What Is a Golf Handicap? The Ultimate Guide

A golfer putts the golf ball.

A common question heard on the first tee of any golf course is ‘What is your handicap?’ For new golfers, the term handicap can seem foreign and out of place, but a golfer’s handicap is an essential part of the game of golf.

So, what is a golf handicap?

A golf handicap is a measure of a golfer’s current ability over an 18-hole round of golf and is signified by a number. The lower the number, the better the golfer. The golf handicap system is designed so golfers of varying skill levels can compete against each other under fair and equitable conditions.

The handicap number suggests the average score above or below par a golfer will score when playing an 18-hole round of golf. The golfer will score near that number only about 10-15% of the time. A golf handicap also serves as a means to track a golfer’s change in performance over time. Ideally, as a golfer increases the frequency in which they play, their scores should consequently decline, lowering one’s handicap.

How Does a Golf Handicap Work?

A golf handicap works as an indicator of a golfer’s level of ability. When golfers of differing abilities play against each other in a competition, the handicap serves as a way for those golfers to compete against each other fairly and equitably.

A golfer’s handicap suggests the average score above or below par for an 18-hole round of golf. When a 6-handicap golfer plays against a 12-handicap golfer, the 6-handicapper will ‘give’ six strokes to their competitor, one stroke for each of the 6 hardest holes on the golf course.

In this case, ‘give’ refers to the reduction of 1 stroke from the total hole score of the higher handicapper. For example, a score of 5 for the 12-handicapper would be reduced to a 4. A score of 5 is referred to as the ‘gross’ score while the reduced score is known as the ‘net’ score.

An alternative way of applying one’s handicap is to reduce the total handicap from the golfer’s score for the round. Using our two golfers, here is an example. The 6-handicap golfer’s score for the 18-hole round is an 81 (gross score) so subtracting their 6 handicap strokes would equal a net score of 75. Meanwhile, the 12-handicapper shoots an 89 (gross score) so their net score would be a 77 and thus would lose to their opponent by 2 strokes.

How to Get a Golf Handicap

Golf course next to the water with buildings in the background.

To get a golf handicap, a golfer must first establish a ‘Handicap Index’. The way to establish a ‘Handicap Index’ is to join as a member of an authorized golf club within the jurisdiction of an Allied Golf Association. Authorized golf clubs include public and private golf facilities as well as small groups of at least 10 individuals that exist outside of brick and mortar facilities.

The latter type of club must meet specific requirements to achieve status, including establishing bylaws and creating committees that have supervisory activities such as monitoring the scoring trends and handicap indexes for their members.

An Allied Golf Association is the state or regional golf association authorized by the United States Golf Association to issue, monitor, and manage the handicap systems of their authorized member golf clubs, among other association duties.

Once a golfer locates their nearest authorized golf club, they will need to pay an annual membership fee (cost depends on the association but usually $30-50 annually) and begin posting their golf scores to receive your handicap index. The annual fee allows access to the USGA’s Golf Handicap Information Network, or GHIN (pronounced ‘jin’), the service utilized by the USGA for the posting of golfer scores.

Here are several considerations for golfers that are introduced to the USGA’s handicapping system:

  1. “Only scores made at courses with a valid Course Rating™ and Slope Rating® are acceptable for handicap purposes.”
  2. When establishing a handicap index, “the maximum hole score…during your first three [18-hole] rounds is limited to Par + 5”. Once this first threshold is met, the golfer is required to record a score no higher than net double bogey, or a score of double bogey plus any handicap stroke received based on the golfer’s course handicap.
    1. When recording scores hole by hole, the GHIN system will automatically make adjustments based on each golfer’s handicap, making understanding this process easier on newer golfers.
  3. The golfer must complete at least 7 holes in a 9-hole round or 14 holes in an 18-hole round for their score to count towards their handicap. Any remaining holes without a score are counted as par plus any handicap strokes that would have been received.
  4. All golfers must adhere to the Rules of Golf and Rules of Handicapping to ensure accuracy and fairness.

