The Ultimate Guide to How Golf Handicap Works

Golf handicaps are notoriously complicated. The math can be challenging, confusing, and seem daunting.  However, any golfer can calculate an accurate handicap score using a simple, logical process.

In this article, we provide you with clear answers to how does golf handicap work. Once you calculate your handicap, you can fairly compete with friends and clients who may be better or worse than you.

You will also be able to gauge how much your golf game is improving as you continue to play more rounds.

As any golfer will tell you, golf is a demanding game that can mentally exhaust you after only a few ill-advised shots, but with your handicap, you will be able to rely on the bigger picture and understand how you compete against yourself over 18 holes.  The next shot could be better, and before you know it, you will be on your way to matching or beating your handicap.

The ultimate guide to how golf handicap works

Handicap History

In the mid-1800s in Scotland, handicaps were used to match more skilled golfers against novices.  Indeed, these golfers referred to handicaps as “third-one” or “half-one,” meaning that the novice did not have to count one stroke every three or two holes.  However, these handicaps were provided at the golfers’ discretion or based on a committee decision and were not applied throughout the country.

About 50 years later, in the late 1800s, these handicap odds were applied to tournaments.  The equation that the tournaments used was to first take the three best annual scores on the course, average the three scores, and subtract the average from par.

For example, if the three best scores on the course were 60, 65, and 70, and the par for the course was 59, we would take the average of the top three scores, 65, and then subtract it be par for the course 7 (65-59).  This handicap system was criticized for favoring better players and leaving every other golfer in the dust.

It was criticized because it made it nearly impossible for average golfers who simply had a few good rounds to ever get to the handicap.  Over the years, assisted by technology, courses and players helped to evolve the handicap system.

As golf continued to formulate ways to determine how golf handicaps work, this handicap history served as a foundation for a clearer handicap calculation.

Preparation Before Calculating Your Handicap

Although initially daunting, getting your handicap in golf is not difficult and something anyone can do.  However, not every beginner should feel compelled to get a handicap.  Instead, work on your game and focus on improving your swing (we have all been there).

Once you can shoot under 100 for 18-holes, you can then you should begin the process of calculating your handicap.

You will first need to sign up at your home course or register with the United States Golf Association (USGA) at  Your local golf club will often include a small fee with your annual membership or charge roughly $50 a year to record your scores.

Once your application is processed, you will receive a GHIN number.  This GHIN number is your unique number to record your scores.  When you enter your scores after logging into your GHIN number, the database will record your score and course.  This will allow you to accurately track your handicap once you shoot enough rounds of golf.

As promised, this article will answer how does golf handicap work, but luckily technology will crunch the numbers for you through today’s reliable systems.

Record Your Honest Score

One of the golden rules of golf, and life, is “don’t cheat.” Golf is a game not just against others but against yourself.  You want to compete against your previous scores and continue to improve.  You will only be able to do that by keeping your score accurately.  That means taking a penalty stroke when you shoot the ball out of bounds, counting the real number of putts, and no free re-do tee shots.

No lying!

Along with keeping an accurate score, you will need to have someone golf with you.  The reason you need to play with someone else is that person will need to witness your round and sign your scorecard after the round.  Without this second round of review, it is possible that a golfer could make outlandish statements on their scorecard (although we all know that this sometimes happens even with a second golfer present).

Normally, you will need between 10 to 20 rounds of golf before you sign up for a handicap.  You will want to golf at a different course to provide an outlay of how you perform in different circumstances and terrain.

Tracking your golf course handicap

Complying with USGA Scoring Rules

You should always accurately reflect your true score on your scorecard.  However, that process may entail reducing your score in compliance with USGA guidelines.

