Golf Handicap Explained: What Does It Mean? How It Works + How to Calculate it

The concept of handicap in golf is designed to level the playing field. The golf handicap system provides a way for any two players to have a fair match.

With the golf handicap system in place, you could play Rory McIlroy and have an equal chance to win.

It is designed to measure your potential. Depending on the difficulty of the course you are playing, your golf handicap tells you an approximation of what you will shoot.

To put it another way, it allows you to compare golfers from across the world.

In this article, we’re going to look at :

  • How Golf Handicaps Work
  • How To Calculate Your Golf Handicap
  • How To Establish An Official Golf Handicap
  • What Is A ‘Good’ Golf Handicap?

Ready to learn everything you need to know about golf handicaps?

Let’s go!

golf handicap explained

Golf Handicap Explained: How Do Golf Handicaps Work?

Simply put, a golf handicap measures how good you are at the game.

Based on recent scores, your handicap will be a number between 0 and 36.

A player with a zero handicap is often referred to as a scratch golfer.

It is possible to have a handicap lower than zero – this is called a “plus” handicap.

Once you have a golf handicap, using it is fairly simple. If you want to play a match against your buddy, the golf handicap system will tell you how to make it fair to both players.

Let’s look at an example: If you are a 12 handicap and your competitor is a 20 handicap, you should give them 8 strokes to make the match fair.

If you are going to play in “match play format”, you would give your competitor 1 stroke on the 8 hardest holes.

Using your golf handicaps, both players have an equal chance to win. It will come down to who plays better in relation to their handicap.

The World Handicap System is the official golf handicap program. It is recognized by both the USGA (United States Golf Association) and the R&A (Royal & Ancient).

golf handicap explained

Golf Handicap Explained: Can Your Calculate Your Own Golf Handicap?

You Can Estimate Your Golf Handicap

The easiest definition of a golf handicap is ‘an average of how many over par you play per round, based on an average of your better rounds’.

It is designed to measure your potential, so it doesn’t use all your scores.

To get an estimate of your golf handicap you need to know your last 20 scores.

The last 20 times you played 18 holes what did you shoot?

You use the best 8 scores from the last 20.

Let’s say you shot the following scores: 85, 87, 92, 95, 84, 86, 98, 91, 87, 90, 93, 85, 87, 85, 88, 97, 95, 94, 89 , 83 (we have bolded the lowest 8).

For simplicity, let’s assume all of these rounds were played on a par 72 course.

Adjust these “best 8” scores to # of strokes over par: 85 (13), 87 (15), 84 (12), 86 (14), 85 (13), 87 (15), 85 (13), 83 (11).

Now we average these numbers ((13+15+12+14+13+15+13+11)/8) = 13.3. We can estimate that you are approximately a 13 handicap.

Do you round a golf handicap up or down?

You should round your golf handicap to the nearest whole number.

golf handicap explained

A Complete Golf Handicap Calculation Is Complex

The above example is a reasonable estimation, but it does not include all the nuances that are needed to calculate an official golf handicap.

An official golf handicap includes adjustments depending on the difficulty of the course, the tees you play, what other golfers shot on the same course, and even the weather.

To give you an idea of the complexity, we are going to discuss two of the components (Adjusted Gross Score, Round Differential).

Adjusted Gross Score

Your gross score is simply what you shot for the 18 hole round. Unfortunately, you may need to adjust this number before it is used to calculate your golf handicap.

Your golf handicap cannot be skewed by a couple really bad holes. There are limits to how many strokes you can count on one hole.

For example, you can’t count a 12 on a par 3.

The World Handicap System has created a rule that you cannot take more than a certain number per hole (depending on your handicap and the par of the hole).

Let’s say you shoot a 95, but made a 12 on a par 3. The most you can take on that whole is a 6, so you will need to reduce your score by 6 strokes (12-6 = 6).

Your adjusted gross score for the round is now 89. The 89 is what should be used to calculate your golf handicap.

golf handicap explained

Round Differential

Did you know that almost all golf courses are rated to determine their difficulty? They are assigned a Course Rating and a Slope.

