Golf Handicap – A Complete Guide

Two golfers sitting in a golf cart with their clubs and calculating their golf handicap.

A step-by-step detailed guide to finding out about golf handicap. Find out what is USGA handicap index and what features affect the golf handicap calculation.

If you are new to golf or desire to play more competitively, understanding your golf handicap is key. Knowing the handicap is a must for any golfer who wants to improve. It provides a baseline for measuring your progress and helps you set attainable goals. 

If you’re not sure what your handicap is, you need to read this article. This article will answer all the related questions so that you can make the most out of your handicap the next time you hit the shots over the golf courses.

What is a golf handicap?

A handicap is defined as “a measure of a golfer’s potential playing ability based on their performance in past rounds of golf.” In other words, it’s a number that indicates how good (or bad) a golfer is relative to other golfers. Moreover, it is also a standard barometer used to compare golfers with different levels of skills from across the world. 

Handicaps are used in both – match play and stroke play competitions. It helps to level the playing field and make the outcome more dependent on the skill than the raw power.

The higher the handicap, the worse the player’s potential. Conversely, the lower the handicap, the better the player’s potential playing ability is. Players with high handicaps are often referred to as “handicap hackers” or “high-handicappers,” while low handicapper is called “scratch golfer.” The maximum Handicap Index for all golfers is 54.0, regardless of gender.

Therefore, let’s understand the features of Handicapping systems to know how they are used for calculating golf handicaps.

Features of handicapping systems

Most handicapping systems feature some combination of the following elements:

1. Scoring

This is arguably the most important element of any handicapping system. To calculate a player’s handicap, their scores must first be tabulated. These scores can come from actual rounds played or from practice sessions on the driving range or putting green. Moreover, the handicap would be more accurate if you have more data available.

Gross Score: It is the total number of strokes taken for a hole before actually accounting for a golfer’s handicap. This score is called the gross score for that hole.

Net Score: The number of strokes that are taken into consideration after subtraction of any handicap is called the net score.

2. Maximum Hole Scores

This is simply the maximum number of strokes that can be taken on any given hole without incurring penalty strokes (e.g., most courses have a Maximum Hole Score of 8).

3. Course Rating

This is a number that represents the difficulty of a course for scratch golfers (i.e., players with zero handicaps). In general, if the course rating is lower, it is easier to play. Most course ratings range from 68 to 74. Anything below 68 is considered easy, whereas anything above 74 is considered difficult.

Moreover, to calculate a rating, factors such as terrain, length of holes, and the number of water hazards are taken into account. Once these factors have been considered, the USGA (United States Golf Association) assigns each hole on the course a value between 1 and 18 (a typical 18-hole course will have four 1s, four 2s, etc.). These values are then added up to get the final course rating.

Note: Keep in mind that course ratings can change over time as courses are redesigned or updated in some way.

4. Slope Rating

This number measures the relative difficulty of a course for bogey golfers (i.e., players with 18 handicaps). In general, courses with high slope ratings are more difficult for bogey golfers than courses with low slope ratings. Most slope ratings range from 55 to 155, with anything below 55 being considered easy and anything above 155 being considered difficult. Therefore, a course of standard relative difficulty with a rating of 113.

5. Course handicaps

Course handicaps are used to adjust for the difficulty of the golf course being played. Moreover, a course handicap is the number of strokes above or below par that a golfer will likely score on a given course.

Course handicap = (handicap index x slope rating)/113 + (course rating — par)

6. Playing handicaps

A playing handicap, on the other hand, is the number of strokes above or below par that a golfer will likely score on any given course, taking into account factors such as course difficulty, weather conditions, and elevation changes. In other words, playing handicaps are used to adjust for the difference in skill level between two golfers.

Playing Handicap = Course Handicap x handicap allowance

For example, if golfer A has a course handicap of 10 and golfer B has a course handicap of 20, then golfer A would get a 10-stroke head start in a matchplay competition.

7. Handicap Allowance 

A handicap allowance is applied to the course handicap as the final step while calculating a player’s playing handicap.

8. Handicap Differentials

This number represents how many strokes above or below par a player typically scores on any given hole. It is used to calculate both playing and practice handicaps.

How to calculate handicap differentials?

To calculate this number, subtract your Adjusted Gross Score from your Course Rating, then multiply that number by 113 and divide by slope rating.

Handicap differential = (adjusted score – course rating) x 113 /slope rating

Example: So, if your Adjusted Gross Score was 82 and your Course Rating was 72, your slope rating is 100, your Handicap Differential would be (82-72) x 113/100. Then, the average Handicap Differential is between 4 and 5 strokes per round of golf.”