Indeed, the USGA has a set of basic handicapping scoring so that the highest score that you can receive for a possible hole is capped.  For example, if you shoot a 15 on a hole, you will not ultimately report 15 shots on that hole.  Instead, you would compute your number of shots by the following USGA handicap metric:

  • 40 or above handicap – Maximum score of 10;
  • 30 to 39 handicap – Maximum score of 9;
  • 20 to 29 handicap – Maximum score of 8;
  • 10 to 19 handicap – Maximum score of 7; and
  • 1 to 9 handicap – Maximum score of double-bogey.

Considering the Course Rating

As any golfer will attest, not all courses are created equally.  Obviously, the courses on the PGA tour are more challenging than the community golf course you golf on weeknights.  To account for these differences, each course is given a “course rating.”

This rating is formulated to describe what a golfer who normally shoots par would shoot on the particular course.  In other words, the golfer does not out-perform the course expectations but takes as many strokes as anticipated for the 18-hole course.  For example, if a course is very challenging, and the par on the 18-hole course is 76, the course rating maybe 79 or 80, three or four strokes over par.

The course rating can adjust a golfer’s handicap based on where they are playing.  If the course is harder, a player’s handicap will be slightly increased.

Inversely, if the course is easier, the golfer’s handicap will be slightly reduced.

Reviewing the Slope Rating

In 1979, a Navy Commander named Dean Knuth invented a “slope” formula to predict how bogey golfers (i.e., one stroke greater than par) would shoot on a specific course.  Taking this number, Knuth compared the rating to those golfers who shot near par to calculate something called the “slope rating.”

In addition to the course rating, slope rating provides golfers with another variable to calculate their handicap. They travel to a different course, thus ensuring that they can accurately track their progress and fairly compete with other golfers with varying degrees of expertise.

Digging Into the Math – The Handicap Formula

Now that we have analyzed the background of what a handicap is and the various steps you should take to put yourself in a position to calculate your handicap, the time has come to get into the mat to fully answer how does golf handicap work.  Each golfer’s handicaps are calculated by using a formula posted by the USGA.

The USGA calculation takes your adjusted score (meaning that you have accounted for the USGA maximum shot score per hole) and subtracts that score by the course rating, which will be provided to you by the specific course you golf.  This figure is then multiplied by 113, which is the average slope rating difficulty.

The third step is to take this multiplied number and divide it by the actual course rating for the selected tees at issue.

Understanding the Golf handicap system

Handicap Math Example

To demonstrate the above USGA formula, let’s use some numbers to simplify the issue of how does golf handicap work:

  • After 18-holes, you shot a 90 on a challenging course. It was really a 92, but you were able to take two strokes off of your score after adjusting it to comply with USGA guidelines. You’re excited but not quite sure what your handicap is.  Next week you might be playing at a different course and would like to compare today’s round to next week’s.  You’ve read this article and are ready to break out the calculator app on your cell phone.
  • You’re informed by the employees on the course that the course rating is an 84. 90-84=6.  So far, so good.  You have 6.
  • The next step is to multiple six by 113 (the average slope rating), which equals 678.
  • The final step is to divide this number by the course rating, which again you will receive from the course. We’ll say that number 130. We then calculate 678 / 130, which equals 5.21.

This means that, on average, this golfer will shoot roughly five strokes over par on an 18-hole course.  Once this golfer turns in around 20 scores, the average of the ten lowest differentials will determine the golfer’s overall handicap.  Using this overall handicap and multiplying it by 96% will provide the golfer with their handicap index.

You can use these equations to double-check USGA’s software, but remember that the USGA handicap software will complete these equations for you.

Taking Your Handicap Score One Step Further

Interpreting Your Handicap

You now know how to calculate your handicap, but it is just a number.  What now?

This number reflects an estimate of what you should expect to shoot on an average par 18-hole course. For example, if your handicap is 12 and the 18-hole par is 74, you would expect to shoot around an 86.

Although most golfers shoot over par, many above-average golfers actually have a positive score. If a golfer reported a +1 handicap and the 18-hole par is 74, then we would estimate that this golfer would shoot a 73 for the round.

Professional golfers, on average, shoot around +4 to +6 handicaps on the most challenging courses in the world.

