'Adjusted Gross Score' (and Who Needs to Care About It)

Most golfers can ignore it, but those with USGA Handicaps need to know

A golfer pencils in his scores on a golf scorecard
The scores golfers report as part of the USGA Handicap System are adjusted gross scores. Reg Charity/Corbis/Getty Images

Adjusted gross score is the score that golfers who have USGA Handicap Indexes turn in for handicap purposes. Golfers who don't have a USGA Handicap Index don't need to worry about or use adjusted gross scores.

An adjusted gross score in golf is one that is computed using the per-hole maximum scores described in the USGA's equitable stroke control (ESC) guidelines. Sounds complicated, but don't worry: the gist of it is that the USGA puts a limit on how high a score a golfer can take on an individual hole during a handicap round.

How Adjusted Gross Score Is Used in Golf

Again, you need concern yourself with the adjusted gross score only if you have a USGA Handicap Index.

USGA Handicap Indexes are calculated using a golfer's 20 most recent rounds of golf. Golfers who have handicaps report their scores following the round. In the USGA handicap calculation, however, golfers don't report their gross scores (the actual number of strokes played), but their adjusted gross scores. And those adjusted gross scores are used to calculate handicap.

How to Get Your Adjusted Gross Score

First, you have to know your course handicap for the golf course being played. Then, you need to consult the equitable stroke control guidelines, which tell golfers what the maximum single-hole score they can report is for a round turned in for USGA handicap purposes.

Luckily, there's a chart. Here are the per-hole maximums under ESC:

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

So let's say Golfer A has a course handicap of 17. She knows from this chart that the score she turns in for handicap purposes can't contain any holes with scores higher than 7. But, whoops, Golfer A got a 9 on the sixth hole. Ouch!

That 9 counts—she doesn't get to ignore it. If she's playing in a tournament, or playing against a friend or wagering on her round, that 9 is what matters. That's her gross score on Hole 6.

But after the round, when she turns in her score for handicap purposes, that 9 becomes a 7. The 7 is her adjusted gross score for Hole 6, and that's what she uses when reporting her score for handicaps.

What's the Point of All That?

The purpose of the USGA Handicap System (or any other golf handicap system) is not just to tell you what your average golf score is, but to represent your potential for scoring. When you are playing at your best, what is your level of play, your potential best scoring? That's what handicaps seek to represent.

And a blow-up hole, or disaster hole—that 9 above, a 12 here, a 10 there—can throw off one's handicap. The USGA's answer to that is to impose the maximum per-hole scores in the ESC guidelines​ and to require golfers to report their adjusted gross scores, rather than actual scores, for handicap purposes.