Everything You Need to Know About Golf Handicaps

If you've ever wondered what a handicap is in golf - or how to calculate yours - read this!

Photo by Andrew Rice
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What's a Handicap?

Golf Handicaps. Handicap Index. Course Handicap. Course Rating. Slope Rating.

What does any of this mean?

To give you a short answer, the United States Golf Association (USGA) created a complex math equation that gives a player a handicap index. With this index, said player can play a fair game against anyone else with an established handicap. So, someone who is a bogey golfer can play against someone who is a scratch or 0 handicap player and it will be an equal match.

You see, golf, even with all its faults and weird rules that make no sense, was able to create a system that you cannot find in any other sport. For example, let's make a flag football team out of the Kansas City Chiefs offense, and then let me go grab a few of my friends, and let’s play a game. My friends and I would get absolutely slaughtered, and outside of completely changing the rules or randomly spotting us 100 points, there is no way to make this a fair game. However in golf, I can tee it up against Tiger or DJ or whomever on tour and with the handicap system, I can fairly complete and potentially beat them.

Calculating Your Handicap

How, you say? See, the handicap system uses a wild math equation Course Handicap = Handicap Index × (Slope Rating ÷ 113) + (Course Rating – Par) to determine how good of a golfer you are.

Glowing math equations
Calculating your handicap index can seem complicated, but it ensures a fair game of golf for all involved! Photo by John Moeses Bauan

"But I do not always shoot 93 when I play, so how does that work?" You see, when you enter all of your scores, only a certain amount of them count. With your handicap index, you take your previous 20 scores and the index keeps and uses your best 10 in the equation. This allows for an anomaly of a bad round or two to be removed from your number. The handicap system looks at the best you can be based off of your potential ability and not the worst possible scenario.

As you can see from the handicap system, it’s much more complex than just getting your average score or number of strokes over par you usually shoot. No, a player's handicap is also affected by the course rating and slope rating. This is how the USGA determines how hard a golf course is. If a course has a rating of 75, that is a pretty tough golf course or a difficult set of tees. That means that your scratch golfer should shoot around 75 and your average golfer that usually shoots "10 over" will on average probably shoot higher than 10 over. So each course also has a specific course handicap that takes your handicap index and provides you with a specific handicap for that course. You might play at Course A and have a course handicap of 9, while at Course B, have a course handicap of 11. This adds to the equal playing field aspect of the game: not every course is treated the same, so this keeps things fair.

The Honor System

One of the big downsides of the USGA Handicap Index system is that it can cause rampant cheating on a player's score. At the end of the day, we are trusting people to enter their own scores using the honor system and use that handicap index to play in big-money, high-stakes games. People that know golf, know that there is a lot of "gambling" taking place at a golf course. Whether you like it or not, the notion that golf is a gentleman's game does not adhere to the money that is being thrown around. When playing in a tournament or any event that involves a net score, or use of handicap, everyone knows that the high handicap player has the advantage because they will get more strokes.

So we now circle back to the honor system of entering scores. I could just go online and put in 20 rounds of me shooting 90 to 100 yet when I play, I actually shoot 78. There is no control here. Now I can go to a tournament, get 15 strokes and shoot 75. There is a great chance of me winning that cash and pissing people off in the process. We have all seen it before, the 18 handicap playing in a tournament, and he shoots 78. The odds of that are sub 1%. Iit most likely wasn't luck, but rather shady score entry.

A golf putter, a golf ball, and a golf shoe with grass in the background
Photo by Mick De Paola

There are other cases where you will play with someone and they have a good round but at the end they will say, "Oh, I played real good today, but I will not enter this score towards my handicap index because it will go down and I will get more strokes." It is safe to say that there is somewhat of a grey area in the game of golf and how we use the handicap index. The game of golf is a challenge, and we always want to get better and shoot better scores, but at the same time, the better we get and the lower our handicap gets, the harder it is to win money in big net events.

It’s funny, because there is also the ego handicap when someone wants to be a better player. They will only enter their best scores or falsely enter lower scores so that their handicap index is lower. The unfortunate part about this is that the player's score does not match their index. They will play as a 5.5 index but every time they tee it up, they shoot 92.

In the end, maybe a better system for honest score records would be better, to keep people from taking advantage of the system. But still, the Handicap Index and everything that is associated with it should allow for new golfers to enter the game and compete with a low-handicap player on a regular basis, giving players of all skill levels an equal opportunity to play and complete.

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Written By
I am a former PGA Class A Professional that has been in and worked around the game of golf for 12+ years. I spent several years as strickly a teaching professional and have fit numerous people to every brand of club.

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