Change the gross score into the adjusted total score to create a handicap calculation. 

To find the maximum number (golf score) that can be obtained is mentioned in the table below:

Course Handicap systemMaximum score (Golf Score)
9 or lessDouble bogey
40 and above10

USGA handicap index

A USGA Handicap Index or golf handicap index is used to indicate a player’s potential scoring ability on any golf course from any set of tees and consists of two parts: a Course Handicap and a Slope Rating.

 For example, if you have a 10.2 USGA Handicap Index, your Course Handicap would be 10 strokes when playing with a Slope Rating 113 course.

A USGA Handicap Index is calculated using the best 10 of your most recent 20 scores and using the Course Rating and Slope Rating of the tees you played. It is expressed as a number to one decimal place (for example, 4.3, 5.8, etc.) and rounds to the nearest integer (for example, if your calculated index was 4.68, it would be rounded to 4.7). This value will increase or decrease as you post more qualifying scores. 

As of January 2020 new rule, you have to submit three 18-hole scores to obtain the Handicap Index. It can be made with a combination of 9-hole and 18-hole rounds; The handicap index will be revised at the beginning and middle of every month (1st and 15th). This change mentions that you submit only three 18-hole scores. As long as you update the third 18-hole score before midnight, your handicap will be amended daily.

How to calculate golf handicap?

There are a number of different methods to calculate your golf handicap, but they all have one goal: to produce a number that reflects a golfer’s potential playing ability as accurately as possible. The below-mentioned systems are most commonly used for golf handicap calculation:

1. USGA Handicap System

The most common method for handicap calculation is the USGA Handicap System. This system uses a formula that takes into account a golfer’s scores, the difficulty of the courses being played, and the teeing ground used.

2. World Handicap System

Another common method for calculating handicaps is the World Handicap System (WHS). The WHS was introduced in 2020 and is now used by over 60 countries around the world. The WHS uses a different formula than the USGA Handicap System, but it produces similar results.

3. Official golf handicaps

To establish an official golf handicap, you will need to submit scores from at least 5 rounds of golf to your local golf club or governing body. These scores must be from courses with valid USGA course ratings and slope ratings. Once you have submitted your scores, your handicap index will be calculated using one of the methods mentioned above.

Note: To obtain and maintain an official USGA Handicap Index, you must be a member of a golf club that belongs to a state or regional golf association that is licensed by the USGA to issue and monitor official handicaps for its members.

What are unacceptable conditions?

There are many different types of unacceptable conditions (referred to as Double Bogey Conditions), but they can be summed up pretty simply:

Double Bogey Conditions

Double Bogey is the term used in golf for making two strokes more of the par rating that a particular hole has. It is also known as 2-over par.

For example: If you are playing for a par 3 hole, that means you need to end up putting the ball in 3 strokes. But, if you put the ball in 5 strokes, then this is called the Double Bogey.

The conditions that can end up scoring a double bogey include playing from shorter tees than normal (especially when those tees haven’t been rated), artificially enhanced greens (such as greens rolled on an early morning before a tournament, so they’re extra fast), irons played from mats instead of real fairways or greens, etc.

Below are the specific scores that mean a golfer has made a double bogey:

  • Scoring five on a par-3 hole is a double bogey;
  • Scoring a six on a par-4 hole is a double bogey;
  • Scoring a seven on a par-5 hole is a double bogey.

Moreover, par-6 holes are rare in golf, but they do exist. Therefore, making a score of eight on a par-6 hole is also a double bogey.

Is scoring a Double Bogey good?

So, if you are a beginner, then scoring a double bogey would not be considered too bad. Because you are in the learning stage, you will eliminate this once you master it. But, if you are a professional golfer, then this would be worse for their score.

Note: Scoring under these conditions would give anyone an undue advantage over another player (or players). Because these scores aren’t considered acceptable for use when calculating or maintaining a USGA Handicap Index.


A golf handicap is calculated using the best 10 of your most recent 20 scores and adjusting those scores using the Course Rating and Slope Rating of the tees you played. Most importantly, it is portable from one golf course to another so that whether you’re playing at home or away, in favorable or unfavorable conditions, you’ll always have an index that reflects your potential scoring ability. Moreover, you can refer to the official website of the USGA’s Golf Handicap Information Network (GHIN) for golfer management and score posting products. It is one of the largest handicap management tools in the world.

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