What Is A Handicap In Golf?

You’ve spent some time in the country clubs and heard the term thrown around a lot. Or, you were talking with your friends and were bragging about it. Regardless, you are now wondering what a handicap in golf is.

A handicap in golf is a number used to score a golfer’s skill based on how they played in previous golf rounds.

The lower your golf handicap, the more skilled you are. Men have a handicap that ranges between 0 and 28, and women have handicaps that range between 0 and 36. 

Golf handicaps are primarily used in tournaments, where the tournament’s score is based on the handicap of individual players. (Unlike the Stableford scoring system.)

You may not realize it, but golf is a very technical sport when it comes to scoring. 

A handicap helps compare the ability of two different golfers.

By using a handicap in tournaments, it allows otherwise less-skilled golfers the chance to win. Plus, most experienced golfers appreciate the extra competition.

How to Get an Official Golf Handicap?

According to the USGA, to get an official golf handicap, a golfer must first be a member of a golf club that is an official USGA member and offers handicap services. 

To get an official handicap, a player must submit their scorecard after each round. USGA requires that you submit at least five rounds for calculating your handicap.

USGA’s handicap system takes the last 20 matches that a golfer plays and continually calculates their handicap. 

It would be best if you always remembered to enter your scorecard into the system after every round. Doing this provides you with an accurate handicap.

In addition, USGA requires that you complete one club event and three rounds before issuing your handicap card. Once issued, your club president will receive the official handicap card and give it to you.  

Let’s take a look at how exactly they calculate golf handicap. This formula could be especially useful if you would like to keep track of it yourself.

How To Calculate Golf Handicap?

Golf score card

The formula for calculating golf handicap is as follows: 

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

So if your handicap index is 14.2, slope rating is 120, the course rating is 68.3, and par is 72, then your adjusted handicap would be:  14.2 * (120/113) + (68.3 – 72) = 11.38

Knowing your golf handicap is an essential metric to understand where you stand compared to other golfers.

If you are a beginner in the sport of golf, you don’t have or need a handicap. Your only goal is to get better right now! 

Most people begin calculating their handicap once they consistently can golf under 100 on various courses.

I, for one, love tracking how my handicap changes to see how I am improving over time. Many people I golf with use an app to calculate handicaps or keep track of it independently.

My grandpa used to do this. He introduced me to the game and kept a little journal to update his handicap with him.

Different strokes for different folks! If you are old school like many people playing golf are, you can certainly keep track of this yourself.

We just answered how to calculate golf handicaps, but there are a few things in that equation that you may want me to define, such as slope rating and course rating.

What Is Slope Rating In Handicaps?

In golf, slope rating uses things such as obstacles and course length to calculate course difficulty. 

People who have higher handicaps cannot handle long course distances or obstacles as adequately as scratch golfers.

By calculating everything from your match, including these factors, your handicap index will be more accurate.

For instance, if you play a course with many water hazards and hills, it will have a higher slope rating than a flat course without many hazards.

By taking this into effect, it is much easier to compare actual talent from a golfer who does well on a difficult course than a golfer who does well on an easier course. 

What is Course Rating In Golf?

The course rating is simply the score that a scratch golfer would score on the course. Because a scratch golfer has a handicap index of 0, they are better golfers than most. 

Most golf courses have a course rating of 72, so looking at the handicap index equation above, we can see that for most courses, the (Course Rating – Par) part of the equation would come out to 0. 

Most courses are par 72 based simply on tradition. Golf course developers almost seem to demand a par 72 course to fit into the standard. 

Some older courses out there have a par of 70-71. Typically this happens because they had short par fives that do not match the capability of today’s golf equipment. Converting these holes to par four only makes sense, bringing down the par total for the course. 

History of Golf’s Handicap System

Officially, handicap systems did not start until the late 19th century. This was around the time that golf started to gain in popularity.

However, unofficial records of a handicap system have been around as early as the 17th century. 

Thomas Kincaid was a surgeon in the 17th century who kept a detailed journal of his findings in golf. This journal would later know this as one of the earliest records of a golf handicap. 

It wasn’t until the 19th century that there was an official word and system for handicap in golf. Of course, this is vastly different than it is today.

In the early days, golf handicaps were calculated by taking the best three scores of the year compared to par. 

