What’s My Golf Handicap?

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what's my golf handicap

Golfers are very sensitive when it comes to their handicap, but most don’t even know what the handicap really means. For example, if you ask a golfer to differentiate between a golf handicap and a golf handicap index, all you’ll get is a blank stare.

The primary reason why these terms are so misunderstood is because of how easily they are misused in the golf community. Anyone can claim that they’re a 6 handicapper just by shooting a 6 overpar on a particular day. However, self-serving handicaps like these are unofficial, can’t be used in golf tournaments, and aren’t sanctioned by the USGA or any governing body.

To make sure you understand and get a real golf handicap, this post will give you everything from what a golf handicap is, why it exists, what’s the new World Handicap System, how to get a handicap, how much it costs, the rules for posting your handicap, how to calculate your course handicap and your handicap index, and more. Let’s begin!

What Is A Golf Handicap?

The golf handicap is a numerical measure of a golfer’s score in relation to par and also signifies his potential playing ability for each golf course he plays in. For amateur golfers, handicaps allow them to compete against any golfer on an equal basis regardless of skill level and course type. 

A handicap is also a way to measure how ‘good’ a golfer is. Golfers with a ‘high’ handicap are expected to take more strokes to finish a course, while golfers with a ‘low’ handicap are expected to take less.

Why Does A Handicap Exist?

The best way to illustrate the importance of the handicap is with two golfers, Tom and Billy. 

Tom, a more experienced golfer, is a 3 handicapper; while Billy, an amateur golfer, is a 22 handicapper. If they were to play a head-to-head match against one another, odds are, Tom will always win. That’s no fun, is it?

To spice things up, they decided to use their handicaps to even out the playing field. Doing this allows the golfer with the higher handicap, Billy, to gain a few extra ‘free’ strokes equal to the handicap of the lower handicapper, Tom. In this case, Billy was given 18 ‘free’ strokes to play with by the end of the round.

However, the handicap will only be subtracted at the end of the round. What do we mean?

Let’s say Billy shot a 96 and Tom shot a 79, their gross scores will also be 96 and 79 respectively. 

If they competed strictly off the gross score, Tom would have won the match, but since they decided to compete with their handicaps, they must subtract their gross score with their handicap to get their net score at the end of the round.

In other words, Billy will subtract his gross score by 22 while Tom will subtract his gross score by 3. In the end, Billy finished with a net score of 74 (96 minus 22) while Tom finished with a net score of 76 (79 minus 3). So, even when Tom had scored much lower than Billy had by the end of the round, playing by the rules of the handicap has allowed Billy to win! 

However, what if they were playing in a tournament, do they play by the gross or net score?

It depends, but for most amateur tournaments, the winner is the player with the best net score mainly because of the vast mix of player types in amateur tournaments. On the other hand, in professional tournaments, like the PGA Tour, golfers win with the lowest gross score. These types of match rules are referred to as ‘stroke play’. 

Golf Handicap vs Golf Handicap Index

Now that you know what the golf handicap is, you should also know that the golf handicap index is too. Many golfers mistake the golf handicap for the golf handicap index but both terms mean two very different things. Specifically: 

  • The golf handicap is a numerical measure of a golfer’s score in relation to par and signifies that golfer’s potential playing ability. 
  • The golf handicap index is a portable metric specific to an official handicap system and refers to a rating of a golfer’s potential playing ability as part of that system (we’ll explain what we mean by ‘portable’ later). Today, that system is the World Handicap System.

The World Handicap System

In 2020, the USGA and other organizations started the World Handicap System (WHS). The goal was to have one system of calculating a golfer’s handicap instead of six different handicap systems (The USGA, the Council of National Golf Unions (CONGU) in Great Britain and Ireland, Golf Australia, the European Golf Association (EGA), the South African Golf Association (SAGA), and the Argentine Golf Association (AAG)). Doing so, allowed golfers globally to be measured to the same standard. 

If you’re planning on registering for an official handicap, you should familiarize yourself with the new rules and metrics included in the new 2020 World Handicap System which will cover more later.

The Problem With the Old Handicap System

The handicap system dates way back to the 17th century when the sport began to grow in popularity. However, it was a bad handicap system as it lacked accuracy and was easily abused by more experienced golfers who want a better handicap.

Back then, a golfer’s handicap was determined solely by averaging his three best scores of the year and subtracting the par from the average without considering the type of course he played in. This became an issue as less skilled golfers were sometimes given a better handicap than better golfers simply by playing in an easier golf course.