What Is GHIN?

The Golf Handicap Information Network is a handicap management tool that serves over 2 million golfers and over 16,000 golf clubs across the United States. Besides score posting capabilities, GHIN serves as an administrative tool for Allied Golf Associations to manage golfers within their authorized golf clubs as well as provide the associations with tournament management capabilities.

What Is a Handicap Index?

Per the USGA, “a handicap index provides you with a portable measure of your playing ability” that is applicable at any authorized golf club around the world. A handicap index is often a number with a decimal, for example – 12.7. The Handicap Index is not the number of strokes a golfer receives during a round, that is called a Course Handicap.

How to Calculate a Golf Handicap Index

A Titleist driver next to a golf ball on a tee.

Calculating a golf handicap index by hand can get complicated which is why the GHIN system exists to help streamline, centralize and simplify the process. Once a golfer has joined an authorized golf club, they will need to post a minimum of 54 holes worth of scores in any combination of 9 or 18-hole rounds of golf.

By the next day, the golfer will receive their initial Handicap Index that can be used to calculate the golfer’s handicap at any course they play. A golfer’s Handicap Index becomes official once they’ve posted 20 total 18-hole scores. The index is calculated by averaging the best 8 Score Differentials from the golfer’s 20 most recent scores.

A Score Differential “measures the performance of a round in relation to the relative difficulty of the course that was played, measured by the Course Rating and Slope Rating.”

Given the complexity of the Score Differential calculation, ((113/Slope Rating) x (Adjusted Gross Score – Course Rating – Playing Conditions Calculation)), it is easy to see why a complex system like USGA’s GHIN is needed to compute a golfer’s handicap index.

What Is a Course Handicap?

When a golfer arrives at the course and determines the tees they intend to play from, they will need to convert their Handicap Index into a Course Handicap, or “the number of strokes needed to play to par.” Most golf courses will have a Course Handicap conversion chart in the clubhouse, usually near a Handicap Posting Station, to help determine a Course Handicap.

There is also a formula you can use on your own to determine your Course Handicap. All you need is a calculator and a scorecard. After you have decided what tees to play from, the scorecard will indicate the Course Rating and Slope Rating for each set of tees. The Course Handicap formula is as follows:

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

Example: 12.4 x (133/113) + (71.7-72) = 14.29 or 14 Handicap Strokes (rounding down)

Course Rating vs. Slope Rating

The Course Rating and Slope Rating of a golf course are the “evaluation of the playing difficulty of the course for the scratch player and the bogey player under normal playing conditions.”

Per the World Handicap System, “A Course Rating represents the expected score for a scratch player (Handicap Index of 0.0) under normal playing conditions, while a Bogey Rating represents the expected score for a bogey player (Handicap Index 20.0 to 24.0)” Together, these two figures are used to calculate a golf course’s Slope Rating or the “measure of the relative difficulty of a golf course between a scratch player and all other players.”

On a golf course with a higher Slope Rating, a higher-handicapped golfer will need more strokes to compete equally with a scratch player. A golf course with a relative standard level of difficulty will have a Slope Rating of 113.

To determine a Course Rating, the Allied Golf Association will send a team of course raters (usually from 4-10 people) to the golf course to calculate the effective playing length of the course and weigh the severity of obstacle factors all to determine the difficulty of a golf course.

The course rating team will travel the golf course hole by hole to calculate the effective playing length and evaluate 10 obstacle factors for four types of golfers: scratch and bogey, male and female. The effective playing length of a hole is determined by starting at each tee’s yardage plate, or in the absence of a yardage plate at the spot where the tee markers are normally located, and measuring the distance to the center of the putting green.

Adjustments are made based on the impact of roll (firmness of the ground causing the ball to roll), wind, elevation changes, altitude (a higher altitude will result in further distances carried by a golf ball), dog-legs (left or right bend of a hole) and forced lay-ups (design features of a golf course that force the player to hit a conservative shot to avoid a hazard).

