What is a handicap in golf?

Ellerslie Driving Range​

When you start playing golf, it can feel like there is too much to learn all at once. One of the most confusing things to grasp for new (and maybe even some experienced) golfers is golf’s handicap system. When you’re trying to learn the basics, figuring out your handicap can be very intimidating.  What’s a good handicap? How do I calculate my handicap? What does handicap even mean? Let’s dive in and get some answers.

Handicap defined

Put simply, a handicap is a numerical measure of a golfer’s potential or skill. It’s a number that reflects your level as a golfer. The lower your handicap, the better you are. Newer golfers will usually have very high handicaps, whilst seasoned veterans will have lower, or even negative handicaps.

Calculating your handicap

So, we know that a handicap is a number that shows how good of a golfer you are, but how do we calculate that number?

The most basic way to determine your handicap is to add up the number of strokes you are over par after completing a round of golf. If a course has a par of 72 and you scored 91, you’d have a handicap of 19. Whilst calculating your handicap this way is very basic, it’s a good place to get started.

Official handicap

There are better and more concise ways to calculate your handicap. If you’re a regular golfer, you can get an official handicap from The United States Golf Association. To get your official handicap from the USGA, the first thing you’ll need to do is play at least 12 rounds of golf over a consistent period of time.

Your adjusted score

Once you’ve got your scores from 12 rounds, you need to find your adjusted score. If you’re calculating your handicap, the maximum amount you should score on any given hole is 10. For every shot you make over 10, subtract that from your final score. The maximum number will not always be 10, but will adjust as you establish your handicap. According to the USGA:

  • The maximum score is 10 for a handicap of 40 or higher.
  • The maximum score is 9 for a handicap between 30 and 39.
  • The maximum score is 8 for a handicap between 20 and 29.
  • The maximum score is 7 for a handicap between 10 and 19
  • The maximum score is double-bogey for a handicap between 0 and 9.

The slope

Next, you’ll need to find the slope. The slope rating is a number that tells you a course’s difficulty for a bogey golfer (a golfer with an average score of 18 over par) compared to a scratch golfer (a golfer with a handicap of 0). The higher the slope rating, the harder the course.

Do the math

Now that you have your adjusted score and the slope rating, you can determine your handicap. Subtract the course rating from your adjusted score, and then divide that number by 113. After that, divide that number by the slope rating. This number is your handicap.

Why do I need to know my handicap?

If you know your handicap, you can equalise the playing field while playing with other golfers. Chances are you won’t have the same handicap as the people you play with, so if you all know your handicaps, you’ll be able to compete more fairly. No one has an advantage if you’re playing with people who all know their handicap. You can also find golfers with similar handicaps to yours to play with, so you’re playing with people who are around the same skill level as you.

Knowing your handicap is also a good way to keep track of your progress and development as a golfer. The more you play and improve, the lower your handicap will be. It’s satisfying to watch that number get smaller and smaller. The very best golfers can even achieve handicaps below zero!