As you may have guessed, that system didn’t last and was later revised by Dean Knuth in 1979 to factor in a golf course’s difficulty when calculating a golfer’s handicap.

How to Get a Handicap In Golf

Getting Registered

To register for your golf handicap under the World Handicap System, you can either sign-up on the USGA website or through your local golf course. As part of the registration, you’ll be asked to pay a small annual fee of roughly $30 – $40. Usually, this fee will be charged automatically as part of your membership fee if you’re part of a golf club.

When your application gets approved, you’ll be given your very own GHIN number. The GHIN number will allow you and others to post scores on your behalf on the Golf Handicap Information Network (GHIN) website. Eventually, these scores will help work out your golf handicap index which is important to calculate your golf handicap.

Posting Yout Scores

Sweet, now what’s my golf handicap? Hold your horses! After receiving your GHIN number, you’ll still need to submit scores of 54 holes to be eligible for a handicap index. These scores can be a mix of a full round of golf, so 18 holes, or 9 consecutive holes. Just make sure they tally up to 54. 

Why so many? Don’t forget that the golf handicap is the average number of strokes you’ll be expected to take in 18 holes for any golf course.

One more thing, golfers who already have an issued handicap but are looking to recalculate their handicap index will not follow the same 54 holes requirement. Instead, out of their last 20 registered scores, their best 8 scores will be averaged. The result of this will be used to calculate their new handicap index.

Rules When Submitting Your Scores

The main rule to submitting your scores is that each round and score needs to be witnessed and signed by another player and yourself.

Of course, this is to stop golfer’s from cheating, but also prevents golfers who intentionally take more strokes to jack up their handicaps, giving them an unfair advantage in tournaments that play the net score.

In most cases, you’ll be paired with someone who’s also working on getting their handicap score submitted, in this case, you’ll also need to sign his or her scores for submission. Consider this a way for all parties to agree that their rounds were valid.

Adjusting Your Scores

We’re not telling you to lie about your scores, but instead, we’re showing you how to write the ‘right’ score when you’ve played a hole badly.

What do we mean by the ‘right score’?

Let us explain. There are days where you’re just not playing how you normally would. Luckily for you, the people in charge of the USGA are golfers themselves who’ve played badly on holes they’ve better on before. 

As a result, the USGA was kind enough to place a cap for the highest number a golfer can card for each hole they play. 

In layman’s terms, if you took 11 shots to finish a par 3, you don’t need to card an 11 for that hole. You can simply write down the maximum amount of strokes give to you for that hole. 

Maximum Score Per Hole For Those Who Already Have A Handicap

Here’s where it gets a bit confusing. 

Before the rules of the WHS, the maximum score your could write down was two overpar for each hole, but because each golf course is different, the course handicap was introduced. 

The course handicap is a number that indicates how many handicap strokes a golfer receives at a specific golf course. So, a better golfer may have a course handicap of 0 to 9 where a course handicap of 9 means that he has 9 ‘free’ strokes to play with on that particular golf course. A golfer who received a course handicap of 0 means that he has no ‘free’ strokes for that particular golf course.

With that said, just because you have a few extra ‘free’ strokes from your course handicap, doesn’t mean you can apply the strokes on any hole! There are actually a new set of rules by the WHS to determine the maximum number of strokes you can get per hole. That is:

Maximum Strokes Per Hole  = PAR + 2 + Handicap Strokes Received

Still confused? Here’s a neat example:

From the Golf Leap scorecard, everything seems rather straightforward, but how did Billy get ‘2’ for his ‘Handicap Strokes Received’ on the 5th hole? 

First, we need to understand how the stroke index and course handicap ultimately determines the handicap strokes a golfer receives on each hole.

Every hole in a golf course has its specific stroke index. The stroke index is a number ranging from 1 to 18 that indicates the difficulty of that hole relative to the rest of the holes in that particular golf course. The hardest hole out of 18 is assigned an index of 1, while the easiest hole is assigned an index of 18. In Billy’s case, hole 5 is an index 9

Billy’s course handicap of 30 means he gets 30 extra strokes throughout the 18 holes. Of course, he can’t use all the strokes in one hole, it’s specifically allocated across each hole in order of difficulty (from hardest to easiest).

So, with a course handicap of 30, Billy would add the first 18 handicap strokes, one to each hole, leaving him with 14 more handicap strokes. Finally, he needs to add one more stroke to each of the 14 hardest holes again (index 1 to 14) for the remaining 14 strokes in the course handicap. In this case, Billy will receive 2 handicap strokes at hole 5! 