Utilizing charts, table values, adjustments, and formulas, the course rating team evaluates the following obstacles:

  1. Topography – The determination of how flat (easy) or undulated (difficult) a hole is. It takes into consideration the impact of the terrain on stance, lie, and the player’s ability to hit the next shot.
  2. Fairway – The measure of a fairway’s width and firmness at specific landing zones, including shots from the tee box and lay-up zones on par 5 holes. A wider fairway makes it easier for a golfer to keep the ball in the fairway and a more firm golf course will cause the ball to roll out more, adding to its difficulty. Forced carry (the distance required to hit the ball over a water hazard, for example) off the tee is also taken into consideration.
  3. Green Target – The measure of the effective size of the putting green and its ability to hold an approach or tee shot. Smaller greens add to the difficulty as do longer approach shots into the green (distances > 150 yards).
  4. Recoverability and Rough – The measure of how easy it is for a golfer to recover from a shot hit outside of the fairway as well as the depth of the rough. Thick rough and bushes or long native grasses can inhibit a golfer’s ability to recover effectively and will add to a course’s difficulty.
  5. Bunkers – The measure of the number of bunkers on a hole, both fairway bunkers, and greenside bunkers, as well as the measure of the depth of existing bunkers. Fewer bunkers equal an easier hole while deeper bunkers add to the difficulty.
  6. Crossing Obstacles – This refers to any hazards, cart paths, or breaks in the fairway that would limit a ball’s ability to roll. The width of the obstacle is also taken into consideration as a longer carry will increase difficulty.
  7. Lateral Obstacles – This includes water hazards, out-of-bounds, and woods lateral to the fairway of a golf hole. The rating team will measure the distance to the obstacles from the center of the fairway at specific landing zones along the hole.
  8. Trees – Similar to bunkers, fewer trees can equal an easier golf course but it is not always the case (i.e fewer trees may equal more wind). The rating team will also take into consideration the type of tree as an evergreen or willow tree may inhibit a golfer’s ability to recover more than an oak or maple tree.
  9. Green Surface – The rating team will examine how fast the green is (slower equals easier), the severity of the undulation (flatter is easier), and the shape of the green (circular or oblong is easier than triangular greens with tucked corners). A tiered green will also add difficulty.
  10. Psychology – This is a measure of the effect of visual and mental intimidation the hole has on a golfer.

After the team has finished their evaluation, they return to the course to play every hole as a means of verifying the results or making adjustments to the effective playing length or severity of the obstacles.

The Course Rating team leader will then utilize USGA software to plug in the collected numbers and the system computes the course rating. Golf courses should be rated approximately every 10 years to account for changes to the golf course whether it be the addition of a new set of tees or the effects of mother nature (i.e. erosion or loss of trees).

Scratch vs. Bogey Golfer

A golfer chips the ball out of a bunker.

Per the USGA Course Rating System, a scratch golfer is one that “can play to a Course Handicap of zero on any and all rated golf courses.” The Course Rating System assumes a “male scratch golfer can hit a tee shot of 250 yards and reach a 470-yard hole in two shots at sea level and a female scratch golfer can hit a 210-yard tee shot and reach a 400-yard hole in two strokes.”

Conversely, a male bogey golfer is one that “has a Course Handicap of about 20 and can hit 200 off the tee, reaching a 370 yard hole in 2 shots. A female bogey golfer has a Course Handicap of about 22 and can hit 150 off the tee and can reach 280 yards in 2 shots.”

The difference in distance per shot between scratch and bogey golfers is the distinguishing factor that helps determine a rated golf course’s hole handicaps.

What Is a Hole Handicap?

