What Is a Handicap in Golf? A Beginner’s Guide (2023)

Overview: A beginner's guide about handicap in golf

If you’ve ever played golf, you know that the game can be challenging, frustrating, and rewarding all at the same time. One of the unique aspects of golf is that golfers of different capabilities can compete against each other, thanks to the handicap system.
In this article, we’ll explain what is a handicap in golf, how it’s calculated, and how it works.

A look into the history of Golf Handicap

The history of golf handicaps dates back to the early days of the sport in Scotland, where golfers would often compete against each other with wagers at stake. However, without a standardized way of adjusting scores for different skill levels, it was difficult for golfers of different abilities to compete fairly.
In 1898, the first known handicap system was developed by the Ladies Golf Union in the United Kingdom, which allowed women golfers of different abilities to play against each other on a level playing field. This system was based on a formula that took into account a golfer’s average score and the difficulty of the course being played.
In the United States, the USGA developed its own handicap system in 1911, which was based on the Ladies’ Golf Union system. The system was designed to be fair and equitable for golfers of all abilities and was updated over the years to reflect changes in the game and advancements in technology.
In the 1960s, the USGA introduced the modern handicap system, which is still in use today. The system is based on a golfer’s handicap index, which is calculated using a formula that considers a golfer’s best scores over a period of time and the difficulty of the golf courses being played.
Over the years, the handicap system has become an integral part of the game of golf, as it promotes fair competition and encourages golfers of all abilities to play against each other. Today, golfers around the world use handicap systems that are based on the USGA system, with minor variations based on local conditions and rules.

What Your Handicap Means

Your golf handicap is a numerical representation of your skill level, which is used to adjust your score to enable you to compete fairly against other golfers of varying abilities. Here is what your handicap means:

Handicap Index

Your handicap index is a number that represents your potential ability on a golf course of average difficulty. It is calculated using your best 10 scores out of your last 20 rounds and is regularly updated as you play more rounds of golf. A lower handicap index indicates a better golfer, while a higher handicap index indicates a less experienced golfer.

Course Handicap

Your course handicap is a number that reflects the difficulty of the golf course you are playing on. It is calculated by applying a formula that considers the slope rating and course rating of the golf course, as well as your handicap index. The course handicap enables you to play against other golfers of varying abilities equally.

Stroke Allowance

Your stroke allowance is the number of strokes you are allowed to take on each hole based on your course handicap. The higher your course handicap, the more strokes you can take on each hole.

Net Score

Your net score is your gross score (the total number of strokes you took on the course) adjusted by your stroke allowance. This net score enables you to compete against other golfers on a level playing field, regardless of your skill level.
Overall, your handicap is a measure of your golfing ability that enables you to compete against other golfers of varying skill levels fairly and equitably. It also provides an incentive for you to improve your skills and lower your handicap index over time.

Handicap Index®

Handicap Index® is a measure of a golfer’s potential ability, and it is used to indicate the number of strokes that a player should be given on a particular course. The Handicap Index® system is used by the United States Golf Association (USGA) and other golfing organizations around the world to allow golfers of different skill levels to compete against each other on an equal basis.
A golfer’s Handicap Index® is based on the average of the best scores from a minimum of 5 and a maximum of 20 rounds of golf. These scores are then adjusted for the difficulty of the courses played, as well as any variations in playing conditions such as wind, rain, and temperature.
Once a golfer has a Handicap Index®, they can use it to calculate their Course Handicap for any golf course they play on. This Course Handicap is then used to determine the number of strokes a player should be given on that particular course based on its difficulty rating, wind, rain, and temperature.
The Handicap Index® system allows golfers of different skill levels to compete against each other equally, making the game more enjoyable for everyone. It also provides an objective measure of a golfer’s ability, allowing them to track their progress and set goals for improvement.
In order to obtain a Handicap Index®, a golfer must be a member of a golf club or association that is affiliated with the USGA or another golfing organization that uses the system. They must also submit their scores and maintain an active record of their rounds played.

Average Golf Handicap

As of 2021, the average golf handicap for male golfers in the United States is around 14, while the average handicap for female golfers is around 28. It’s important to note that these averages can vary depending on factors such as age, skill level, and geographic location.
Generally, higher handicaps indicate less experience or skill in the game, while lower handicaps indicate a higher level of experience and skill. However, the most important thing is not your actual handicap number but rather your ability to consistently improve your game and enjoy the sport.

To determine your handicap, you must:

In order to determine your golf handicap, you must have scores from at least 12 rounds of golf; although it is possible to calculate it with as little as 5 rounds, it is more accurate with at least 12 rounds. Once you have your scores, you need to find your adjusted score by subtracting the maximum score allowed for your handicap range (10, 9, 8, 7, or double-bogey) from your total score.
Then, you need to find the slope rating, which is based on the course’s level of difficulty for a bogey player. This can usually be found on the scorecard or at the Pro Shop.
After obtaining the slope rating, you can calculate your handicap using the formula provided by the USGA. Subtract the course rating from your adjusted score, then divide the result by 113. Finally, divide that number by the slope rating to obtain your handicap.
Having an official handicap allows you to find other golfers to play with who are around your same level. It evens the playing field and makes for a fair game, which can be more enjoyable than playing with people of different skill levels. While the generic way of calculating your handicap is more accessible, it is not as accurate as the official handicap score created by the USGA.
By obtaining your official handicap, you will have a more precise understanding of your skill level and how you can improve your game.

