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What Is Your Golf Handicap and How Do You Calculate It?

Published on 03/14/2023 · 14 min readThe governing bodies of the game of golf developed a World Golf Handicap System, but what does that mean for you and how do you now calculate your golf handicap?
By Golf Expert Michael Pryor

Photo by Accolade

Your Handicap Helps Golfers Measure Their Ability and Enjoy Competitive Rounds with Anyone Who Has a Handicap

The governing bodies of the game of golf came together to create the World Handicapping System. This more consistent manner of measuring a golfer’s ability allows for more universal play among golfers, no matter what particular course they go play in the world. Reducing the required number of scores to the equivalent of three 18-hole rounds (or 54-holes) affords all players with the opportunity to have a Handicap Index, monitor their improvement, and play a fair game against players of varying abilities who have a higher or lower handicap than they do.

The Purpose of the World Handicapping System

In 2020, the governing bodies of the game of golf, including the United States Golf Association (USGA), released the World Handicap System (WHS) in an effort to enhance all player’s enjoyment of the game of golf and give nearly every golfer the opportunity to:

  • Obtain and maintain a golf Handicap Index
  • Be able to use their Handicap Index on any golf course around the world
  • Compete and/or play a casual round with anyone else fairly through the implementation of each player’s ability (handicap)

The World Handicap System, which replaced the USGA handicap index and other local indexes, provides a handicap index that is truly universal. Whoever you are, whatever your ability, and wherever you are playing in the world, this global system ensures that you are able to match your skills against other players of differing abilities through your score, making the game even more competitive and enjoyable. The system does a revision now on a daily basis and accommodates handicap allowance based on a player's performance for different tees, courses, etc.

In order to use the world handicap system, a national association must be authorized by the USGA and the R&A, and the national association has the exclusive rights to implement and administer the World Handicap System, including the issuance of a golfer's handicap index to member golfers.

Allied Golf Associations

In the United States, every handicap index is calculated by the USGA data services platform which enhances the integrity and the accuracy of the system. These responsibilities can also be delegated to state and regional associations known as Allied Golf Associations that are affiliated with the USGA.

Allied Golf Associations are responsible for:

  • Providing each golf course within its jurisdiction a Course Rating and Slope Rating
  • Certifying member clubs to use the Rules of Handicapping
  • Assisting Handicap Committees with adjusting the Handicap Index of players as necessary
  • Providing clubs with stroke index allocation recommendations

The clubs within each association’s jurisdiction also have responsibilities which include:

  • Establishing a Handicap Committee to ensure compliance with the Rules of Handicapping
  • Ensure that the Handicap Index of its members is administered within the Rules of Handicapping
  • Reviewing the Handicap Index of each member and making adjustments as necessary

Within each club, the player also has responsibilities associated with their handicap and the handicaps of their fellow members, such as:

  • Acting with integrity and following the rules of the handicap system
  • Attempting to make the best score possible
  • Submitting every acceptable score as soon as possible following a round of golf
  • Playing by the rules of golf
  • Reviewing the scores of fellow players

How Is This Handicap System Achieved?

The maximum handicap for all players has now been established at 54.0. By making this the maximum handicap, it affords all players the ability to monitor their progress and improvement while having an index that accurately reflects their golf ability.

New players may now get a handicap with as few as three rounds of golf. These rounds can be comprised of both 9-hole scores and 18-hole scores. When golfers are members of a club and/or association, once they input their third score, their handicap is available the next day. All handicaps are updated on a daily basis, so as long as it is inputted before midnight, the handicap will be available the next day (so it is important to input your score on the day that the round is played—but we’ll get to that later).

Course Rating System

Photo by Craig Hellier

The course rating system allows for players to use their handicap index and compete fairly, no matter where they play. Course ratings reflect the playing difficulty under normal conditions for the scratch golfer (a golfer whose average score is even par). Course slope ratings represent the difference in playing difficulty for all players compared to the scratch golfer.

The course rating is determined by qualified teams, trained by the Allied Associations, who come out to the golf course to methodically rate the course. These ratings are based on normal course and weather conditions with each hole being evaluated for effective playing, length, and obstacles. These factors are assessed separately for both the scratch and bogey golfer (a golfer who averages a score of bogey on each hole during a round of golf).

Once the team has completed their evaluation, they will then calculate the course rating and slope rating for each set of tees. With these ratings being specific to each set of tees, even when players are playing different sets of tees they can still go out and have a fair match.

The course ratings and slope ratings should normally be available on a look-up chart at the golf course or through an app that can be used to determine your handicap and how many strokes you will receive.

