Golf Handicap Explained: What It Is and How to Use It

Next Tee Sign

The golf handicap is either a source of pride or a source of stress for most amateur golfers out there. Understanding how to calculate your golf handicap and how to use it is vital to ensure that you play golf on a level field (metaphorically). In this article, you’ll learn everything that you need to know about your golf handicap, including what you need to do to get one and how it is calculated. Knowing how to use your handicap is critical, especially if you want to play any sort of local events, money games against friends, or even just being able to benchmark your own progress. Let’s dive in.

What is a Golf Handicap?

Ok, let’s get straight down to business. As an amateur player, a golf handicap allows you to play golf against any other player, any skill level, on any course, and have a reasonable chance of competing against each other.

Each player’s handicap is a measure of the number of extra ‘shots’ over par that they are expected to take on a course.

Handicaps are also used as a measure of how ‘good’ a player is. Players with a ‘high’ handicap will be allowed a higher number of extra strokes over the course par. Players with a ‘low’ handicap are expected to take fewer additional strokes to get around the course.

Let me give you a couple of examples.

A Low Golf Handicap

In this scenario, Steve is considered to be a pretty good amateur golfer; he is a 6 handicap. What does this mean? Well, if the course par was 70, on a normal day, Steve would be expected to hit 76 total strokes on his round. On average, Steve is expected to be about 6 over par on any given day. Of course, some days will be better, some will be worse.

A High Golf Handicap

Justin has only recently started playing, and after registering a dozen rounds, he has a 28 handicap index. This means that Justin is expected to take 28 extra strokes per round. 0n a Par 70 golf course, Justin would normally take 98 strokes to complete the course, from his first tee shot to holing out on the 18th.

All makes sense so far?

In principle, it is easy. However, there are many factors that are considered when calculating your golf handicap.

Why Does the Handicap System Exist?

Ok, while a handicap is an indicator of how ‘good’ a golfer is, it wasn’t designed to be used purely as a tool to measure excellence.

Imagine you were playing against a friend who smashes every drive 300 yards down the middle, hits his irons like a God, and putts like his life depended on it. Meanwhile, you spend more time in the sand than a Malibu surfer and have a better chance of scoring if you kick the ball around.

If you were to play a head to head match against your friend, odds are you will lose every time. Doesn’t sound that fun, does it?

A golf handicap is a great way to level the odds. If you take 3 shots to hit the green whereas your friend takes a single shot, then a handicap will allow for this, essentially giving you some ‘free’ strokes that can be used to get you to the same point on the course.

You might take more strokes to get around the course, but your handicap is subtracted from the end result.

Let’s say you shot 98. Your gross score is 98 strokes.

If you have a handicap of 28, this is subtracted from your gross score to give a net score. Your net score would be 70. If the course par is 70, then you have played to your handicap.

A scratch player doesn’t have any ‘extra’ strokes to use in their match. If they shoot 70, then this is their gross and net score. If they shoot, say, 75, they may have taken fewer shots than you gross, but because of your handicap, you have effectively beaten them with your net score!

A golf handicap essentially allows less skilled players to compete against better golfers based on how they play on a particular day.

Golfer on the driving range

How to Get a Golf Handicap

If you are brand new to the game, don’t worry about getting a golf handicap just yet. Just work on your technique and enjoy your game. There’s nothing that kills enthusiasm more than putting pressure on yourself.

However, if you have been playing golf for a little while now and want to start competing again friends or in tournaments, you will need to get a golf handicap. It’s also fun and interesting to benchmark yourself against the course, and against how you play over time. Fortunately, it is a really easy process. Here’s how to do it:

Get Registered

You can sign up for a handicap at your local course. Alternatively, you can visit the United States Golf Association here. There is a small annual fee involved (around $40). As a result, you’ll be rewarded with your very own GHIN number.

What is a GHIN number?

GHIN is an acronym for ‘Golf Handicap Information Network’. This service is operated by the USGA to provide handicaps at registered golf clubs. Each GHIN number is unique and assigned to one individual player. By having a GHIN number, you (or your club) can post your scores online to work out your handicap index.

There is some semi-complex math required when it comes to calculating your handicap based on your handicap index. I’ll explain this a little later…

Submit Your Scores

Remember, a golf handicap is a calculation based on the average number of strokes you will be expected to take in 18 holes. You will need to submit several scores to ensure that your golf handicap can be calculated because it is an average.

How many?

The USGA Specifies that you must submit the scores from 54 holes to be considered eligible. These can be made up of a combination of each full round of 18 holes or your scores from 9 consecutive holes.

Rules when Submitting Scores for a Golf Handicap

There are a few rules when submitting your score.

  • The main one is that your round and score must be witnessed by another player. The reason for this is to stop people’ cheating’. And not in the way that you might think….