Each hole on a golf course is ranked by its difficulty relative to the scoring dispersion between a scratch golfer and a bogey golfer. Using the information above, par 4’s that are over 370 yards for male and 280 yards for female bogey golfers, respectively, will be more difficult because the rating system assumes they will require an additional shot to get on the green.

Par 3 yardages over 210 yards for males and 150 yards for female bogey golfers will also require an additional shot to get on the green. The distance advantage held by scratch golfers increases their probability of making par more often where the bogey golfer will more likely than not struggle to make par in a similar situation.

The holes on a scorecard are ranked 1 through 18, from the largest to smallest dispersion between the average score of scratch and bogey golfers for each hole on a course. The odd and even-numbered hole handicaps are split among the front and back nine.

This means if the front nine holes feature the odd-numbered hole handicaps (1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, and 17), the back nine will feature the even-numbered hole handicaps (2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, and 18), or vice versa.

This information is incredibly useful when applying handicap strokes to a golfer’s scorecard. However, it can get very complicated when done at scale for a handicapped tournament.

Fortunately, most tournament software utilized by Allied Golf Associations automatically factors in where handicap strokes are applied because the scoring software is compatible with the USGA GHIN software.

How Are Handicap Strokes Applied to a Scorecard?

Applying handicaps to a scorecard correctly is imperative to any competitive round of golf. The scorekeeper will put a dot or asterisk in the box for each hole that a player receives a handicap stroke (see the example below). The score without the handicap applied is the golfer’s ‘gross’ score, while the score with the handicap applied is the golfer’s ‘net’ score.

On a scorecard, the gross score is written in the box first and the net score second with a slash in between. In the example below, notice that the hole handicaps are different for men and women because of the course rating system.

Gold Tee5243863941573972024673083883223
Blue Tee5053663591443411654292873672958
Player 1 (Male – 2 HCP)444/3*34454537 / 36
Player 2 (Male – 12 HCP)66/5*4/3*3/2*5/4*465/4*4/3*43 / 37
Player 3 (Female – 9 HCP)5/4*6/5*5/4*35/4*256/4*542 / 37
Player 4 (Female – 22 HCP)5/4*7/5**6/4**5/4*5/4*4/3*6/5*5/4*5/4*48 / 37
Red Tee4433163321292831433522672842549
Ladies Handicap5311191315717 
HCP = course handicap     * = handicap stroke     / = gross/net score

What Is the World Handicap System?

The World Handicap System is the unification of the six different worldwide handicap systems. The purpose of the single system, instituted in 2020, is to allow golfers of all skills, abilities, and cultures anywhere in the world to compete fairly and equally.

What Is a Handicap Posting Station?

Golfers should post their scores immediately after they finish their round. For this reason, authorized golf clubs have what is called a ‘Handicap Posting Station’ in the clubhouse. The ‘Handicap Posting Station’ is where golfers with a registered handicap index can log into a computer connected to the USGA’s GHIN software to post their scores. Golfers should enter the following information each time they post a score:

  • The DATE the round was played,
  • The TEES the golfer played from,
  • Either the 18-HOLE SCORE or the HOLE BY HOLE score, and
  • The GOLF COURSE played (if not the same course). The GHIN system has a course lookup to assist in finding member clubs. If a golfer is unable to locate the club they played using the course search, they can enter the SLOPE and RATING for the tees played.

The golfer’s Handicap Index will be updated the following day. If a golfer is unable to post at the golf course after their round, they are encouraged to do so on their mobile device or online at home. Some clubs have restrictions on when and where rounds can be posted so be sure to pay attention to your authorized club’s or affiliated association’s score posting rules; they are often the same for uniformity across associations.

What Is a Handicap Committee?

A golf club’s Handicap Committee is one of a golf club’s most important committees and the members of the committee must understand the importance of their role. If left unmonitored, golfers may be lured into recording inaccurate scores to cheat the game and their competitors.

If a golfer cheats to get additional strokes and uses them to win a tournament or any prize money, the Handicap Committee must hold them accountable for their misdeeds.

