How Do Golf Handicaps Work/Calculate A Golf Handicap?

By Ben Jarratt •  Updated: 07/14/23 •  15 min read

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Golf is a game loved by many, but not all get the nitty-gritty details of each aspect of golf. One such aspect is the golf handicap, which helps you to play against golfers of all skill levels.

You might be wondering: How do golf handicaps work? Don’t worry — you’re not alone, and we’re here to tell you all about it. At the end of this article, we can guarantee that you will know what handicaps are, how they are calculated, and where they can be used.

how do golf handicaps work?

The golf handicap is a good way to keep track of your scores to improve your golf performance. Moreover, handicaps prove useful when playing against competitors, as the handicap levels the field for both the players.

That said, you can compete against players with a higher skill level without slowing them down. Keep on reading to find out more about handicaps.

When did golf handicaps make an entrance?

Handicaps in golf aren’t an invention of the present. In fact, they have been around for as long as golf itself. The 1800s was the period when golf became very popular, and around that time, handicaps also existed.

However, the initial golf handicap system wasn’t as refined as it is today. In the previous decades, handicaps were used to give an even playing field to the golf players by matching a golfer with a lower skill level to one with a more competitive level.

In the beginning, handicaps were simply calculated as an average of the three best scores of the golfer over a year, and then the par was subtracted from the average.

However, this system of calculating handicaps didn’t last long due to the bias towards skilled players. The handicap system favored golfers with a higher skill level, thus making it difficult for golfers with a few good rounds to have a chance at the game.

Nevertheless, the golf handicap system kept evolving with time as new technology and methods started incorporated into the game of golf. The biggest change to the golf handicap system occurred in 1979 when Dean Knuth also included the difficulty of each golf course as a factor in calculating handicaps.

The formula that Dean created was used to predict the shots of bogey golfers on a course based on a specific set of tees. The formula became so popular that it came to be known as the foremost authority on course handicaps and ratings.

How Do Golf Handicaps Work?

That said, the two terms that we described in the first section aren’t only used for the course handicap calculation for the golfer’s home course, but they are also useful for adjusting a golfer’s handicap when they travel.

We won’t go into the details of the formula right now, but we can tell you that for a harder course, the golfer gets more strokes than their handicap at those golf courses. On the other hand, for an easier course, the number of strokes that the golfer gets becomes fewer.

That concludes the history of handicaps, so let us now look at the way the handicap index is calculated.

Handicap Terms

If you need to calculate the golf handicap of a player for a particular round, then you should know two of the most important terms on the scorecard. Those two terms are:

Both of these ratings relate to a particular level of golf skill the player offers. The expected score for a scratch golfer playing on a golf course is called the course rating, whereas the expected score for a golfer with a bogey rating is called the slope rating. It is also important to note that the standard slope rating stands at 113.

Types of Handicaps

There are two types of handicap index that the USGA (United States Golf Association) offers:

You can double a 9-hole handicap index for 18-hole matches, whereas you can halve the 18-hole handicap index for 9-hole matches.

Handicap Holes

Handicap holes range in difficulty level. For example, the No.1 handicap hole is the most difficult, the No.2 handicap hole is the second most difficult, and so on till 18. That being said, during a match, the player with a higher handicap gets strokes that are equal to the difference between his handicap and the golfer with a lower handicap. This difference in handicaps is called the handicap differential.

The golf handicap system that we have described above works for both the front and back nines. That is why a handicap player getting a shot on the first handicap hole can get the front nine, whereas the second hole can fall on the back nine, and so forth.

How to calculate a golf handicap?

You need to follow a methodical approach to calculate your handicap index, and we are here to tell you how you can do that in these simple steps.

How to Calculate a Golf Handicap

Keep track of your scores

The first step in calculating your golf handicap is to go play some golf. Also, don’t forget to keep track of your scores accurately without fudging the rules.

Moreover, it is beneficial to take another technical player along with you to the course so that you can maintain transparency with your scores.

Other than that, you should make sure that you play around 12 to 20 rounds to get accurate results for your handicap. In general, most courses allow you to sign up after you have completed at least 10 rounds.

Get your adjusted score

After you have kept track of your scores on the course, the next thing you need to do is adjust your scores. You can adjust your score using the USGA basic handicapping scores. The USGA numbers represent the cap for the highest you can score on any one-hole shots during the round.

If you are new to this handicap business, then the number you should aim for is a sweet 10. Now, you will have to subtract from your final score whenever you take a shot above ten.

After you have established your handicap, you can adjust your scores based on the USGA guidelines below:

Get the slope from your Scorecard

As described in the first section, the slope of the course and course rating help you determine how difficult the course is for golfers. The course rating exclusively tells you how difficult the course is for a scratch golfer (zero handicaps), whereas the slope is particularly important for golfers who play bogey golf (around 18 handicaps).

That being said, you can find the slope information on the scorecard. However, if you cannot find the slope information, you can contact a professional to make sure your handicap information is accurate.

Get ready to calculate your handicap

The next step is to whip out your calculator and crunch your scores in to get your handicap. You can put all your numbers in the formula by the USGA for individual handicaps. Here are a few simple steps you can follow to calculate your own handicap.

There you have it – your golf handicap!

Golf handicap formula

Here’s the compact formula to calculate your handicap:

Handicap = Adjusted course – Course rating x 113 / Slope rating

Golf handicap for a made-up player

We want to make your golf handicap calculation as easy as possible, and that is why we present to you an example calculation of a made-up player named Bob.
Let’s say that Bob went out for a game of golf with his friends and wanted to calculate his handicap. Here’s how he did it.

