Equitable Stroke Control in Golf and Maximum Scores Per Hole

A woman playing a round of golf.
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Is there a maximum score that golfers should take for any given hole during a round of golf? Yes—if the golfer has a USGA handicap index, and if the golfer is playing a round that he or she will turn in for handicap purposes.

The system and those maximum scores are called "Equitable Stroke Control," often abbreviated to ESC.

ESC Score Limits: The Equitable Stroke Control Chart

Here is the chart that shows Equitable Stroke Control scoring limits, which are based on one's course handicap:

Course Handicap Maximum Score
0-9 Double Bogey
10-19 7
20-29 8
30-39 9
40 or more 10

To determine the Equitable Stroke Control limits for your round, you must first know your course handicap. Once you've determined your course handicap, you can check this chart to determine the ESC per-hole maximums.

Reading the chart is simple: If your course handicap is, for example, 23, then the highest hole score you can turn in for handicap purposes is eight. If your course handicap is five, then the highest hole score you can turn in for handicap purposes is a double bogey.

(This chart should also be posted or otherwise made available at golf courses that use the USGA Handicap System.)

What if you don't yet have a handicap index, which means that you can't figure a course handicap? In that case, use the USGA maximum handicaps—36.4 for men, 40.4 for women—to determine course handicap. Once you've established your own index, switch to using that to determine course handicap.

The Purpose of Equitable Stroke Control

Equitable Stroke Control (ESC) is a feature of the USGA Handicap System designed to minimize the effects of "disaster holes" on a golfer's handicap index. You know: That one hole per round where you knock three balls in the water and then five-putt. The ESC score limits smooth out the potential effects of such a disaster hole on one's handicap index.

For example, on that one disaster hole, you might have used 14 strokes to get the ball in the hole. But based on your course handicap, ESC might require you to post only a "7" on the scorecard you submit to the handicap committee.

Including that 14 on your handicap score might throw your handicap index out of whack. And remember, the handicap index is not meant to reflect your average score, it's meant to reflect your best potential.

You Still Have to Count All Your Strokes

Keep in mind that Equitable Stroke Control is a function of the USGA Handicap System; it is used by golfers who carry USGA handicaps who are playing rounds that will be turned in to a handicap committee. If you do not carry a USGA handicap or are playing a round that you won't turn in for handicap purposes, ESC scoring limits don't apply.

Also note that even when ESC limits are in use, golfers must still count all their strokes. If you score 89, you don't get to claim to your buddies that you shot 79 because of ESC limits. Your score is the number of strokes you used. But the score you submit to a handicap committee is the total that results after you apply Equitable Stroke Control. (Within in the USGA Handicap System, the golfer's score that results after applying Equtable Stroke Control limits is known as the adjusted gross score).