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Golf Handicap Explained: What Is It and Should You Have One?

Golf Handicap Explained: What Is It and Should You Have One?

Our golf writer and reviewer, Marc, helps us get a better understanding of what a golf handicap really is, how it's calculated, and why you want to know yours!

There may not be a bigger mystery in all of golf than how the handicap system works.

There are plenty of lifelong golfers who can’t explain it. Even players who keep a regular golf handicap may not understand how it is calculated. Why is it that everybody has heard of a golf handicap but so few people, even golfers, really know how it’s calculated or how it's correctly applied on the golf course?

But while the golf handicap system is definitely a bit complicated, it’s really not as hard to grasp as you might fear. You can at least get the gist of it better than you may understand the topic now.

I’m going to try to demystify the whole handicap system. I’ll give you as simple of an explanation as I can. But better than that, I’m going to try to help you understand why you might want to get a golf handicap index if you don’t already have one and how it could make golf more fun for you.

One of the coolest things about golf is that players of varying skill levels can compete against each other. They can even wager with one another if they’re so inclined. Now, I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t bet a professional basketball player that I could beat them in a game of one-on-one. But I could actually have a chance to win a bet against a professional golfer. And, trust me, that’s not because I’m an amazing player. It’s all because of the golf handicap system.

So, let’s crack the code and put to rest any misunderstanding about golf handicaps.

How Does a Golf Handicap Work?

OK, I lied (kind of). Calculating a golf handicap index is actually fairly intense. BUT, you don’t have to worry about that. There’s a system that does the math for you. All you’ll have to do is input your scores and a little bit of information regarding where you played. I’ll explain more about that in a minute.

In the meantime, even if we don’t have to know how a golf handicap is calculated, it’s still good information to have a handle on if you want to consider yourself a golfer.

The first thing to understand is that the golf handicap system is in place to unify all golfers, allowing all of us to use the same system to understand how good of a golfer each of us is so that if we want to play a match against one another, we can establish an even playing field.

“Why not just use each golfer’s average score to determine their ability?” you might ask. The reason is that different golf courses vary in difficulty. If I shoot even par at my really easy local muni, that’s a lot different than shooting even par at a really tough golf course like Bethpage Black. The same goes for which tee boxes you choose to play. If you play a forward set of tees that are much shorter than the further-back tees, that’s considered to be easier.

The handicap system accounts for those differences in difficulty with things called course rating and slope rating. Now each of those terms could get their own separate blog posts, so let’s stay out of those rabbit holes here. All you really need to know is that, in essence, each golf course is scored based on relative difficulty and each golf round is weighted based on things like what tee box you played from. Course rating and slope rating are the metrics used for those calculations. And those ratings factor into the handicap system so that you would be more rewarded for playing well on a really difficult course from the furthest-back tees than you would for shooting that same score on a really easy course from the forward tees.

It used to be that there were six different golf handicap systems used throughout the world. The system in the United States wasn’t the same as the one in the U.K, which wasn’t the same as the one in South Africa and on and on. Talk about confusion!

Thankfully, as of 2020, we now have the World Handicap System, which allows all of us to use the exact same method of arriving at our handicap numbers. Phew!

Here’s how the World Handicap System works:

1. Score Differential. Each time you play a round of golf, you’ll of course shoot a total score. That’s called your gross score. And, as you’ll recall, the difficulty of the golf course where you shot that score as well as things like the tee box you played from (course rating and slope rating) will factor in. All of those things mixed together create what’s called that round’s score differential.

The differential equation goes like this: Gross Score - Course Rating x 113 / Slope Rating = Score Differential

So, let’s say you shot an 88 on a golf course with a course rating of 72 and a slope rating of 131. So 88 - 72 = 16. And 16 x 113 = 1,808. And 1,808 / 131 = 13.8. So 13.8 would be your score differential for that round of golf.

2. Handicap Index. Your handicap index, which is what we’re usually referring to when we think of a golf handicap, is always a reflection of the last 20 rounds you’ve played. The way it works is you take the lowest eight differentials from the pool of your last 20 rounds, you average those, and that is the number that becomes your golf handicap index for that specific point in time.