Recording your golf handicap

Applying Your Handicap for Game Play

You have several rounds under your belt and you’ve reported your scores accurately. Now you are ready for that weekend tournament with work colleagues. There are various ways you can apply your group’s handicap scores to even the playing field for a fun and competitive weekend.

One option is to play “stroke play.” In a competition with a fellow golfer, let’s say that your handicap is a 12, and your competitor’s handicap is an 18. In this example, you would just have to beat your competitor by six or more strokes. This is the easiest way to apply your handicap score.

A second option is to play “match play.”

Let’s use the same example and say that your handicap is six shots lower than your competitor.  This means that your competitor will stroke on the top six handicap holes.  Referring to your scorecard, you will reference the “Handicap” or “HCP” row or column on the scorecard.  This will rank the difficultly of each hole, from most difficult to least difficult.

In our example, your competitor would apply his six strokes to these top six difficult holes.

A word to the wise – before teeing off, you should agree upon whether you will be playing “stroke play” or “match play.”

This will avoid confusion during the round, add to everyone’s fun knowing how close the competition is, and ensure that no one feels “cheated” once the round is complete.  Again, the purpose of handicapping is to increase fairness and make the game competitive and fun – not create ill-will or hard feelings through a simple miscommunication.

Golf ball at hole

How Does Golf Handicap Work?

Frequently Asked Questions

A lot of new content leads to a lot of new questions, but not to fret, below are answers to some common handicap questions.

What Kind of Handicap Should I Aspire For?

There is no canned “correct” answer.  You will notice that the more you play, the better you will (hopefully) perform, thus leading to a lower handicap. For example, if you want to shoot under 100 shots in your 18-hole round, you might want to aspire for a 20 handicap.

Again, this target will change the more you continue to play.

If your only wish is to golf with a stronger golfer and not slow him or her down, then if you can break 90 shots in your 18-hole round, you should be in a good position, but again, this will take continuous practice and dedication.

Do I Really Need a Handicap?

It is not required that you have a handicap, but it is certainly recommended.  For one thing, it’s courteous to other golfers to that you can help even the playing field to make the round more enjoyable for everyone involved.  Whether you are playing “stroke play” or “match play,” you do not want to be the odd one out.

Equally important, this will help you track your progress, analyze your weak points, and determine where you may be able to improve.  For example, you may need to increase your endurance or stamina if you notice that you normally take more shots late in the round regardless of the difficulty of the hole.

I’m Not a Great Golfer. What’s the Maximum Handicap?

Remember that you should wait to start recording your scores before you shoot under 100 shots per 18-holes.  According to the USGA, the maximum handicap for men is 36.4 and for women is 40.4.

I’m Not Great at Math. How Do I Get Someone to Calculate My Handicap?

Not to worry.  As discussed above, your course and the USGA website will calculate your handicap for you, but for those of you that have been wondering “how does golf handicap work” – now you have the inside scoop!

How Often Am I Allowed To Update My Handicap?

Ultimately, it is your decision, but to remain accurate, you should report your score for every serious round of golf you complete, even if it wasn’t your best round.

How Can I Lower My Handicap?

The tried and true principle that “practice makes better” applies in golf as well. Don’t be too focused on your score! Practice by yourself, with friends, and/or with a coach to analyze and improve different phases of your game.

Over time you should see your handicap drop with disciplined, focused practice.

Do Tournament Scores Matter?

Yes, tournaments can make a big difference in your overall handicap.  When electronically entering your score, be sure to check the “Tournament” box before entering your score.

Golf clubs on a golf course


Understanding handicapping will improve your golf game by allowing you to track your progress.  You will be able to competitively golf with your friends, family, and colleagues.  People appreciate others that know their handicap score.

Now that you know what goes into calculating a handicap, and the formula to calculate your handicap, you are prepared to begin tracking your handicap.

Next, check out this in-depth tutorial on how to putt better every time.

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