What Is A “Handicap” In Golf? Confusion No More!

by | January 23, 2016

Many people have a general idea of what a handicap is in golf, but beyond that there’s a bit of confusion, misconception and misinformation floating around about how it’s calculated and how it really works.  This article aims to clarify.

The idea of “handicap”…

handicap in golf is essentially a number or a measure assigned to a golfer that represents their potential playing ability for a given set of tees on a given golf course.    Technically, a handicap ishandicapscorecard1 not the same as a handicap index, which is a base value used to calculate the true handicap of a golfer on each individual course.

Generally, the higher the handicap number, the poorer the golfer.  The USGA (United States Golf Association) process of calculating a player’s course handicap is fairly lengthy and complicated, and it will be outlined below for those interested.  A handicap serves two useful purposes:

  • It indicates your skill level relative to scratch golfers.  Scratch golfers are golfers who have course handicaps of approximately zero.
  • By deducting it from the actual number of strokes played in the round, it allows golfers of different skill levels to play golf on a fair and even playing field.

An example…

Probably the easiest way to understand handicap is through example:  Suppose that, on a particular par-72 course from a particular set of tees, Mark (less skilled) has a course handicap of 19 and Jeff has a course handicap of 5.  At the end of the round, both Mark and Jeff’s handicaps are deducted from their actual number of strokes played (their gross scores) to get their handicap-adjusted (or net) scores and bring them on a level playing field.  Thus, If Mark shoots 90 and Jeff shoots 79, Mark’s net score becomes 90-19=71 and Jeff’s net score becomes 79-5=74.  These net scores are then compared directly to determine the winner; in this case, Mark has a lower net score and wins the round.

Note that handicaps are not used in professional golf, but if a professional were assigned a handicap it would likely be negative (indicating great skill) and be added to their gross score.  Amateur golfers can typically obtain “official” handicaps, for a fee, from golf clubs that they are a member of.

The USGA handicap calculation in a nutshell…

First, a value called the handicap differential is calculated for each of a golfer’s past 20 rounds of golf in the following way:



  • Equitable Stroke Control is the number of strokes taken for the round after adjustment for any inflation from very high scores.
  • course rating is a number, usually between 67 and 77, that represents the average “good score” of a scratch golfer on the course.
  • slope rating is a number between 55 and 155 that is used to measure the difficulty of the course for a bogey golfer (which is a golfer with a handicap index of approximately 18).

A handicap index is then calculated as the average of the best 10 handicap differentials (of the golfer’s past 20 rounds) multiplied by 0.96.  There are other rules and procedures for calculating a handicap index with less than 20 rounds logged, but that won’t be discussed here.  The handicap index should be updated periodically as a golfer improves.

The course handicap with respect to a particular golf course is then calculated for the golfer as:coursehandicapcalc

The course handicap is the value to be deducted from a golfer’s gross score to determine their net score at the end of the round.

You can watch the USGA video describing this handicap system below:

Want to lower your handicap?

We all want to become better golfers.  With the right instruction and the right equipment, it can happen.  To that end, be sure to check out Golfstead’s how-to pagesdrills and tips and reviews on golf clubs and equipment that can really help your game.

Was this explanation helpful to you?  Do you have any questions?  Be sure to leave a comment down below and I’ll get back to you!

Image attributed to:  Dan Perry

6 thoughts on “What Is A “Handicap” In Golf? Confusion No More!

  1. Dyl

    I play golf now and then as more of a social thing. I was always curious to what a handicap was and why everyone was taking one when I played against them haha! thanks for the great information, it was clear and concise and I learned a lot from it. I will be back to revisit this site for sure when I get confused!

  2. Eric

    Wow, I didn’t realize there was so much involved in calculating the handicap or the differences between different handicaps. I always assumed it was a simple measure of your playing ability and how you would alter your score in any one round of golf. I also didn’t know it had anything to do with the course you are playing on. Thanks Paul!

    1. Paul Post author

      You’re welcome! It is a measure of your playing ability, but as you can see it’s not necessarily simple to calculate (that would depend on who you ask!). It is, however, fairly simple to use once you have it, as I demonstrated in the example. The course handicap (not the handicap index) is the value you use to directly modify your score at the end of the round.

  3. Molly

    I grasped what a golf handicap meant in the simplest terms, and even the number meaning the number of strokes in a round that a golfer is worse than one who is ‘scratch’ (the handicap differential), but I had no idea how it was calculated. This article finally solves this mystery for me. It is really well written and simple to understand. Thank you for doing this!


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