What Is a Golf Handicap?

By Jennifer Gregory

In golf players of different skill levels can compete against each other fairly using the United States Golf Association (USGA) handicap system. Handicaps, officially called the Handicap Index by the USGA, are used to level the playing field for golfers of different skill levels.

Defining a Handicap Index

A golfer's Handicap Index allows the golfer to compete with other golfers on a level playing field, regardless of their playing ability. At the end of play, each golfer adds their Handicap Index to their final score. If you are a scratch golfer, you have a zero Handicap Index and are given no strokes to add to your final score.

Ten million golfers hold a Handicap Index throughout the U.S. and in the USGA-licensed associations throughout the world.

Calculating Your Handicap Index

A USGA Handicap Index is calculated by a local golf club based on the golfer's most recent scores, using at least five 18-hole scores and no more than 20 scores.

The Handicap Index has a set formula; but, it is basically the average score the golfer has achieved, adjusted for the difficulty of the course, multiplied by .96.

Golfers submit their scores at the end of a round at their home club or course or other courses. Typically the submission is through a handicapping computer system to automatically calculate a player's handicap.

To get an official USGA Handicap Index, you must join a golf club authorized by the USGA and turn in your golf scores to your club to use in calculating your Handicap Index. If you cannot find a club, you can form your own club with at least 10 members.

Using the Handicap Index

Many tournaments require a certain Handicap Index score in order to play in the tournament. Other tournaments use the Handicap Index during the actual tournament to calculate the scores.

Golfers often use their Handicap Index when playing casually against each other. For example, if Heather has a Handicap Index of 20 and she is playing against Elizabeth with a Handicap Index of 16, here is how Heather would use her Handicap Index:
- In stroke-play: Heather would be able to subtract four strokes from her score and that would be her total.
- In match play: Heather would get a stroke from Elizabeth on the four hardest holes on the course.

You may be asked to provide proof of your handicap by providing your USGA Handicap card.

Converting an Handicap Index to a 9-hole Value

The Handicap Index is based on a golfer's history in playing 18-hole courses. It is easy to convert the 18-hole Handicap Index to a 9-hole value to use when playing a shorter course. Just cut the 18-hole Handicap Index in half, rounding to the nearest tenth.

To calculate a particular 9-hole Course Handicap, multiply the 9-hole Handicap Index by the slope rating of the nine holes played divided by 113.

Misconceptions About the Handicap Index

Many golfers think that the USGA calculates their Handicap Index. Actually, the USGA maintains the Handicap Index calculation, but the handicap is calculated by local golf associations. The USGA licenses and provides support to the local golf associations.

A golfer's Handicap Index is recalculated based on a set revision schedule. When a revision date passes, if a golfer's handicap has changed, the golfer is issued a new card.

Defining a Course Handicap

A Course Handicap is the number of handicap strokes a player receives on a certain course for specific holes. It is used to adjust the player's scoring ability to the level of a scratch player on a particular golf course.

The Course Handicap is determined by applying the golfer's Handicap Index to a Course Handicap Table that has been established for all tees on a particular course based on the difficulty of the course including the course's slope rating.

The local golf association assesses the difficulty of the course, with a course rating and index. All 18 holes are rated in terms of difficulty, with the hardest hole given the "1 rating" and the easiest given the "18."

Using a Course Handicap the golfer is given strokes to compensate for the difficulty of the course based on the course's difficulty and the golfer's Handicap Index. For example:
- If you have a 7 Course Handicap, then you are given strokes on the seven hardest rated holes, which allows you to be on the same level as a scratch golfer.
- If you have a Course Handicap of 24, then you would get a handicap of two strokes on the six most difficult rated holes and one stroke on the rest.
- If a golfer has a plus Course Handicap, his Handicap Index is lower than the course rating. For example, a golfer with a plus 2 Course Handicap would add a stroke to their handicap score on the two easiest rated holes.

Many local golf associations have moved to online systems for course handicapping. You must have your Handicap Index, the course rating and the slope rating of each course played to calculate your Course Handicap.

Entering Information for a Course Handicap

If the round was played at a home course, the course's rating and slope is usually defaulted into the computer at the home course. So, after you enter your scores, the course's rating and slope is added to reflect the difficulty of the course.

If the round was played at another course, the golfer needs to enter the course rating and slope using the numbers found on the scorecard.


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