Ultimate Guide to Golf Handicaps: Understand & Calculate Yours

By Todd Mrowice

Golfers filling out handicap

When it comes to Handicaps in the game of golf, there’s always confusion. Not only the method and the formula for calculating a Handicap, but also the idea of even having one.

A common misconception is that Handicaps are only for better players, which is not true. Holding an honest Handicap can actually benefit players of all levels, especially “average” golfers. Here is the ultimate guide to understanding what a golf Handicap is along with other important details for obtaining your own.

What is a Golf Handicap?

In short, a golf Handicap is the true measure, undeniable by math, of how good at golf you are.

According to the United States Golf Association (USGA) a Handicap index is described as, “The measure of a player’s demonstrated ability calculated against the Slope Rating of a golf course of standard playing difficulty (that is, a course with a Slope Rating of 113).”

In other words, a golf Handicap is a formulated number given to you based on golf scores that you’ve shot. Those scores are compared against the course’s difficulty (rating/slope).

In 2020, several various handicap systems used around the world were merged into one system, the World Handicap System. If you carry an official handicap through the USGA or another one of golf’s governing bodies, your handicap index is automatically calculated when you post your scores, and your index updates the next day.

What is a Good or Average Handicap?

The average Handicap index of male golfers is 14.2, while the average for women is 27.5.

Men with a Handicap index under 5.0 fall into the 90th percentile, while those with a handicap under 14.0 are in the 50th percentile. Less than two percent of male golfers who keep a handicap have an index 0.0 or better. Meanwhile, nearly 80 percent of male golfers have a handicap under 20.

Women who play to a Handicap index of 14.0 or better are in the 90th percentile, and half of all women who keep an official Handicap have an index of 28.0 or less.

Scratch Golfer

Scratch is a common term used in golf Handicapping. A scratch golfer is a player who holds a handicap of approximately 0 and (with some variation) will often shoot around even par for a round of 18 holes.

Given that the formula for calculating a Handicap index only considers the best eight of a player's most recent 20 scores, a player can post scores in the mid-to-high 70s, or higher, and still maintain their status as a scratch golfer if those other scores are around even par.

Plus Handicaps

Players that typically score below par will have a “plus” Handicap. For example, John is a +2, he typically scores around 70, a couple under par, depending on the course. When implementing handicap strokes, John has to give strokes to the course to play to his handicap, whereas most players receive strokes.

Professional golfers on the PGA and LPGA tours do not keep a Handicap index, although if they did, their indexes would range from the +4 to +8 neighborhood.

How and When Do You Use a Handicap?

Your Handicap is only as useful as what you put into it. To keep an accurate Handicap, you must input all of your scores, no matter how good or bad they are.

You can enter scores using the USGA's GHIN site. Other options include using your local golf association website or app (if you’ve signed up through them) or by using the computer or device devoted to Handicap entry at the course you’re playing.

How are Handicap Strokes Applied

When you use your Handicap will depend on what kind of golf you’re playing. If you’re playing a more casual competitive round with friends, using your Handicap is a great way to make sure teams or strokes are structured accordingly.

Use the scorecard's hole rankings to apply Handicap strokes. Each hole is ranked by difficulty -- with a couple other minor factors -- from 1-18, with 1 being the most difficult hole and 18 being the easiest. If your course handicap is 6, you get a handicap stroke on the six most difficult holes, ranked 1-6 on the scorecard.

When competing against other players, subtract the lower handicap from the higher handicap, and award the higher handicap that number of strokes, corresponding to the hole rankings. For example, if John's course handicap is 6 and Nancy's is 8, Nancy gets two strokes from John, one each on the holes ranked 1 and 2 on the scorecard.

If you intend on entering a competitive golf tournament such as a club championship, golf outing, or qualifying event, the tournament organizers will most likely require you to have a valid Handicap to be sure you are placed in the correct flight.

How To Get a Handicap?