That being said, the handicap score is not stationary and may increase or decrease as the golfer continues playing golf. As a rule of thumb, higher scores will raise your handicap and vice versa.

Who can use the handicap system?

Several golf clubs use the USGA handicap system, thanks to over 100 authorized golf associations throughout the United States. It is essential for each golf club that wants to use the handicap system to have a handicap committee for accurate scoring of the players.

Moreover, the course and slope ratings for handicaps must also come from well-known golf associations. Golfers can use the course handicap scores from one golf club or set of tees to another golf club or set of tees.

How to use handicap in match play?

If you want to ensure a level field for all the players, then the particular handicaps are not as important as the handicap differential.

Let’s consider a golfer that has a handicap of 5 is playing with a golfer that has a handicap of 13. In that case, the player with a handicap of 5 will have to give his friend eight strokes for a fair golf game.

That said, there are different rules for stroke play and match play. In stroke play, you can subtract four strokes from the weaker golfer’s score on each nine.

However, in match play, the golfers have to consider the stroke index, where the weaker golfer will have to subtract a stroke from their score on each hole ranked 1 to 8.

What Your Handicap Means

In the game of golf, the lower your handicap score is, the better the player you are. If you are on the golf course competing against your friend and have a lower handicap, then you are a better player than your friend.

Sounds good, right? Let’s take a look at an example scenario to determine which one of the two players is good at golf.

Let’s start with two friends named Bob and Marley, who decide to go to the golf club and decide which one is the better player. After playing a few rounds, both of the friends check their handicaps to find out the result. The results show that Bob has a handicap of 6, whereas Marley has a handicap of 10.

Here’s the fun part: Marley got excited that he has the higher handicap; thus, he must be the better golfer out of both of them.

However, little did Marley know that in golf, the handicap ranking is reversed, meaning that actually, Bob was the better player with a lower handicap. That, my friends, is how you compare the handicaps of different golfers.

To sum up the meaning of handicap, your handicap represents the number of strokes over par you need to take when playing an 18-hole course.

How to Calculate A Golf Handicap: FAQs

Are you still confused about how the golf handicap system works? Don’t worry; we have answered some of the most commonly asked questions regarding handicaps to help clear out your confusion. Read these questions and if you still have some more questions, feel free to dig deeper.

What makes a good handicap score?

A good handicap is not set in stone and can vary depending on the goal you are trying to achieve. For example, if you are trying to break 100, then a good golf handicap would be a 20. While if you are trying to be a zero handicap golfer, then a handicap of 20 is quite far from zero.

Generally, breaking 90 is a good standard of golf, and you can play with any golfer without slowing them down. Moreover, if you are up against a golfer, it should take you only one extra stroke per hole, which shouldn’t slow down the other golfer.

That said, you should set golf goals for yourself to improve your game and achieve a good handicap. Don’t forget to practice your game to achieve your goals.

Is a golf handicap necessary for playing golf?

A golf handicap is not necessary to play golf, but it can prove to be helpful for a few reasons.

What is the maximum golf handicap?

The USGA handicap system has a maximum golf handicap for both male and female golfers.

You can check the highest score that you can enter for your golf handicap based on these guidelines:

How can I get a better handicap?

Every golfer who plays handicapped rounds wants to lower their handicap. No wonder there are tons of methods on the internet that tell you how to do just that. Here are a few methods that may work for you and help you improve your handicap.

Are tournaments weighted differently than other plays?

Tournaments weigh more than regular rounds, so if you are playing in a tournament, it will make a significant impact on your total handicap. So, don’t forget to check the tournament box when entering your tournament scores, or else you will miss out on the opportunity to improve your total handicap.

Can a few bad rounds change the handicap index?

You will be thrilled to know that the handicap index doesn’t take into consideration your worst differentials. The index only considers your 8 best handicap differentials, whereas the other 12 worst differentials are overlooked.

That is why, even if you play a few bad rounds, you will not see a negative change in your handicap index.

What is a scratch golfer?

A scratch golfer is one with a handicap score of approximately zero. The score of zero is normal on pro tours like the eGolf Professional Tour, which requires golfers with no worse than a handicap of 2.

When a golfer with a scratch rating competes against a typical golfer in a handicapped match, the zero handicap golfer has to give handicap strokes to the opponent. If a scratch player is up against a bogey golfer, for example, the bogey player will get around 1 handicap stroke for each hole.

What is a bogey golfer?

The USGA manual offers definitions for both male and female bogey golfers. The male bogey golfer is the one who fits the following:

Whereas the female bogey golfer is the one who fits the following description:

Do I have to enter the score for every round?

There is no hard and fast rule when it comes to entering the score of every round. However, here are some situations where you may not enter your scores.

Do the scores need to be entered during a particular time?

The time limit for the scores to be entered is 24 hours after the round is completed. The 24 hours start from 23h00 on the day the game is played to 23h00 the next day. If a player fails to submit their scores during this time limit, they will face a penalty score.

Therefore, the golfer must ensure that the scores are submitted on time and that the scores show up on their Handicap Record Sheet. If the scores are showing, it is well and good, but if not, then the player must resubmit the scores.


Handicaps are useful in leveling the field for golfers to give a fair game. However, many golfers have this question: how do handicaps work?

Hopefully, our article will have cleared up all your confusion and answered all your questions on “how do golf handicaps work?”. You can now calculate your handicap and play with your favorite golfers without slowing them down.