This method was, of course, unfair for less skilled golfers. Since it was difficult for these golfers to play at the level of their best three scores continually, they were consistently placed with players of a higher caliber. 

In addition, there was no way to calculate the varying difficulties of the courses golfers would play.

To me, all of this seems like a flawed system. It wasn’t until 1911 that the USGA launched its standard handicap system.

Over time, this system evolved, adding different scoring mechanisms like slope rating, course rating, and the various ways they calculate these. 

While there is a rich history of the handicap system in golf, that doesn’t mean it is perfect even today. What improvements can you think of to improve the system?

Other FAQs about Golf Handicaps

Since this guide on golf handicaps is already pretty long, I will keep this brief, I just wanted to include a couple more common questions.

Golf tees on scorecard

What Is A Good Handicap In Golf?

Most people consider a good handicap index in golf one that is below ten. Golfers who have a handicap index below ten typically shoot par on most holes, but their score comes in at about 82 in most cases. 

In this instance, I determine “good” as being better than average. By having a handicap index of ten, you are well on your way to becoming a scratch golfer.

That means that on eight out of the eighteen holes, you are getting par. 

That is fantastic! I am sure you either grew up with a golf club in your hands or have been playing for many years. Don’t be discouraged if you aren’t quite there yet.

What is an average handicap in golf?

According to the USGA, the average handicap for men is 14.2. The average handicap for women is 27.5.

There are 2.5 million golfers who have official handicap indexes with USGA.

Even if your handicap is considered “average,” think about it this way – this metric is only determined based on the people who have an official handicap. Imagine all of the golfers who don’t take the game nearly as seriously. There is a lot!

So naturally, if you have an “average” handicap based on the stats of USGA, you probably are well above average for most golfers out there.

What Is a High Handicap In Golf?

A high handicap in golf is considered to be 18 and up. With a handicap of 18, you are a bogey golfer, meaning your score typically comes in around 90 for a round of 18.

According to USA Today, the average golf score for every golfer in the U.S. is over 100. 

So while you may have a “high handicap” compared to more experienced golfers, that is still a fantastic score and takes golfers many years to achieve. 

bogey golfer is a golfer who normally scores a bogey on most holes. That means one additional shot above par for every hole.

Being a bogey golfer is one of the first milestones for turning the corner from good to great. 

What is the difference between a handicap and a handicap index?

handicap is just a common term for determining a player’s average score compared to par. The handicap index is the official score based on USGA’s system.

So while you may have a handicap of +5 that you calculated yourself, this is not your handicap index. Earlier in the article, we discussed getting an official handicap index, which you can read above. 

If you want to have that neat, official card from USGA that shows your handicap, you must first be a member of an official USGA course. 

What is a Scratch Golfer?

A scratch golfer is one whose handicap is 0. According to USGA, only about 1% of golfers with official golf handicap indexes have a handicap of 0. 

Being a scratch golfer is an extraordinary feat in golf. It takes time, practice, and dedication to become a scratch golfer.

I, for one, would love to become a scratch golfer, but I was not fortunate enough to grow up with a golf club in my hands.

That isn’t to say you had to grow up on a golf course to become a scratch golfer. It becomes more difficult once you grow up and can no longer dedicate all of your time to golf. 

Use a Handicap Calculator Like 18 Birdies

Getting your official handicap index from USGA does have many downsides.

For golfers who enjoy the game but don’t play enough in a season to get an official handicap, doing it yourself may make more sense. While it is unofficial, 18 Birdies allows you to calculate a golf handicap from games scored on their app. 

I truly cannot speak enough about how much I love this app. It truly does it all. From calculating an (unofficial) handicap to tracking the distance of every shot you make.

It is something to add to your list of gear. 18 Birdies make it easy since most people take their phones out on the course with them anyways. 

I have found it to be a good addition for range finders too.

Final Thoughts

Knowing your official golf handicap is a must for serious golfers. Not only does it allow you to see where you stand compared to other golfers, but it also helps you know how you are improving with every match. 

Whether you become a member at an official USGA golf course to get your handicap index scored or use a golf handicap calculator like 18 Birdies, taking steps to get better at the game of golf start by tracking how good you are. 

Plus, it is fun keeping track of your handicap. It is one way to say “I am the best golfer in our group” that matters. 

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