You can get your Handicap at your local golf course. Most courses will have a tablet or computer devoted to Handicap sign-up and score entry.

If you don’t have a home course or belong to a golf club, you can always utilize the Allied Golf Association to find your local golf association. You will have to create a profile, but this is a very popular way to obtain your Handicap.

The cost of keeping an official Handicap can vary but is generally around $30-50 per year.

Official vs. Unofficial Handicap

An official Handicap in golf is recognized by the World Handicap System. The USGA, R&A, and other governing bodies established the WHS to standardize the Handicap system around the world.

An unofficial Handicap would be anything not recognized by the WHS. There are plenty of apps and websites that allow you access to a free Handicap tracker. While they may use the same formula, it’s not associated with the WHS so it will be deemed as unofficial.

How to Calculate Your Own Handicap

If you prefer to calculate your Handicap on your own, or just want to know how the great round you just shot will impact your index, here is how to use the World Handicap System formula.

Step 1

Convert an 18-hole score into an adjusted score. Your adjusted score takes into account any maximum scores that prevent your handicap from bloating due to one or two bad holes. The maximum score a golfer can take on a hole is net double bogey. In other words, par for the hole, plus any handicap strokes the player received on that hole, plus two. After you have your adjusted score, calculate your differential using this formula: (adjusted gross score - course rating) x (113/slope rating).

Step 2

Once you have at least three 18-hole score differentials (two nine-hole scores can also combine to create one 18-hole differential), you have enough to calculate your Handicap. Eventually, your Handicap index will take into account the lowest eight of your last 20 18-hole differentials, but until you have entered 20 rounds, use the following scale to determine how many to use:

For 3 rounds, use the lowest one differential and adjust by subtracting 2.0

For 4 rounds, use the one lowest differential and adjust by subtracting 1.0

For 5 rounds, use the one lowest differential

For 6 rounds, average the two lowest differentials and adjust by subtracting 1.0

For 7-8 rounds, use the average of the two lowest differentials

For 9-11 rounds, use the average of the three lowest differentials

For 12-14 rounds, use the average of the four lowest differentials

For 15-16 rounds, use the average of the five lowest differentials

For 17-18 rounds, use the average of the six lowest differentials

For 19 rounds, use the average of the seven lowest differentials

For 20 rounds, use the average of the eight lowest differentials

Step 3

Find the average of the differentials used to get the Handicap Index. For example, if you use the five lowest, add those together and divide by five then make any adjustment necessary as noted above.

Step 4

Use the Handicap Index to find the Course Handicap. You do this because course difficulty varies, and your handicap on one course may not be the same as your handicap on another.

To find the Course Handicap, use your Handicap Index and the Slope Rating of the tees played divided by the average slope rating of 113.

The Course Handicap formula: Handicap Index x (Slope Rating of Tees Played/113) + (Course Rating - par).

For example, your Handicap Index is 16.7 and the tee box slope is 127, the course rating is 70.5 and par is 72. When applied to the net double bogey or net par adjustments, this number is then rounded to the nearest whole number. Otherwise, use the unrounded result to calculate Playing Handicap. To calculate a Course Handicap using this example, the formula is: 16.7 x (127/113) = 18.769 + (-1.5) = 17.269. In this scenario, your course handicap is 17.

Tips & Warnings

When you finally have your Handicap Index, it's important to remember it doesn't reflect your average score, but your best potential for a round.

The World Handicap System eliminates "disaster holes" on the scorecard by capping a player’s score at net double bogey. This is also in place to eliminate sandbaggers who intentionally play a hole poorly to raise their handicap and does so by putting a limit on the number of strokes per hole, which is based on the course handicap. Taking a high score on a hole would mean the Handicap Index would not reflect accurately.

About the Author

Todd Mrowice is a Staff Writer for GolfLink. He has been writing about golf for over 10 years including a long tenure at GOLFChicago Magazine. Todd has covered all aspects of the game including travel, products, business, and professional tours.