If we put it all together, we get:

Maximum Strokes Per Hole  = PAR + 2 + Handicap Strokes Received

Maximum Strokes (Hole 5) = 4 + 2 + 2

Maximum Strokes (Hole 5)  = 8 Net Double Bogey

*Net Double Bogey simply means the additional strokes on top of 2 over par

Maximum Score Per Hole For Those Who Don’t Yet Have A Handicap

For those of you who haven’t had your handicap yet, it’s your lucky day because you you’re allowed to take a maximum of 5 shots over par on each hole. That’s it, no fancy formulas!

The Wrong Way To Calculate Your Golf Handicap

Before we jump into the proper way to calculating your handicap, you need to be aware that you can’t simply calculate your handicap by taking:

(Your best score you’ve ever shot in golf) – 72 = Unofficial Handicap

As we said earlier, you’ll hear many golfers claim a “handicap” through this method. Don’t do this!

How to Calculate Your Golf Handicap Properly After 2020

Now, that that’s out of the way, let’s see how to properly calculate your golf handicap.

There have been important changes to how the handicap is calculated ever since the USGA adopted the new World Handicap System. These changes allowed the handicap to reflect more accurately on each golfer’s skill level as well as improve their golfing experience.

Before we jump into how your handicap is calculated by the USGA, we’re letting you know now that you can simply use the USGA online course handicap calculator instead of calculating everything yourself. 

Why? Because you’re not going to be quizzed by the USGA on whether you know how to calculate the handicap and also, the calculations are quite overwhelming. Though, it’s still good to know some of the concepts.

Still here? Perfect, then let’s begin. 

The New Handicap Formula

Pre 2020: Handicap Index x Slope Rating/ 113 = Course Handicap

Post 2020: Handicap Index x (Slope rating/113) + (Course Rating-Par) = Course Handicap

As you can see from the two equations above, the new handicap formula uses two new variables: Course Rating and Par. But, instead of only talking about what these two are, we’re guessing you probably don’t know what some of the other variables are as well.

So, let’s break each down one by one.

What’s the Handicap Index?

We’ve promised you we’d come back to the handicap index didn’t we? Just a recap, we said that the golf handicap index is a portable metric specific to an official handicap system and refers to a rating of a golfer’s potential playing ability as part of that system. 

The handicap index runs from 1 to 54. The average handicap index for men is 14.2 and for women, it’s 27.5.

Why is this index important? Mainly, because it is the only metric in the handicap formula that calculates your handicap. If there’s no handicap index, everyone will have the same course handicap.

Why ‘portable’? Because your handicap index can be used to find your course handicap for every golf course in the world regardless of its difficulty. 

Finally, you’ll get your handicap index after you’ve posted all the scores asked by you on GHIN website. For new handicappers, it’s 54 holes, while for current handicap holders, the average of the 8 best scores out of the last 20 scores they registered online is taken.

What is the Slope Rating?

The slope rating is an indication of the difficulty of a golf course for bogey golfers (those with an 18 – 24 handicap) under normal course and weather conditions, where 113 represents the average slope rating.

  • Slope rating above 113: The golf course is relatively easy compared to ‘average’ golf courses.
  • Slope rating below 113: The golf course is relatively harder compared to ‘average’ golf courses.

*The range for the slope rating goes from 55 to 155. The easiest being 55 and the hardest being 155. 

What is the Course Rating?

The course rating is an indication of the difficulty of a golf course for scratch golfers (those with a 0 handicap) under normal course and weather conditions. This also acts as your benchmark and is expressed in the average number of strokes a scratch golfer is expected to take to finish the round.  

Here’s an example, if a course par is 71. A tough golf course could have a course rating of 75 as it shows that even scratch golfers struggle to make the course par of 71. An easier golf course will have a course rating of 69 as it shows that scratch golfers had an easy time breaking below the 71 course par. On the other hand, if this course has a course rating of 71, then it’s neither too hard nor too easy, and golfers should be able to finish the round at their handicap.

Here’s a neat video showing just how detailed the USGA evaluates a course rating:

What does ‘113’ and ‘Par’ mean?

By now, both these variables should be rather straightforward enough for you to understand. 

In case you missed it, ‘113’ represents the average slope rating for the 55 to 155 range and is used as the only constant variable when calculating your handicap. 

‘Par’ is exactly what you think it is, the number of shots a golf course should be completed in. ‘Par’ and ‘course par’ are the same thing, you’ve probably seen us use both terms earlier.