So, let’s say over your last 20 rounds of golf, your eight best differentials, in order by the dates you shot those differentials, are 13.8, 14.2, 16.1, 15.5, 17.9, 13.6, 14.3, 15.2. If we add all of those up, we get 120.6. And if we divide that by 8, we get 15.1. That means that, at the moment, your handicap index is 15.1.

As for the other 12 rounds of your last 20 that were not among your best eight, those are thrown out and not factored in.

3. Your handicap index is always changing. Unless you shoot the same score on the same golf course for every single round, your handicap index is going to change. Remember, it’s always a reflection of your last 20 rounds. So, in the above example, our earliest differential that factored in was 13.8. But let’s say that 13.8 happened to be the longest ago of your most recent 20 rounds. And let’s say you then went out and played again and posted a differential of 14.9. The 13.8 would now be thrown out because it’s not within your last 20 rounds. And because the 14.9 would still be among your eight lowest from your last 20 differentials, it would in essence replace the 13.8. After you put all that through that confusing-as-hell formula, you’d find that your handicap index would increase from 15.1 to 15.2.

As with everything in golf scoring, lower is better. The lower one’s handicap index is, the better golfer they are considered to be. Someone with a handicap index of 0 is called a scratch golfer. And exceptional players have handicaps that are actually below zero. While it may sound counterintuitive, those golfers are said to have plus handicaps. A PGA Tour pro, for example, might have a handicap index of somewhere around +6 or +7.

If you’re still confused, don’t worry. All of that math that we just walked through only matters if you’re interested in understanding why your golf handicap index is what it is. Nowadays, you are not expected to calculate it yourself. If you talk to your local teaching pro, they can set you up with a Golf Handicap and Information Network (GHIN) account. You’ll pay a small fee each year and then everything will be calculated for you. You can even download an app so that you can always have your handicap index at the ready. All you have to do is enter your gross score, course rating, slope rating, and par of the course you played after each round into your GHIN account, and it will automatically do the calculations to tell you your current handicap index.

By the way, every golf course has a course and slope rating. They are assigned by the in-person visits of licensed course raters. These numbers are almost always printed on the scorecard. But if you don’t see them, just ask in the pro shop.

So now that you (hopefully) have a better understanding of how a golf handicap index is calculated, let’s talk about what purpose a handicap serves.

How To Use a Golf Handicap

Remember, the purpose of the golf handicap system is to establish an even playing field for all of us. It’s one of the really neat things about the game of golf. In what other sport can you play on the same playing surface against someone who is far better or worse than you and have an even match? In golf, the handicap system allows you to do exactly that.

If you are a scratch golfer and I am the above-example 15.2 handicap index, we both know that you’re almost guaranteed to shoot a better score than me if we play a round of golf together. But once we apply our handicap indexes, we can actually play against each other with a scoreboard that is going to tell us which of us played better relative to our abilities.

There are actually a few different ways of applying a golf handicap index. And to really do it to the letter-of-the-law correctly, if multiple golfers were using handicaps to play a competition, they should use what’s called a course handicap, which is a separate calculation that applies each golfer’s handicap index to the specific golf course they are playing that day.

For the sake of simplicity, in this post we’re going to stick to two of the most common ways that casual golfers typically use the handicap system, which is using the straight-ahead handicap index to play either stroke play or match play. These are the ways that the terms of most friendly wagers at your local golf course are being decided. And now you can get in on that action too.

How To Use a Golf Handicap for Stroke Play

Stroke play in golf is pretty simple: It’s all about the total number of strokes you take to complete the course. Unlike match play, where you’re going head-to-head against another player on each hole, stroke play tallies up every swing, putt, and unfortunate visit to the hazards from the first tee to the final green. Lowest score wins. It’s the most common format you’ll see in tournaments, emphasizing consistent performances across each hole.