Some duties of a Handicap Committee include:

  • Educate and communicate the Rules of Handicapping to members [of the club]
  • Make the process of converting a Handicap Index to a Course Handicap as easy as possible
  • Maintain accurate player scoring records
  • Apply applicable penalty scores and adjust the Handicap Index of any member whose Handicap Index does not reflect their demonstrated ability
  • Perform annual handicap reviews

What Is a Sandbagger?

A Sandbagger is a term in golf used to describe a golfer who disguises their ability by inaccurately recording higher than normal golf scores and then uses their inflated handicap to gain additional strokes to cheat their opponent. To do this, they will selectively enter their worst scores leading to the inflated Handicap Index.

What Is an Inactive Season?

Golf ball and tee sitting in the snow.

Allied Golf Associations can set Year-Round or Seasonal golf score posting seasons. Mostly due to seasonal weather changes, an ‘Inactive Season’ is the time during the year when the course is not being regularly maintained by the golf course superintendent (agronomists of the golf industry).

Most southern golf associations will accept scores year-round while northern golf associations affected by winter weather do not accept golf scores during certain times of the year.

One main reason for shortened posting seasons in northern golf associations is that most courses adopt what is called ‘Winter Rules’. Winter Rules are golf club-adopted rules that allow golfers to manage the effects of colder temperatures.

Cold weather also lessens the need for golf course superintendents (agronomists of the golf industry) to fully staff their course maintenance operations due to the decrease of play and limited grass growing because of seasonal change. Superintendents will often cut two holes in the putting greens and the flag will be switched from one hole to the other each day because it is impossible to cut new holes daily in frozen ground.

Another winter season concept is known as ‘Preferred Lies’. Due to the lack of course maintenance or because of soggy turf conditions, golf clubs will instate ‘Preferred Lies’ where the player has the option to move the ball to a better location near where their ball lies.

Golf is a sport where the intention is to play the ball as it lies so playing under this rule may have an effect on a golfer’s score for the hole. ‘Preferred Lies’ are only given if your ball lies in the fairway of the hole being played.

These simple changes to the golf rules can affect one’s score and thus adversely skew a golfer’s handicap. To find out if your authorized golf association is seasonal or year-round and what the active season dates are, be sure to visit the USGA’s Handicap Active and Inactive Season Schedule.

What Is a Good Golf Handicap?

According to USGA, the average handicap index for a male golfer is 14.2 while the average female handicap is 27.5. Roughly 30% of all male golfers with a registered handicap index are 10.9 or better and for female golfers, about 30% are 22.9 or better. Any handicap index below those thresholds is a good golf handicap.

What Does a Plus Handicap Indicate?

If a golfer has a plus handicap, meaning there is a + sign in front of their handicap index (i.e. +2.1), it indicates they consistently shoot under par. If this player was to compete in a handicapped tournament, they would have strokes added to their score versus taking them away.

According to Worldwide Golf, Tiger Woods’ handicap index during the peak of his career averaged out to an astonishing +6.7! For comparison’s sake, only 1.13% of all male golfers and 0.50% of female golfers with a registered handicap index are +1.0 or better.

What does ‘Most Likely Score’ Mean?

A Titleist 3 golf ball sitting in the grass.

Golfers of all abilities are no stranger to hole scores featuring large numbers. Oftentimes it’s easier to pick up the ball and move on to the next hole when finishing it seems a futile effort. Because the Rules of Handicapping require golfers to record a score for every hole played, a rule called ‘Most Likely Score’ was created to amend this issue.

Under the Rules of Handicapping, ‘Most Likely Score’ refers to the process of tabulating and recording a score on a hole that was not finished.

According to Rule 3.3, “When the format of play allows you to start a hole but not complete it, the score recorded for handicap purposes is your most likely score, equal to:

  • The number of strokes already taken on the hole, plus
  • Any penalty strokes incurred during the hole, plus
  • The number of strokes you would most likely require to complete the hole.”

