Handicap In Golf: What Is It and How Does It Work?

handicap in golf

Meet Jake

Jake was a competitive golfer for over a decade dating back to the days of being the Captain of his high school golf team. He has played more than 200 courses across 32 different states in the US. Now semi-retired, Jake continues to golf 3-4 days a week with a current 2 handicap, gives golf lessons to his friends and family, and provides a wealth of knowledge to Golf Circuit from his competitive playing days. Jake combines practical expertise with technical knowledge to create golfing strategies and training techniques for both beginners and scratch golfers.

If you have ever played golf or watched golf announcers whisper on tv, you may have heard of the term handicap.

You may or may not know what a handicap in golf is, or you might have some kind of an idea about your own handicap.

However most golfers that are on the course today don’t exactly know what their handicap in golf is.

What Is A Handicap In Golf?

A handicap in golf is a number based on a golfer’s previous golf scores, which represents how skilled a golfer is.

This number is very useful for tournament formats, or more competitive matches where you want the game to be as fair as possible for the golfers involved. This allows less skilled golfers to compete with more advanced golfers, which we will explain in a bit.

For men, a golf handicap is calculated between 0-28. For women a handicap is calculated between 0-36.

Like we mentioned earlier, you’re going to need to know this number if you want to compete in tournament competitions at a fair level. So, how do you calculate a handicap in golf?

How Handicaps Changed The Sport Of Golf

Many people think that having a handicap in golf is a bad thing, simply because of the nature of the word “handicap”. However, even the best golfers have a handicap, as it is just a number to represent how good you are.

100 years ago, handicaps started being used in the sport of golf, and have been used since. The name came from the phrase “hands-on cap” which involved three parties: a referee and two players.

It has since been changed to just “handicap” and used in all types of golf formats.

How Your Handicap Will Work

In short the lower your handicap, the more skilled of a golfer you are. For example, if you have a handicap of 6, you’re much more skilled than a person with a handicap of 14.

Someone who has a handicap of 6, has had an average score of 6 over par for the last three rounds. This was recently changed from the last 5 rounds as of 2020.

A handicap is helpful in playing a fair game of golf against two golfers of different skill levels, because it allows you to score a game based on how each golfer played that day.

An example game using handicaps

Let’s say you and your friend set out one weekend to play 18 holes at one of the best golf courses in Arizona. The course is a par 72, so you base your handicaps off that.

Your friend has a handicap of 7, he’s a pretty good player. You are still pretty good, and over the last 3 rounds your score has been an average of 14 over par. So, your handicap is 14.

In this instance, your friend is expected to shoot 79 (7 over par) and you are expected to shoot 86 (14 over par.)

So obviously, your friend is more skilled than you in this instance. You played your round of golf and to your surprise you had a great day!

You were hitting stingers and laying up your chip shots pin high all day long.

You shot an 84 that day and your friend shot an 83. Technically, your friend shot the lower round so he would be the winner in a game without using handicaps. However, if you incorporate your handicaps you shot -2 under your handicap, and your friend shot +4 over his handicap.

Technically, you won this golf game!

How To Calculate Your Handicap

The first steps to getting a handicap in golf is by playing your first three games of golf! You can’t have a handicap in golf unless you play, so getting those first three games under your belt is a priority.

Keep track of your score in these games and make sure both you and your playing partner sign the scorecard to verify the scores. This is mandatory to getting a USGA approved handicap index.

If you are just starting out, it would be helpful to play with a partner instead of golfing solo, so you can get help if you need it.

Of course, this is only to get an official handicap in golf, which is used if you would like to play competitively. If you’re an amateur golfer you can keep track of your scores on your own.

To do this:

  1. Find each score of your last three 18 hole games of golf.
  2. Add these scores up, and divide by three.

It is important to remember that a golf handicap is a rolling average. So keep track of your golf scores after every game to know how you’re progressing.

Scores needed to obtain Official handicap index

In order to get an official USGA handicap, you need three verified (signed) scorecards from 18-hole games. This can be three individual 18-hole games, or can be a combination of 9-hole and 18-hole games.

Your handicap may be revised daily so long as you submit your handicap by the end of each day (as long as you play 18 holes each day.)

Handicap Calculation

Your handicap will vary from course to course depending on these factors:

  1. Slope rating of the course
  2. Course Rating (difficulty)
  3. Par of the course

The formula to calculate a handicap for a specific golf course is as follows:

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

Handicap Index: This is the number you either calculate yourself using a golf app, or the official number you get from the USGA.

Slope Rating: This is an official USGA number that is calculated using various factors of difficulty (length, hills, hazards.) It is used to determine how difficult a course is when comparing a scratch golfer to a non-scratch golfer.

Course Rating: A course rating is calculated from the playing length and obstacles, expressed in strokes. It represents the strokes expected for a scratch golfer.

Let’s take a real golf course into consideration using one of my favorite golf courses as an example.

Handicap Example for Arcadia Bluffs in Michigan:

We will be playing from the tips in this example, or the Champion tee box:

scorecard and handicap index for arcadia bluffs

The Men’s slope rating for these tees are 146. The course rating is 75.7. In this example, my handicap index is 14. So to find my handicap for this course using the formula we explained above:

14 * (146/113) + (75.7-72) = 22

And that’s it! Just keep that formula in mind to calculate your handicap for a specific golf course at any time.

How To Improve Your Handicap

We have a post on how to break 100 in golf which goes over the exact method we used to get our average score down and improve your handicap. In short our method is to:

Start by getting organized

You can’t improve it if you don’t track it. Keep track of your scores in order to know how you’re improving. I personally keep a golf journal where I keep track of each game I play. I explain how the weather was, clubs I struggled with, and my score for the day.

This level of organization may be a little too much for most amateur golfers, but I found it really helps to nip the bud in issues on the course and constantly force me to think about ways to improve.

Don’t get frustrated

Some people play golf for their whole lives and aren’t scratch golfers. It’s a hard sport, so it’s important not to get frustrated if you don’t improve right away.

Literally that’s it

I am a self proclaimed “big picture golfer”. I feel if you think about golf on a macro level, instead of thinking about little thing like “what if i just rotate my wrist a little more”. Keep track of these bigger things like “I obviously don’t do well on hills” allow you to play smarter.

If you have any questions about my golf mentality and how to improve your handicap, reach out!

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