Each tee box at the course (red, gold, white, blue, etc.) will be assigned a different course rating and slope.

The simple calculation of round differential would be to take your adjusted gross score and subtract the par of the course.

If you played a par 72, the 89 we discussed in the above section would have a round differential of 17 (89-72).

The problem is – this ignores the course rating and slope, so it doesn’t account for the difficulty of the course.

Let’s try to calculate your round differential for this score using course rating and slope.

Your Round Differential will be your Adjusted Gross Score minus the Course Rating, multiplied by 113, and then divided by the Course Slope.

For this example, let’s say the course rating is 70 and the slope is 115.

The round differential calculation for this round would be (89-70) x 113 / 115. This equals 18.7.

We did mention it was complex, right? It is possible to calculate your official handicap, but we recommend you establish one via a service.

Golf Handicap Explained: How to Establish An Official Golf Handicap

golf handicap explained

Unless you really love spreadsheets, it probably makes sense to establish an official golf handicap instead of trying to calculate and maintain it yourself.

The good news – it is easy to do and fairly inexpensive.

There are several different options, but the most popular is GHIN (Golf Handicap Information Network).

It is quick and easy to post a score using the GHIN phone app and it comes with several other features that golfers love.

First, each time you post a score you can choose to enter your stats from the round.

The phone app will track your fairways, greens, and putts. It will even let you know if you tend to miss shots to the left or right.

The GHIN app also has an option that allows you to determine your course handicap. Did you know that the number of strokes you receive changes depending on the course you are playing?

Here is how it works. Your handicap index will be a number. For example, a 12.2. You tell the app what course and what tees you are playing and it will provide the number of strokes you get for that specific course.

The GHIN app already knows the course rating and slope for most courses. Nice and easy for you and your golfing buddies.

In order to establish a golf handicap you will need to sign-up through your local golf course pro shop or a golf association. More details are available here.

Did we mention inexpensive? The annual cost for an official golf handicap is only $25-$50.

Once you have a golf handicap, you can use it to play in Net tournaments. Compete on an even playing field against players from across your city, country, or the world.

golf handicap explained

Golf Handicap Explained: What Is A Good Golf Handicap?

This is an interesting question. It is somewhat relative. A 30-handicap golfer will think a 15-handicap is awesome.

Based on data pulled from handicap services, the average male golfer is a 16-handicap. Are you better or worse than average?

We aren’t trying to dodge the question.

We would say a good golfer is a 10-handicap or less. This means that they shoot between 82-85 when they play a par 72 course.

Having a single digit handicap (less than 10) means you have invested time in the game and have learned how to improve over time.

Regardless of your handicap, there is no reason to feel ashamed.

As long as you play the game the “right way” and display proper etiquette you can enjoy golf for years.

golf handicap explained

A Golf Handicap Gives You More Ways to Enjoy the Game

We strongly believe that all golfers should establish a handicap. It will help you get more out of the game in several ways.

Your golf handicap index allows you to play a fair match against any other player. It doesn’t matter if they are a touring professional or if they just started playing.

It gives you access to Net tournaments. Golf competition is thrilling, but the vast majority of players don’t have a chance in a gross event. Everyone has a chance to bring home the trophy in a Net tournament.

Finally, a golf handicap is a perfect way to measure your progress over time. Golf is the rare sport you can play from age 5 to 105.

Track you handicap over the years to see if you are improving. Use it to set personal goals.

At the beginning of each golf season determine your target. Try to reduce your handicap index by 2-5 strokes.

If you love playing golf there is no reason not to establish a handicap. What are you waiting for? Do it today!

Photo of author
Ray has been playing golf for 35+ years, including being part of his High School and College golf teams. While he still enjoys playing in amateur tournaments, Ray now focuses on growing the game of golf through teaching and coaching. He has two sons that both play golf competitively and loves spending time watching them compete. Ray continues to play in local amateur golf events and currently has a +2 handicap.

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