assigned handicap stroke index.

During the match, a referee may be present to ensure that the players follow the rules and maintain the integrity of the tournament. In match play, male golfers and female golfers may have different sets of tees and slope ratings, which should be taken into account when determining playing handicaps and allocating strokes.

By considering playing handicap, handicap allowance, and match play rules, tournaments can provide a fair and enjoyable competitive experience for golfers of all skill levels.

Adjustments and Considerations

Exceptional Scores

An exceptional score in golf is a score that deviates significantly from a player’s handicap. This can result in adjustments to the individual’s handicap to better reflect their skill level. Exceptional scores are analyzed to ensure the accuracy and legitimacy of the player’s handicap, leading to a more level playing field.

Playing Conditions

In the world of golf, playing conditions can have a significant impact on a player’s score. Factors such as weather, course setup, and maintenance can affect the difficulty of a round. To account for these variations, a Playing Conditions Calculation (PCC) is applied to adjust score differentials, ensuring that handicaps remain accurate and representative of a golfer’s abilities under varying conditions.


To maintain a fair and balanced system, safeguards have been established within the handicap calculation process. These include:

  • Cap Mechanisms: To prevent rapid and unrepresentative increases or decreases in handicap, cap mechanisms limit the maximum change that can occur during a specified period.
  • Soft Cap: Restricts the upward movement of a player’s handicap once it has reached a certain threshold, helping to prevent abnormal increases.
  • Hard Cap: Sets an absolute limit for upward handicap movement, ensuring consistency and stability in a player’s rating.

Handicap Calculation and Course Handicap

The process of calculating a golfer’s handicap is based on a player’s best score differentials (the difference between a player’s adjusted gross score and the Course Rating) in recent rounds. Taking the average of the lowest differentials from a specified number of rounds, the handicap provides a numerical representation of a player’s skill level. This serves to level the playing field and enable golfers of varying abilities to compete fairly.

A course handicap, derived from the golfer’s handicap index and the specific course being played, is used to adjust a player’s scorecard by allocating strokes over par on different holes based on their difficulty. This caters to the unique characteristics and challenges of each course, ensuring a fair and competitive match.

Level Playing Field

Golf handicaps serve as an essential tool for creating a level playing field among golfers with different abilities, histories, and course handicaps. They enable bogey golfers (average recreational players) and more experienced players to compete on equal terms through a system that takes into consideration factors such as exceptional scores, playing conditions, and safeguards. By continually adjusting handicaps based on progress and performance, the system maintains a balanced matching and competitive atmosphere in the game of golf.

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