Applying a handicap index to stroke play is likewise simple — and a lot of fun. All you have to do is take the gross score that each golfer shoots, subtract their handicap index, and arrive at what’s called a net score.

So, let’s walk through an example with four golfers:

Golfer one has a handicap index of 12. For this round, they shoot an 86, which is their gross score. 86 - 12 = 74. So golfer one’s net score is 74.

Golfer two’s handicap is sitting at a 10. But they’ve had a so-so day on the course and shot an 85. So their net score (85 - 10) is a 75.

Then there’s golfer three. They’re a little inconsistent and have a handicap index of 18. But, wow did they play great in this round, firing an uncharacteristic 91. That means they’re net score is 73.

Golfer four is a scratch player, who on this day plays fair but not great. With a gross score of 74 and a handicap index of 0, they end up with a net score of 74.

So, in this example, the least-skilled golfer who played exceptionally well on this particular day is actually able to beat even a scratch golfer even though their gross score was 17 strokes worse. And the scratch player tied with the 12-handicapper who was just one better than the 10.

You can see how the handicap system can really help to make a competition with disparate skill levels more interesting. WIthout using the handicaps, there would really only be two golfers in the group who would be close to equal in skill level. But with the handicaps, the competition could stay exciting all the way to the final hole.

How To Use a Golf Handicap for Match Play

Match play in golf flips the script. Instead of tallying every stroke from tee-off to the final putt across the entire course, it’s all about winning individual holes. You go head-to-head against another player, and for each hole, the lowest number of strokes wins you that hole.

To apply handicap indexes to a one-on-one match, you would subtract the better golfer’s handicap from the worse golfer’s handicap and the resulting difference would be the number of holes that the worse golfer got a one-stroke advantage. Those stroke holes are determined by looking at the scorecard’s “handicap” line which ranks each golf hole from toughest (1) to easiest (18).

So, let’s say one golfer was a 10 and the other was a 5. The better golfer (the 5) would give the 10-handicapper a stroke on the five toughest holes. That means that if, on a stroke hole, the worse golfer got a bogey and the better golfer got a par, they would actually tie that hole.

You can also apply handicap indexes to multiplayer match-play games. The simple way to do that is to just take the handicap index of each player and then give them a stroke on however many holes equals their handicap.

So, a scratch golfer wouldn’t get any strokes. A golfer with a handicap of 5 would get a stroke on each of the five toughest holes. A golfer with an index of 10 would get a stroke on each of the 10 toughest holes. And a golfer with a handicap index of 20 would get a stroke on all 18 holes plus an additional stroke on each of the two most difficult holes.

A Golf Handicap Gives You Opportunities

If you want to play in a golf league, even a casual one, you’re probably going to need a handicap index.

And if you want to play in a golf club’s member-guest tournament, you’re also going to need to establish a handicap.

The same goes for a ton of other organized golf events, whether casual or competitive.

And, as we’ve talked about, having a golf handicap index allows you to play competitively with your golfing buddies, even if they aren’t at the same skill level as you.

Beyond that, maintaining a golf handicap is the best way to track your progress. It can keep you motivated to improve.

Is calculating a golf handicap complicated? Um, yes — very! But, as I said, you don’t have to worry about that. Your app will do those calculations for you. But understanding the general idea of what that handicap number means and how it actually works out on the golf course can be really useful.

Just remember one thing: Be honest. Nobody likes a sandbagger (someone who plays with an inflated handicap to get the benefit of more strokes) or a vanity handicapper (someone with a fraudulently low handicap index who’s protecting their ego).

Post the real scores as you shoot ‘em, and use your handicap index to have more fun on the golf course.

About PlayBetter Golf Reviewer Marc Sheforgen

Marc "Shef" Sheforgen is a golf writer whose passion for the game far exceeds his ability to play it well. Marc covers all things golf, from product reviews and equipment recommendations to event coverage and tournament analysis. When he’s not playing, watching, or writing about golf, he enjoys traveling (often golf-related), youth sports coaching, volunteering, and record collecting.

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