Normally, ‘ cheating’ in golf might be saying you took fewer shots than was the case. However, when it comes to getting a golf handicap, it is actually beneficial to take more shots per round. If a player were to end up with a higher golf handicap that gave them much more shots than required, they would find it easier to play, gaming the system in an unfair manner.

  • Each submitted scorecard must be signed. Both by you and your playing partner. Consider it a contract that must have both party’s agreement to be considered valid.

Adjust your Scores to Avoid Big Numbers.

Wait what? Adjust? Why?

Well, The USGA are a friendly bunch (provided you play by the rules), and they understand that most golfers will have the occasional ‘bad’ hole. Having a nightmare on one hole shouldn’t leave you with a disastrous (or advantageous) handicap that doesn’t accurately reflect how you normally play.

As a result, you are limited as to how many shots you can take on each hole. After a given maximum number of strokes on each hole, you simply write the maximum allowed for handicapping purposes.

What is the maximum score you can take on a hole for your handicap?

Well, this depends on your course handicap. Before introducing the WHS rules, the highest score you could write down on your scorecard would be two over the par for each hole. However, this has changed.

Golfers who played in difficult courses were often at an advantage when playing easier courses as their handicap was artificially high. By using a course handicap to adjust handicap scores, this effect can be limited. 

The formula for this sounds complex but is actually really easy once you get your head around it. It looks like this

Maximum strokes per hole  = PAR + 2 + Handicap Strokes received

If you still aren’t getting it, here’s a really handy video:

What’s my maximum score if I don’t have a golf handicap yet?

This is slightly easier for you. You are allowed to take a maximum of 5 shots over par on each hole.

My handicap is less than 18. How do I know which golf holes I get extra shots on?

This is easy. On your scorecard, you’ll see something called Stroke Index. The stroke index is a measure, graded from 1 to 18, of how hard each hole is. The hardest hole will be given a stroke index of 1. The easiest hole is given a stroke index of 18.

To apply your adjustments for handicapping, you simply add your allocated handicap strokes to the holes in order of difficulty as dictated by the stroke index. If you had 13 shots due to your course handicap, you would add one shot to each of the 13 hardest holes. These 13 holes will be where you can go over your double bogey limit by one shot when scoring for handicapping purposes.

How to Calculate Golf Handicap (as of 2020 onwards)

As of 2020, the rules and formula regarding how handicaps were calculated changed slightly along with the introduction of the World Handicap System (WHS). The good news is that this system has already been adopted by the USGA!

This great video will explain what a WHS handicap allows you to do.

Now, we will get a little technical here when talking about how to calculate your handicap.

There is actually a little bit of math involved in the calculating of your handicap- traditionally this would all be done by the handicapping secretary of a club, but it pays to know how it all works.

Ok, here goes. The formula used to calculate golf handicap is as follows: –

Handicap index x (slope rating/113) + (Course Rating – Par)

Sounds complicated?

Just a little. But don’t worry, I’m going to break it into manageable chunks and explain what each term means before giving you a well-explained example or two, and you’ll get a general concept…

Just in case this is all a bit daunting, you’ll find a handy course handicap calculator here. It is exactly the same as the above equation. All you need to do is plug in the numbers. If you want to understand golf handicaps, I will give you all the details right now.

Golf Handicap Terms | Explained

Take a look at the above formula again. Let’s go through what each term in the equation means. I promise it will make much more sense when I’m done:

What is Handicap Index?

The handicap index is a portable measure of playing ability based on your previous scores used to calculate your playing handicap.

The handicap index runs from 1 up to 54. The average handicap index for men is 14.2.

A handicap index is not the same as a handicap. Remember, a handicap is the total average number of strokes you will be expected to hit over the course par.

Note the word portable. The aim of the index is that you can take it with you anywhere in the world and be reasonably assured that your playing handicap will be accurate for the course, regardless of difficulty.

And how is handicap index calculated?

Handicap index is calculated in one of two ways depending on whether you are new to the game or an existing player:

  • New players:- By submitting scores from a total of 54 holes (Three full rounds), you’ll be given an initial handicap index.
  • Veteran Player: Out of your last 20 registered scores, the best 8 scores will be selected, added together, and averaged. The result of this will be used to calculate your handicap index.

What is Slope Rating?

The slope rating is a measure of how difficult a course is based on how ‘scratch’ players score against normal players. The scale of slope index runs from 55 (really easy) to 155 (really hard).

If you’ve played more than one course, then you’ll know that not all golf courses are created equal. Do you think an average golfer would be able to play to his handicap at, say, Pebble Beach?

We have to have a system to take into account course difficulty when calculating handicaps.

So, what is Course Rating?

The course rating is your benchmark, and it is expressed in strokes. Essentially it is how hard a scratch golfer would find the course on a normal day. It is based on the average number of shots that an average scratch golfer could be expected to take..