Using Handicaps to Compete Fairly

Golf handicaps are an essential part of playing golf, especially when playing with other golfers of varying skill levels. Handicaps allow golfers to compete fairly with one another, regardless of their skill level. A handicap is a measure of a golfer’s ability, calculated using the scores they have posted over a certain number of rounds of golf. The lower the handicap, the better the golfer.
When golfers of different abilities play against each other, the lower-handicap golfer has an advantage. In order to even the playing field, golfers use their handicaps to determine their net score. The net score is the gross score (total number of strokes taken) minus the player’s handicap. For example, if a golfer shoots a 90 with a handicap of 15, their net score would be 75.
By using handicaps to calculate net scores, golfers of all abilities can compete fairly against each other. This is especially important in tournaments, where players compete against each other for prizes or titles. Without the use of handicaps, tournaments would be dominated by the most skilled golfers, leaving less skilled players with little chance of winning.
Another benefit of using handicaps is that they allow golfers to measure their own improvement over time. As golfer’s skills improve, their handicap will decrease, indicating that they are playing better golf. This can be an excellent motivator for golfers to continue practicing and striving to improve their game.
In recap, handicaps are an essential part of golf and allow golfers of all abilities to compete fairly against each other. They are also an excellent way for golfers to measure their improvement over time. If you are a golfer, it is highly recommended that you obtain a handicap and use it to compete against others and track your progress.

Course Handicap Calculation Formula - step by step

  • Obtain your Handicap Index – this number represents your potential ability on a golf course of average difficulty. It is calculated using your best 10 scores out of your last 20 rounds and is updated regularly as you play more rounds of golf.

  • Find the Slope Rating – this is a number that indicates the relative difficulty of a golf course for bogey golfers (golfers who typically shoot a score of about 90). The Slope Rating is provided by the golf course and is based on the difference between the Bogey Rating (the expected score for a bogey golfer) and the Course Rating (the predicted score for a scratch golfer).

  • Calculate the Handicap Differential – this is the difference between your score and the Course Rating, adjusted for the Slope Rating. To calculate the Handicap Differential for a round of golf, subtract the Course Rating from your score, then multiply the result by 113 (the Slope Rating standard) and divide by the Slope Rating of the course you played.

  • Determine the Course Handicap – the number of strokes a golfer receives on a specific golf course. The formula for determining the Course Handicap is as follows:
Course Handicap = Handicap Index x (Slope Rating / 113) + (Course Rating – Par). In this formula, “Par” is the expected score for a scratch golfer on the course. Here is a markdown table showing course handicaps and maximum scores for your reference:
Course Handicap Maximum Score
0-9 Double Bogey
10-19 7
20-29 8
30-39 9
40 or more 10
  • Round the Course Handicap – if the Course Handicap contains a decimal, round it to the nearest whole number (0.5 rounds up).

Once you have determined your Course Handicap, you can use it to adjust your score for any specific golf course. This enables you to compete against golfers of varying abilities on an equal basis.

What is a good or bad handicap number?

A good or lousy handicap number can vary depending on the golfer’s skill level and the golf course being played. Generally speaking, a lower handicap number is better, as it indicates a higher level of skill and consistency in a golfer’s game.
For men, a handicap of 10 or lower is considered to be a good level of play, while a handicap of 20 or higher is considered to be a high handicap. For women, a handicap of 20 or lower is considered to be a good level of play, while a handicap of 30 or higher is considered to be a high handicap.
It’s essential to keep in mind that handicap numbers are relative to the difficulty of the golf course being played. A golfer with a handicap of 10 may perform differently on a more difficult course than on a less challenging one. Therefore, it’s important to consider a golfer’s handicap concerning the golf course being played and not simply as a standalone number.

Hypothetical distribution of golf handicaps:

Handicap Range Number of Golfers Percentage of Golfers
0-5 1000 10%
6-10 3000 30%
11-15 4000 40%
16-20 1500 15%
21+ 500 5%
Total 10000 100%
This table shows a hypothetical distribution of 10,000 golfers, broken down by handicap range. The majority of golfers (70%) fall into the 6-20 handicap range, while a smaller percentage of golfers (15%) have handicaps of 16-20, and an even smaller percentage of golfers (5%) have handicaps of 21 or higher. The table also shows the number of golfers and the percentage of golfers in each handicap range.

Why should I get a handicap?

Getting a handicap in golf has several benefits:

Fair competition

A handicap allows golfers of different skill levels to compete on an equal playing field. Handicaps allow for fair competition among players of varying abilities, as the handicap system adjusts each player’s score to account for their skill level.

Tracking progress

A handicap provides a way to track your progress and improvement over time. By keeping track of your scores and calculating your handicap, you can see how your game is improving and identify areas that need more work.

Set goals

A handicap gives you a measurable goal to work towards. As you improve your game, you can set a target handicap and work towards achieving it.

Access to tournaments

Many golf tournaments require a handicap to participate. Having a handicap can give you access to a wider range of tournaments and competitions.


Golf is often played in groups, and having a handicap can help you find playing partners of similar skill levels. Joining a club or league can also help you meet other golfers and build social connections.
Overall, getting a handicap can enhance your golfing experience by providing a fair and measurable way to track your progress, set goals, and compete with other golfers of varying skill levels.
What is a Handicap in Golf?
You can watch this short video on course handicap calculation instead!