If You Want a Golf Handicap, You Need a Certain Number of Scores

A single golfer teeing off
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If you want to establish a golf handicap, you need just five scores to get a USGA Handicap Index, but only one of your scores counts. As you add scores, the handicap formula uses more of your scores. Once you have 20 or more scores, the handicap formula uses 10 of the last 20 scores to calculate your USGA Handicap Index.

Figuring Out the Formula

The calculation is a bit complex. The United States Golf Association is just one of six world bodies that have systems for establishing and maintaining handicaps, but the USGA is by far the predominate organization. The trademarked USGA Handicap System applies a formula to each score based on the difficulty of the golf course played. The resulting number is your handicap differential.

To calculate your handicap, the system uses the lowest differentials. So, for example, if you have just five scores, your handicap will be based on the one lowest differential, but if you have 20 or more scores, it will be based on the 10 lowest differentials of your last 20 scores.

Here's how many of your score differentials are used for your handicap based on the total scores:

  • Five or six scores—the lowest differential
  • Seven or eight scores—the two lowest differentials
  • Nine or 10 scores—the three lowest differentials
  • 11 or 12 scores—the four lowest differentials
  • 13 or 14 scores—the five lowest differentials
  • 15 or 16 scores—the six lowest differentials
  • 17 scores—the seven lowest differentials
  • 18 scores—the eight lowest differentials
  • 19 scores—the nine lowest differentials
  • 20 scores—the 10 lowest differentials

Adjusting Those Scores

Once you have a handicap, the scores you continue to turn in for use in calculating your golf handicap are not necessarily your actual gross scores, but what are called adjusted gross scores. Adjusted gross scores are those that include the per-hole limits known as equitable stroke control

In other words, if you have a 12 on a hole, but you have a per-hole limit of 8, you would subtract four strokes from your score. Your per-hole limit is determined by your handicap. It is this adjusted gross score that is used to calculate the differential.

Other Handicap Considerations

To establish a handicap, you have to join a golf club that uses the USGA's system. You post your adjusted scores through that club, usually by computer. You cannot post scores for rounds you played by yourself. Just 10-15 percent of golfers in the United States have an official handicap, according to the USGA.

The other five handicap systems around the world use different criteria. The Universal Handicap System (UHS) administered by CONGU in the U.K. and Ireland, for example, requires 54 holes (preferably in the form of three 18-hole rounds) to get a golfer started with a handicap.

Beginning in January 2020, the handicap systems are changing. The six organizations administering handicaps worldwide are coming together under one system, dubbed the World Handicap System. The WHS will use the lowest eight of your last 20 scores and will require just three scores to establish a handicap.