If the course par was 70. An easy course might have a course rating of 68 as scratch players can often shoot below par on this course. A hard course may have a course rating of 74… Meaning that even scratch players struggle to make the course par.


Don’t be. Here’s an easy way to think of it.

  • Course Rating tells great (scratch) golfers how hard they will find the course.
  • Slope Rating indicates how hard the course will be for regular ‘average’ golfers.

Why ‘113’ in the handicap calculation?

Remember what we said about slope rating? It is measured from 55 to 155. Well, ‘113’ is considered the ‘average’ when it comes to difficulty. When used in the handicap calculation, this number is a constant designed to represent the ‘average’.

What does ‘Par’ mean?

This is super simple. ‘Par’ is the number of shots in which the course should be completed in.

Ok, so now you understand the above terms, let’s go back to our equation and plug in some numbers to give us a WHS’ playing handicap’. I’ll do two very different courses for the same player… and you’ll be able to see the significance of the new WHS guidelines on handicaps.

Bethpage State Park | The USA’s most difficult course.

Meet Nick, a really average player. He’s definitely an intermediate, and with a Handicap index of 14, he is about as normal as they get.

Nick goes to play at the Bethpage State Park course, as he likes a challenge!

Here are the numbers for Bethpage State Park

  • Slope rating: 155
  • Course Rating: 77.5
  • Par: 71

Before we plug in the numbers, what does this tell you? The slope rating is 155, as difficult as it gets! While the par for the course is 71, the course rating is over 77, meaning even the pros struggle to make par!

Nick wants to know what his playing handicap is… So let’s stick in the numbers and see the WHS handicap system in action…

For Bethpage State Park, Nick’s Playing handicap would be…

A handicap index of 14.2 x 1.37 + 6.5 = 25.9

Rounded up, Nick would get a course handicap of 26!

Gamble Sands | An Easy Course

So, Nick has got fed up with fighting with narrow fairways, bunkers, and water, so he heads to Gamble Sands.

Here are the numbers for Gamble Sands

  • Slope rating: 109
  • Course rating: 68.6
  • Par: 72

As you can see, the slope rating is pretty low at 109, and the course rating, compared to the course par, shows that most scratch players regularly shoot under! What do you think, according to the WHS system, will happen to Nick’s playing handicap? Well, let’s see…

A handicap index of 14.2 x  0.96 – 3.4 = 10.2!

Wait! Why the minus at the end? Well, this is an easy course! And subsequently, Nick gets only 10 shots to use above the course par through his round! 

Handicaps are probably not as simple as you first thought? It is easy to see why they are daunting for beginners. The good news is that once you have followed our steps above, the process pretty much takes care of itself. As long as you have managed to acquire your handicap index, the rest is as simple as plugging in numbers into a calculator.

golfers walking up the fairway

Here are some common questions around golf handicaps…

Golf Handicap FAQ

What is a playing handicap?

A ‘playing handicap’ is a variable total number of strokes you are allowed on a specific course on a specific day, say for a competition or in match play. The playing handicap is based on a percentage of your course handicap. It is devised by multiplying your course handicap by an ‘allowance’. If the allowance was 0.5, this would mean that your playing handicap would give you only half the strokes normally granted by your course handicap.

What is an average golf handicap?

An average golfer has some good holes and some bad holes. If they made par every time, they would be off scratch! The average golfer will normally hit around 16-20 shots over the course par. If you look at the average handicap index for both men and women according to the USGA, you’ll see that a fair percentage of people sit in this range.

What is considered a low handicap?

Once you start getting into single digits, then you can call yourself a low handicapper. Anything below 10 is pretty good. Having a course handicap of 9 means that you generally play more than half of the holes as they should be played… to par.

What is a good golf handicap?

Seriously? My answer is one that you can consistently play to. While it is nice to boast about being ‘off single digits’, if you find you are missing out by losing medals, or even worse, not enjoying your game because you are under pressure, then it might be time to submit those cards and gain a few shots, better that than submitting a ‘no return’ scorecard just to preserve some pride.

What is my handicap if I shoot 100?

Well, to know this you would need to know the par for your course. If the par for the course was 70 and you regularly shoot 100, then your handicap would be around 30. That said, as we have seen above, it isn’t quite so simple. When you consider the new WHS rules and how they are being applied globally, you might find that your handicap changes significantly based on which course you are playing on!

Final Thoughts

When it comes to golf handicaps, there is quite a lot to think about. The rules have changed recently to make them much more standard across the world. However, anything that gives you a few extra shots on a difficult course can only be a good thing! Your handicap is primarily designed to allow you to compete against better players and is also a great metric for measuring if you are improving. If you can play to it regularly, then you’ll get the most out of your game.


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