How to Obtain a Handicap Index

In order to obtain a Handicap Index, a player must be a member of an authorized golf club. When a player is a member of more than one club, the player must designate one as their home club. A player’s home club is responsible for managing their Handicap Index in accordance with the Rules of Handicapping.

Scores Acceptable for Handicap Purposes

A Handicap Index is designed to measure a player’s demonstrated golfing ability and the more acceptable scores a player submits, the more accurate their handicap index will be. There are a few requirements that must be met in order for a score to be acceptable for handicap purposes:

1. The round must be played in an authorized format of play to include:

  • Stableford
  • Maximum Score or Par Bogey
  • Match Play
  • Team Competitions including Four-Ball, Stroke Play, and Four-Ball Match Play

Any format where the player is playing their own ball means that score should be included in their scoring record. 2. A round must be played in accordance with the rules of golf. 3. At least one other person must be present during the round. This is in order to facilitate peer review which is the process by which a score can be confirmed or challenged. Since a Handicap Index is intended to be used to play with or against other players, it only makes sense that the scores used to calculate an index consist of gross scores made while playing with others. 4. A round must also be played on a course with a valid and up-to-date course rating and slope rating.

Unacceptable Scores for Handicap Purposes

A score is unacceptable for handicap purposes if it is played:

  1. While being coached on the course
  2. When using non-conforming equipment such as a non-conforming ball, glove, or club.
  3. When the number or type of clubs to be used is restricted such as a three club and a putter competition.
  4. When a player does not play their own ball on all shots, such as scrambles or alternate shot tournaments.

Minimum Number of Holes Played for Score to be Acceptable

When submitting a 9-hole score, at least 7 holes must be played and when submitting an 18-hole score, at least 14 holes must be played. These rounds, even partial rounds, must be played on a course with a valid course rating and slope rating.

Adjustment of Hole Scores

Photo by Ray Reyes

Maximum Hole Score for Handicap Purposes

A score for handicap purposes should not be impacted by one or two bad hole scores, which may not be typical of a player’s demonstrated ability. For this reason, when a player is submitting scores to obtain an initial Handicap Index, the maximum score for each hole played is limited to par plus 5. It is strongly recommended for these players to post their scores using the hole-by-hole option which will provide the handicap committee with more information about their ability. This will allow manual review of anything the golf handicap calculator (in the United States, these are USGA handicaps, meaning the USGA is the sponsoring governing organization who is the default governor of handicaps in the country) does not discover when taking the adjusted gross score into account.

Once a player has posted three scores and has a Handicap Index, the maximum score for each hole played is limited to a net double bogey, equal to par plus two strokes, plus any handicap strokes they’re entitled to receive based on their course handicap. This maximum number of strokes on a given hole should help compress the average of handicap differentials at a club, truncating outlying holes to help players compete more fairly in net events.

The net double bogey procedure provides each player with a personalized maximum hole score that takes into consideration both the par and the difficulty of the hole played.

When a Hole is Not Played

There are various circumstances that may result in a round not being completed and some holes not being played. When a hole is not played, the score recorded for handicap purposes is net par = par plus any handicap strokes received.

When a hole is started but the player does not hole out, the score recorded for handicap purposes is their most likely score: the number of strokes already taken, plus the number of strokes the player would most likely require to complete the hole, plus any penalty strokes incurred.

Most Likely Score Guidelines

  • If the ball lies on the putting green, no more than 5 feet from the hole: add 1 additional stroke
  • If the ball lies between 5 feet and 20 yards from the hole: add 2 or 3 additional strokes depending on the position of the ball, difficulty of the green, and ability of the player
  • If the ball lies more than 20 yards from the hole: add 3 or 4 strokes depending on the position of the ball, difficulty of the green, and ability of the player
  • The most likely score is a reasonable assessment made by the player

Submitting a Score

A score posted into a player’s scoring record must be:

  • An acceptable score
  • Posted in chronological order

The player’s Handicap Index must be based on the player’s twenty most recent scores.

An acceptable score must be submitted by:

  • The player
  • The handicap committee
  • The committee in charge of the competition
  • By anyone else authorized by the player

Time Frame for Submitting a Score

A player should post their score as soon as possible on the day of play and before midnight. This will ensure that their Handicap Index will be updated in time for the next day, ensuring their score will be included in the daily Playing Conditions Calculation (PCC).

