Golf handicaps were created to help golfers to compete on a more even playing field. Plenty of people want to know how many strokes they’re going to get, but no one ever stops to ask how is a golf handicap calculated? Well, we’re here to help you figure it out. Handicaps are calculated using the average score of all players in a group, and then adjusted for golf course ratings.
The goal is that handicap scores will be close to 18, and that there will not be too much difference between the best player in the group and the worst player in the group. In this blog post we’ll discuss how golf handicap systems work so you can understand what it means when your friend says they’re “twelve over par.”
What is a golf handicap?
A handicap makes it so that the best golfers in the world and those who play once a month can compete against each other, equally. For the most basic definition, a golf handicap is the number of strokes you are expected to shoot over par.
The number of “strokes” you are getting—from a person or the course, is related to handicap. Say your handicap comes out to 19, this means you get 19 strokes from the course. If you play to your handicap, you’d shoot 91 on a par 72 course. Your 19 strokes are spread across all 18 holes, one per hole, with the extra stroke coming on the hardest hole. Based on the rating system, you are more likely to double bogey this hole than the others.
How is a golf handicap calculated?
Your handicap is different than your handicap index. While your index stays the same regardless of where you’re playing, your handicap is different at every course. You’ll find this number by calculating your index against the course rating and slope rating. We don’t want to focus our lives or this article on math.
In terms of entering your scores into the GHIN (Golf Handicap and Information Network) system, these calculations are done automatically. The only info you need to provide is the course you played and the tees you played from, (as well as your score). One of the only times that knowing your official handicap beforehand is important is if you are playing a match among friends or in a tournament. These numbers help you create even teams and properly mark a scorecard (knowing where strokes will be given).
You’re here to learn more about golf, and when you’re at the course, you’re there to golf—not make handicap calculations. Thankfully, there are plenty of converters online and in apps that will do the conversion for you.
However, if you are curious we’ve included the formula here for you anyways. The USGA handicap system (United States Golf Association) lays out handicap for an 18-hole round in rule 6.1a. So how is a golf handicap calculated? To make the handicap calculation for 18 holes course handicaps, you can use the formula below.
Course Handicap = Handicap Index x (Slope Rating ÷ 113) + (Course Rating – par)
The only constant in this equation is the number 113. With whatever number you get, you round up or down. There are no decimals or half shots when converting handicaps, whole numbers (shots) only.
How do you get a golf handicap?
Acquiring a golf handicap has never been easier. In the past it was an exclusive feature of those paying for an expensive membership at a golf club. Today, more and more alternatives are popping up making it a common thing for even casual golfers.
Authorized Golf Clubs
As part of their efforts to grow the game, the USGA has expanded their list of authorized golf clubs that offer handicaps. Many local courses will allow you to pay a small fee for a handicap. Some of these courses will offer them as an incentive for belonging to a once-a-week league.
Allied Golf Associations
Allied golf associations will not provide you a handicap, but they assist you in getting one. Think of the USGA as the national golf association (which it is) and allied associations as your local reps. In most states, there are one association. For larger states such as California, there is more than one.
Suppose you’re new to an area and know nothing of the local golf scene, that’s where your local allied golf association comes in. You contact them. You tell them about yourself, where you and what you’re looking to get out of golf. They use their local expertise to set you up at a golf club full of similar players. From there you can pay a fee and you’re set with your handicap for the summer.
How to improve your golf handicap?
How do you improve anything? You practice. Just like any activity, game or sport, there is no substitute for experience in golf. This can be as simple as showing up 10 minutes earlier than normal and working on your putting. This can also be as big as hitting the driving range a day or two per week and implementing things you’ve been thinking about since the last time you played. Lastly, you can always play more golf.
Study your game
Knowing what to practice is one of the most difficult things about the game. It might be the most fun to go to the driving range and blast 50 drives but this is hardly a way to improve your overall game. Keep track of things like fairways and greens in regulation hit as well as putts per hole. Compare these averages to players of similar handicaps (readily available via google and other sites) and find where your game is lacking the most.
GHIN app tracking for stats
One of my favorite things about the GHIN mobile app is that you can enter hole-by-hole scores with some additional stats. This feature keeps track of the things mentioned in the paragraph before and will show how you’re improving over time. Miss every fairway to the right? The GHIN app tells you this and makes it easy to identify what needs to change. Averaging 2.5 putts per hole? Forget the driving range and spend all the time you have on the putting green.
Golf lessons with a certified professional cost more than $100 per hour. Good instruction is a worthy investment, but for a normal, weekend golfer is far too much money. Thanks to the internet, there are plenty of free instructional articles and videos. Unfortunately, all materials online are not created equally.
There are people that review golf courses and equipment that don’t know the first thing about either. There are golfers who cannot break 100 on their finest day offering swing tips and presenting their opinions as facts. You should not pay attention to these people.
In many skills, sports and professions there are people who may not have the skills to match their abilities, but their info is correct. Do not fall into this trap with golf. If someone is good or knowledgeable, you can see or hear it.
Find a pro with tons of subscribers and views, this is a good place to start. Some of our favorites are Rick Shiels and Paul Wilson. Watch a variety of these people and look for common themes. Isolate these pieces of instruction and try to apply them to your game. You won’t become a scratch golfer overnight, but with attention and care you’ll see improvement over time.
Why is easier to lower your handicap than raise it?
This is hardly a tip to improve your handicap, but is worth stating. It is much easier to lower your handicap than to raise it. For as frustrating as this rule is, it is necessary to prevent players from raising it through a few bad scores. This behavior is unethical, but surprisingly common and provides an undeserving advantage.
The rule I’m referring to is rule 3.1 (3.1a for new golfers who have never played golf and 3.1b for established golfers). When entering a score for handicap purposes you have a maximum score you can enter for a single hole.
For someone who does not have a handicap yet, this number is par plus five. 8 strokes on a par 3, 9 strokes on a par 4, you get the idea. After you have a handicap, it becomes net double bogey. If you are getting a stroke, the most you can enter on that hole is a triple bogey. If you are not getting a stroke, you can only go up to double bogey. Again, you get the picture.
Converting a Handicap Index to a 9-hole value
You might be asking yourself, “how do I figure out my handicap if I’m going to only play 9 holes?”. Well, it’s easier than you think. To the surprise of no one, the USGA has considered this situation (and pretty much every other golfer one you might come across on the golf course).
The USGA handicap system lays out handicapping a 9-hole round in rule 6.1b. To figure out a handicap for a specific front or back of a course you should use the formula below.
Course Handicap = (Handicap Index ÷ 2) x (9-hole Slope Rating ÷ 113) + (9-hole Course Rating – 9-hole par)
Alright, back to where we started. A golf handicap system is a way of leveling the playing field and keeping track of your progress as a golfer. By now you should be able to answer the question, “how is a golf handicap calculated”.
When you step onto the tee of a new golf course, you want to know what you’re expected to shoot. You also want to know if you’re playing good or bad given the course rating. Score lower than your expected number and you had a good day. Use more than the number of shots the course is giving you and there’s room to improve.
If you want to start taking golf seriously, make the small investment and get a handicap. There are plenty of ways to do it and the benefits go on and on. Whether you play for fun or competition, a handicap is a necessity when it comes to settling who’s the better golfer.