Tom At Pebble Beach Example

To really make sure you understood the concepts, we’ll give you a real-life example of the WHS handicap guidelines in action!

Let’s take Tom (assuming his handicap index is 7) from the example earlier and have him play at the world-famous Pebble Beach golf course

We all know Tom is a pretty good golfer, but he still wants to know what his course handicap is so he checks online for the numbers of Pebble Beach.

  • Slope Rating: 144
  • Course Rating: 74.9
  • Par: 72

Before we start calculating Tom’s course handicap at Pebble Beach, let’s see what type of golf course Pebble Beach is. A slope rating of 144 shows that Pebble Beach is a rather challenging golf course, while a course rating of 74.9 means that even scratch golfer’s struggle to make the 72 par standard! 

So, what’s Tom’s handicap at Pebble Beach?

Handicap Index x (Slope rating/113) + (Course Rating-Par) = Course Handicap

7 x (144/113) + (74.9 – 72) = 11.8

Tom’s Handicap At Pebble Beach is 11.8

Give yourself a pat on the shoulder because we’re done! By now, we hope you can see why we recommended you to understand how your handicap works. It really gives you a good insight as to how advanced golf has become over the years!

Golf Handicap FAQs and Some Extra Details

How Much Does A Handicap Cost?

Handicaps don’t cost much and usually just require an annual fee of roughly $30 – $40 per year. 

If you’ve registered online, make sure to check on the box for “automatic renewal” or you’re handicap will freeze when you forget to pay for the next payment.

If you’re part of a golf club, they will usually automatically renew the amount for you. At times, they may even pay the fee for you!

When Can I Update My Handicap?

If you want to update your handicap index, the USGA updates your index every two weeks on the 1st and 15th of each month. So, make sure to submit your scores before midnight at the end of the month or the 14th to have your handicap revised on the following days.

If you signed up to receive emails, you’ll receive the updates on both days with an updated card.

Tournament Scorecards are weighted differently!

Be aware that the scores you enter from tournaments or local qualifiers will affect your USGA-issued handicap much more than a normal game of golf! How much depends on the tournament you’re playing in.

Can anyone get a handicap?

Yes, but the USGA has a maximum handicap requirement for their golfers. For men, it is 36.4 and for women, it is 40.4. That’s why there’s no need to rush for a handicap if you’re just a beginner.

Will the Handicap Formula Change Again?

Yes, the USGA is always looking to make the handicap formula more accurate in representing a golfer’s playing potential. Although the current handicap system is far better than it was before, there are still factors like weather and terrain conditions that aren’t yet utilized in calculating your handicap.

What is a good golf handicap?

That’s a tricky question because a good golf handicap doesn’t really exist for most golfers who play by net score. 

If you’re talking about more professional tournaments like the PGA Tour, then, of course, the best handicap is whoever has the lowest handicap!

But for average golfers like you and me, if you really want to set a standard for yourself, aim to reach at least the average U.S. handicap; which we mentioned earlier was 14.2 for men and 27.5 for women.

However, a common acknowledgment in the golf community for a good golfer is someone who has his or her handicap in the single digits. 

Why you should get a golf handicap

You don’t need a golf handicap to play golf, but having one can make your golf experience a lot better than it already is!

First off, you’re able to even the playing fields for those you’re playing with, making the match more fun and competitive.

Secondly, you’re able to monitor your progress every day as you log in your scores for every round you play. Overtime, you’ll start seeing trends in your golf game and which parts of the golf course you’re struggling with the most.

How to Improve Your Handicap?

By now, you’re probably ready to charge up your golf skills and get a great handicap. After all, it is pretty cool to have a low handicap. That said, there are many ways to improve your handicap, what we recommend are for you to:

Final Thoughts and What To Do Next

Does it take a rocket scientist to understand how the golf handicap works? Maybe, but if you’ve understood everything we’ve thrown at you, or at least caught on with the general concepts, you’ll start to appreciate just how effective the handicap system has become.

Having a golf handicap today is much more beneficial when it comes to improving your match experiences and monitoring your progress online. For us, the best part of the golf handicap is how much more smooth it has made the sport, allowing golfers to play with anyone and play comfortably at any course.

On that note, we hope you’ve learned a lot from this post and you’re more motivated than ever to play golf! What you should do now is practice; your goal should be to become consistent enough to register for your first golf handicap.

As always, feel free to ask us if you have any questions!

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Author
Mark has been an avid golfer for more than 15 years and has reviewed golf clubs since 2015. He is also the founder of the Golf Leap Blog site.

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