Certification of a Score

A score for handicap purposes must be made available for peer review. Peer review is normally conducted by someone:

  • Playing in the same group or was present during the round, and/or
  • Someone who is a member of the same golf club as the player

To obtain an initial Handicap Index, a player must submit acceptable scores from a minimum of 54 holes. The 54 holes can be made up of any combination of 9-hole rounds or 18-hole rounds. It is strongly recommended that the initial scores are posted hole-by-hole to better assess the demonstrated ability of the player.

Handicap Calculation

Calculation of a Score Differential

The score differential is the root of the Handicap Index calculation and evaluates the performance of a round in relation to:

  • The Course Rating and the Slope Rating of the tees played
  • The condition in which the round was played

For Players with Fewer Than 20 Scores

Chart courtesy of Michael Pryor

With limited scores available (3, 4, or 6 score differentials), a downward adjustment is needed to project the player’s ability.

For 20 Scores

A Handicap Index is calculated by taking an average of your best 8 score differentials out of your most recent 20. A score continues to be a part of the Handicap Index as long as it remains within a player’s most recent 20 scores.

  • A 9-hole score waiting to be combined with another 9-hole score will be retained until it is older than the 20th oldest 18-hole score in the scoring record
  • A Handicap Index only lapses if a player is no longer a member of at least one golf club

Playing Condition Calculation (PCC)

When abnormal playing conditions cause scores to be unusually high or low on a given day, a playing condition calculation (PCC) will adjust score differentials to better reflect the player’s actual performance.

Course ratings and slope ratings measure course difficulty under normal conditions and because golf is played outdoors, not every day is normal. Factors such as weather and course setup can change the way a golf course plays. None of these things should impact the integrity of a player's handicap, and in consideration of these factors, a playing condition calculation is applied to ensure that the integrity of a player’s handicap is not affected. A PCC is carried out automatically for each course, each day, provided at least eight eligible players have submitted acceptable scores.

The PCC compares actual scores against expected scores. If scores submitted match expectations, no adjustment is made. But if the PCC shows players have performed significantly better or worse than expected, the calculation automatically adjusts score differentials accordingly. In performing the calculation, only the scores of players with handicaps of 36.0 or less are considered. The range of a PCC adjustment can bet between a -1 to a +3.

Low Handicap Index

The low Handicap Index represents the demonstrated ability of a player over the 365-day period preceding the most recent score in the player’s scoring record, providing a reference point against which the current Handicap Index can be compared. A low Handicap Index is established once a player has twenty acceptable scores in their scoring record. A player’s scoring record must display their low Handicap Index.

There is no limit on how quickly a player’s Handicap Index can decrease; however, the low Handicap Index is used to prevent extreme upward movement in a player’s Index.

Limit on Extreme Upward Movement

A soft cap and hard cap will be implemented to limit the extreme upward movement of a player’s Handicap Index within a 12-month period. If a 3.0 stroke increase takes place, a soft cap will slow additional upward movement by 50%. If a 5.0 stroke increase takes place (after the soft cap is applied), a hard cap will prevent any additional upward movement.

Should there be an injury to a player or an extreme circumstance that may cause the player’s Handicap Index to move upward, the Handicap committee at the club can override the cap procedure.

Exceptional Score Reduction

Exceptional Score Reduction is a procedure for dealing with exceptional scores which may indicate a player’s true ability. This procedure considers all scores rather than scores made only in tournaments, so that any time a player demonstrates ability that is significantly better than their index suggests, a simple automatic adjustment is made in accordance with the following table:

Chart courtesy of Michael Pryor

A player is not required to have 20 scores in their scoring record for exceptional score reductions to take place. Reductions for multiple exceptional scores are applied cumulatively.

Course Handicap Calculation

A course handicap is the number of strokes a player receives to play down to the par of the tees being played. The formula is:

The result of each calculation is rounded for the purposes of applying Net Double Bogey and Net Par Adjustments.

Playing Handicap Calculation

A playing handicap represents the number of strokes the player gives or receives for the round being played. In most cases, and for all recreational rounds, the playing handicap equals the course handicap.

How to Lower Your Handicap

In order for golfers to improve their ability, they will need to practice and play more rounds of golf, and with the help of a qualified instructor, even the most novice players will soon see their handicaps come down. Having properly fitted equipment can also lead to faster improvement. Reach out to the Golf Experts on Curated, and we can assist you in finding the perfect golf equipment to help you play your best golf and lower your handicap.

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Written by:
Michael Pryor, Golf Expert
Michael Pryor
Golf Expert
PGA Member - 23 years Certified PGA Professional - Golf Operations Certified PGA Professional - Teaching & Coaching ​ ​ ​
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