It is essentially an honest and equitable assessment of the score the golfer would have made if they had finished the hole. The USGA offers a few guidelines to help golfers determine their ‘Most Likely Score’:

  • “If the ball lies on the putting green no more than 5 feet from the hole, add one 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 your ability.
  • If the ball lies more than 20 yards from the hole, add 3 or 4 additional strokes depending on the position of the ball, difficulty of the green and your ability.”

Is It Possible to Score Less Than a 1?

Yes, but only as a ‘net’ score. Remember, a ‘net’ score is a golfers ‘gross’ score (total strokes made on a hole) minus any handicap strokes. So if a golfer receives 2 handicap strokes on a par 3 hole they birdied, the golfer would record a 0 for their net score.

What Are Some Tips for Lowering One’s Handicap?

The learning curve of a new golfer can be steep but as golfers familiarize themselves with the game and the swing, they can see improvement very quickly. In terms of a handicap index, it is much easier for a 20-handicapper to become a 10-handicapper than it is for an 8-handicapper to become a 5-handicapper.

As new skills are acquired, it is common for new golfers to lose 5-10 strokes per round within the first six months of regular practice and play. Here are several tips for new golfers looking to lower their handicap:

  • Tee It Forward– Golf is a hard game no matter how long the hole is but this is especially true for new and beginning golfers. If you are just getting started in the game, make it easy on yourself and play from the forward most tee box. Not only will you speed up the pace of play, but you will likely have more fun hitting approach shots that are closer to the green.
  • Become Target Oriented – Whether on the range or playing a round, it is vital to pick a target to aim at on every swing. Not doing so would be like shooting a basketball wearing a blindfold. Similar to computers, our brains execute commands better when they are given specific instructions, like choosing the location where you want your golf ball to land. The more specific your commands, the higher the likelihood of hitting the ball where you want it to go.
  • Improve Your Skill Around the Putting Green – A golfer who can get ‘up and down’ from around the putting green will significantly improve their scoring and thus lower their handicap. The term ‘up and down’ refers to a golfer who misses the green on their approach shot and must get ‘up’ onto the green and ‘down’ into the hole to save par. To improve this skill, go to the practice chipping green at the driving range with only one ball. Select a target hole to chip to and make the putt with one stroke. Ideally, the goal with the chip is to get the ball as close as possible to have the shortest remaining putt. Do this ten times to establish a benchmark scrambling percentage then continue to practice and track your improvement over time. A golfer that consistently converts 30-50% of their up and downs in practice will see significant improvement in their scores.
  • Make More Putts – For new golfers to get better, they need to make more putts inside 5’. Too often on short putts, golfers tend to let their eyes follow the ball into the hole. Instead, focus on keeping your head still and let your ears listen for the ball to go in the hole. The head shifts as the eyes follow the ball and can often alter the path of the putting stroke forcing the ball to miss to the left or right of the hole. A still head will allow the path of the putter through impact to stay better aligned to the hole, increasing the frequency of short putts made.
  • Attend a Clinic or Group Lesson – Many public and private golf facilities offer group lessons for beginner golfers that review the basics in a friendly, unintimidating setting. One drawback is limited time with the instructor but group lessons do offer a way to make friends with golfers of similar skill levels.


What Is my golf handicap if I shoot a 100?

A golfer who shoots a score around 100 would most likely have a handicap index between 20 and 25. This type of golfer is commonly referred to as a ‘Bogey Golfer’ or a golfer who averages a bogey score for nearly every hole.

Is a 10 Handicap good?

A handicap index of 10 is very good for a golfer. According to the United States Golf Association, approximately ⅓ of all registered male golfers have a handicap index of less than 10 while less than 5% of all female golfers have a handicap index of less than 10.

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Steven G.

My name is Steven and I love everything sports! I created this website to share my passion with all of you. Enjoy!

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