Golf is a game of precision, strategy, and skill. But one of the unique aspects that sets it apart 

from many other sports is its inclusive nature, allowing players of varying abilities to compete on a level playing field.

A golf handicap allows this.

Understanding a Handicap

Many beginner golfers may not know what a handicap is, and that’s OK. And if you’re a seasoned golfer who still doesn’t understand the handicap system, that’s OK too.

A golf handicap is a number that represents how good a golfer is based on past rounds — whether 18-hole scores or nine-hole scores. It’s calculated using the scores from previous rounds and the difficulty of the golf courses on which those rounds were played.

An official handicap gives golfers of all skill levels the ability to compete against each other fairly, regardless of their experience or talent.

The Importance of Handicaps in Golf

Handicaps in golf serve several purposes. For one, they allow golfers of differing skill levels to compete against one another in a match play or stroke play. This makes the game of golf more accessible and fun.

Handicaps also encourage and track personal improvement. As golfers aim to lower their handicaps, they can track such improvements through their index.

The USGA Handicap System

The USGA Handicap System is a designed framework that allows golfers of all levels to compete fairly. It promotes fairness and inclusivity, primarily in amateur golf in the United States.

Role of the United States Golf Association (USGA)

Its responsibilities encompass establishing the Rules of Golf, testing golf equipment, and, notably, administering the official handicap system. The USGA’s role in managing the handicap system is crucial for maintaining the integrity and accessibility of golf as a competitive sport. 

By providing a method for assessing and adjusting a golfer’s playing ability, the USGA ensures that amateur golfers can engage in fair competition regardless of their skill level.

Key Features of the USGA Handicap System

The USGA Handicap System includes several features to reflect a golfer’s potential ability accurately. These features include:

  • Adjustment for Course Difficulty: The system accounts for the relative difficulty of each golf course, ensuring that a player’s handicap is not disproportionately affected by playing on particularly challenging or straightforward courses.
  • Equitable Stroke Control: A sliding scale system based on the course handicap or playing handicap. For example, if you’re a golfer with a 15 handicap and you score 10 on a par-4 hole, you’ll adjust that score down to 7 for handicap purposes, preventing one bad hole from overly influencing your handicap.
  • Net Score Calculation: A golfer’s net score is adjusted by their handicap, allowing players with different abilities to compete on an equal footing. This adjustment is critical for tournaments and casual play, enabling a fair performance comparison.
  • Regular Updates: Handicap indexes are updated regularly to reflect a golfer’s current ability. This dynamic approach ensures that a player’s handicap remains accurate over time, adapting to improvements or changes in their game.

How To Calculate Your Golf Handicap

Calculating a golfer’s handicap is designed to be indicative of their game. It involves several steps:

  • Collecting Scores: The system starts by collecting a golfer’s recent scores, along with the course rating and slope rating of the courses where those rounds were played.
  • Adjusting for Difficulty: Each score is adjusted to account for the relative difficulty of the course, producing a differential for each round.
  • Average Score Differential: The average of the best score differentials, typically from a subset of the golfer’s most recent rounds, is calculated to represent the player’s potential ability.
  • Applying the Handicap Formula: This average is then multiplied by a predetermined factor and adjusted to produce the final handicap index.

This calculated handicap enables a handicap golfer to understand their average score in relation to par, adjusting for the courses’ difficulty they’ve played. As a result, golfers have a net score that reflects their true ability, allowing for fair competition among players of varying skill levels, from amateur golfers to more seasoned players.

How to Keep a Handicap

Keeping a golf handicap is a fundamental aspect of the sport, especially for amateur golfers who wish to compete or simply track progress over time. Here’s how you can keep a handicap:

Registering with a Golf Club or Association

The first step to getting a handicap is registering with a golf club or an association licensed to use the USGA Handicap System. Many golf clubs offer membership options that include handicap tracking as part of their services.

For those looking for an easier, more accessible approach, online golf associations provide handicap services without requiring membership at a physical golf club.

Submitting Your Scores

The key to establishing and maintaining a handicap is regularly submitting your scores. These scores should come from rounds played on courses with a valid course rating and slope rating. It’s important to submit scores from both good and bad rounds; the system is designed to reflect your potential playing ability, which can only be accurately gauged through each round of golf.

Keeping Track of Your Handicap Index

After submitting enough scores to establish a handicap index, it’s crucial to keep track of it. Your handicap index may change as you submit new scores, reflecting your playing ability. Most golf clubs and associations will provide online access to your handicap information, making it easy to see where you stand.

What’s a Good Handicap?

As odd as it may sound, if you see someone with a plus handicap, such as a +7, it means, on average, they shoot seven under par. Having a plus handicap means you’re an excellent player.

In that same vein, you’ve probably heard the term “scratch golfer.” A scratch player is someone with a handicap around 0, meaning they shoot golf scores of par or better on the golf course — despite a difficult course, they’re good enough to stay within that range. For example, on a par 72 course, a scratch golfer would shoot 72 or better.

A good golf handicap is one that ranges from 2-7. This indicates you consistently shoot only a couple of strokes over course par.

An average golf handicap is around 8-15, meaning you are a little better than a bogey golfer — which means a player constantly shoots a bogey (one stroke more than par) on each hole.

Lower Your Golf Handicap Today

Playing golf and keeping an official handicap is fun, but it’s more fun when you get better. 

To quickly see a lower scorecard and lower handicap, consider golf lessons, as they are instrumental in improving your game. Also, practice continuously at the driving range and play a lot of 18-hole rounds, which is probably the quickest way you will become a better golfer. 

About the Author

Gavin Riley

Gavin Riley is an accomplished golfer with over 8 years of experience, both in competitive play during his high school years and as a standout member of Kutztown University’s club team. His deep understanding of the game extends beyond the course; as a certified club fitter at Golf Galaxy, Gavin excels in pairing players with clubs that perfectly suit their swing while providing insightful tips to improve their overall game.

Passionate about the sport, his primary goal is to promote golf’s growth and accessibility. He is particularly focused on mentoring beginners and intermediate players, sharing his knowledge and techniques to help them advance their skills and deepen their enjoyment of the game. His blend of on-course experience and off-course expertise makes him a valuable guide for anyone looking to enhance their golf journey.