How Does a Golf Handicap Work?

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How does a golf handicap work on Scorecard?

One aspect of golf, more painful and delightful than anything else, is the golf handicap system. This is a number you wear with pride. But it’s also a figure that you do not understand completely.

As a number that defines your golf prowess, it’s time you understand how to get a handicap and how to update it. One too many corporate careers have crumbled during break-room boasting at the altar of one’s golf handicap.

This guide for dummies will save you from a similar fate.

What’s Handicap?

Think of golf as a global game. The rules and scoring have to be standard to compare amongst different golf clubs and players.

How do you compare a golfer from Torrey Pines GC(South) to one from Kuala Lumpur G& CC?

In fact, different holes at the same golf course can have different difficulty levels.

So handicap was developed as a holistic concept based not just on the golfer’s skill but also on the course difficulty and the disparity in performance between a bogey and scratch golfers.​

Technically, a handicap of a golfer is defined by the United States Golf Teachers’ Federation (USGTF) as:

A measure of her or his current ability over an entire round of golf. This is signified by a number. The lower this number is the better player you are.​ – United States Golf Teachers’ Federation (USGTF)

How to get a Golf Handicap?

First things first, you need to know where to begin. To start the process of getting a golf handicap, you need to start jotting down your scores.

You can ask an experienced friend to keep the score of your game with you. Your scorecard needs two signatures to be valid.

This is an entirely trust-based exercise, mind you. We expect the golfers to be humans of integrity.

You need to play at least 10 rounds and keep track of the score to be assigned a handicap.

If you are part of a golf club, hand in your scores. They will input them into an existing program, which will whip out your handicap in no time.

You can also register for a GHIN( Golf Handicapping and Information Network) handicap with your local golf association which has ties with USGA.

How to figure out Golf Handicap?

The formulae involved are a little beyond the scope of this discussion. But we will explain the concept of handicap and the main contenders in the equation.

You have to have at least 5 rounds under your belt for calculating the score.

For each of the 5-20 scores, a handicap differential is calculated:

Handicap differential:

(Score – Course Rating) x 113 / Slope Rating

  • Course rating: signifies the difficulty of the course for a scratch golfer, i.e. a top performer who regularly shoots par. This is provided by the course.
  • Slope Rating: Slope rating signifies the difficulty of the course for a bogey golfer, i.e. an average performer who averages one bogey per hole. Also provided by the course.
  • 113: The slope rating for a course of standard difficulty as determined by USGA

Average of handicap differentials:

Take the average of the following number of differentials, depending on the number of differentials available. Multiply the average by 0.96.

Number of Rounds Differential Calculation
5-10 Lowest Differential x .96
11-19 Average Lowest 3-5 Differentials x .96
20 Average Lowest 10 Differentials x .96

Calculate the handicap index(or handicap) by truncating the tenths place after the decimal. Do NOT round them off.

For example, if :

  • Average of handicap differentials x 0.96 = 14.26
  • Handicap Index = 14.2

The default maximum handicap indices laid down by USGA are:

18-hole rounds 9-hole rounds
Males: 36.4 Males: 18.2
Females: 40.4 Females: 20.2

In most scenarios, you never have to carry out this calculation. You can simply enter the scores of 5-20 rounds into the program available with the golf courses for the handicap index.

How is Handicap used?

The whole point of this tedious exercise of evaluating your handicap index is to use it across courses and player abilities. You obtain the competitive score for a given course when you subtract your handicap index from your score on that course.

Imagine your handicap index: 7

Your score on 18-holes: 82

Your competitive score: 82 – 7= 75

The lower the handicap, the better golfer you are. For example, imagine:

Your handicap index: 7

Your friend’s handicap: 10

You are three strokes better at playing than your friend.

So if the par for the course you play is 73, you are expected to play 18 holes in 80(73 + 7) strokes. Your friend would cover it in 83(73 + 10) holes.

When two golfers of different handicaps compete, handicap levels the playing field for them. Consider the example where you are handicap 7 and your friend is handicap 10.

Before a match, you will have to give your friend 3 strokes for a head start.

So you offer one strike each on holes 1, 2, and 3 to bring yourselves to the same advantage. The play-off goes to the player with the better competitive score = Net score – handicap.

How to improve your golf handicap?

Like with every aspect of golf, you need to practice to get a better handicap. You can focus on the areas which cost you more bogeys and attempt to correct them.

You can also get professional golf lessons to get a human mentor who can recognize your shortcomings and create a customized program to improve your game.


The concept of golf handicap can be mind-boggling especially for novice golfers. This is our attempt to provide only as much information that gets you ahead of the handicap game without testing your intellect in new dimensions. Handicap provides a way to equalize the proven capabilities of players regardless of which courses they played on. This ensures a fair way of picking the winner in the global golf tournaments.


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Dominic J. Leon
Dominic J. Leon. I am a golfer with a deep passion for golf right from my childhood. I have added unbiased product reviews for all the latest golf equipment from the market leaders. Follow me on: Facebook, Pinterest, Linkedin, Tumblr.
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