How Golf Handicaps Work: Overview of Their Role and Function

Understanding Golf Handicaps and the Role They Play in Game

All golfers are not created equal. But with the golf handicap system, all golfers can compete equally — at least, all golfers who take part in the handicap system. (Participation in the handicap system is optional.)

For all golfers who use handicaps, the purpose is the same: To fairly compare oneself to other golfers, and to compete fairly against those other golfers when talent levels are unequal.

And what is a golf handicap? A handicap is a numerical value that roughly translates into that golfer's average score in relation to par. A handicap of 14, for example, indicates that golfer typically scores somewhere around 14-over par. (Due to the way handicaps are calculated, the handicap number, called an "index," will typically be slightly lower than the golfer's actual average score.)

Multiple Handicap Systems Combined Into One

Before we go farther into how golf handicaps work, understand that there used to be multiple handicap systems in use in around the golf world. The USGA Handicap System was the largest, followed by the CONGU System in use around Great Britain and Ireland. Australia had its own, and several other handicapping systems were in use in other geographic regions. There were differences between all these systems, making it difficult for golfers from different parts of the world to use their handicap ratings when playing each other.

Beginning in 2020, the entire world of golf began switching over to a new, combined World Handicap System. The WHS standardized handicapping practices around the world, smoothing out those differences that had existed between the earlier, separate systems.

Purpose of Golf Handicaps: Level the Playing Field

The purpose of a golf handicap system has always been to attempt to level the playing field for golfers of differing abilities, so that those golfers can compete equally. For example, imagine someone whose average score is 92 trying to compete against someone whose average score is 72. Without a handicapping system, it can't be done. At least not fairly, so that the average-92-scorer has a chance to win the match.

When golfers use the handicap system, no matter what their ability is, they can play one another in a match and both will have legitimate chances to win.

With a handicapping system, the weaker player is given strokes (allowed to deduct strokes from her score) on certain holes on a golf course. That is, on a particular hole the weaker play may be allowed to "take a stroke" (deduct a stroke) from her score for that hole. At the end of the round, the two players of differing abilities can figure their "net score," which is their gross (actual) score minus the strokes they were allowed to "take" (deduct) on certain holes.

Course Rating and Slope Rating Make Handicaps Fit the Golf Course

The USGA Handicapping System received a major refinement in the early 1980s with the introduction of slope rating for golf courses, joining the longstanding course rating as methods of rating the difficulty of a course.

In the World Handicap System introduced in 2020, course rating and slope rating went worldwide.

Course rating is the number of strokes a certain set of tees are expected to be played in by the upper-half of scratch golfers. A course rating of 74.8 means that 74.8 is expected to be the average score of the best 50-percent of rounds played by scratch golfers on that golf course.

Slope rating is a number representing the relative difficulty of a course for bogey golfers compared to course rating. Slope can range from 55 to 155, with 113 being considered a course of average difficulty.

A golf course's par plays no role in computing handicaps. Only adjusted gross score, course rating and slope rating come into play. Adjusted gross score is a golfer's total strokes after allowing for the maximum per-hole totals allowed under the handicapping system. The "maximum hole score" under the World Handicap System is a net double bogey on any given hole played. (Golfers still add up their actual number of strokes used, but when reporting a "handicap score," no score above a net double bogey can be used.)

How All That Creates a Handicap Index

A player's official "handicap index is derived from a complicated formula (that, thankfully, players themselves do not have to figure) that takes into account adjusted gross score, course rating and slope rating. (An explanation of the formula appears in our Golf Handicap FAQ.)

With as few as three rounds (54 holes total), a player can get a handicap index by joining clubs authorized to issue them. Eventually, handicap index is calculated using the eight best of a golfer's 20 most recent rounds.

Handicap Index Converts Into a 'Course Handicap'

Once a golfer has a handicap index, he or she has a rating of the state of their game. But every golf course is different, some are easier and some are very, very difficult. So before golfers actually use that handicap to play another golfer in a match or to compete in a tournament, another step has to be taken.

That step is converting the handicap index (say, 14.8) into a course handicap. Course handicap, not handicap index, is what actually tells a golfer how many strokes they are allowed to take (deduct) on a specific golf course. Most golf courses have charts golfers can consult to get their course handicap. Alternately, golfers can use various online course handicap calculators. All you need to calculate your course handicap is your handicap index and the slope rating of the golf course you are playing.

Once armed with course handicap, a golfer is ready to play on an equal basis with any other golfer in the world.

For example, let's say your handicap index is 14.8. But the golf course you are playing today is a very tough one. Your index would probably convert, therefore, into a higher course index. Let's say your course index on that tough track is 16.

Your opponent finds she has a course index of 7. Your opponent, as the better golfer, plays off scratch (meaning she plays off zero — he makes no stroke deductions during the round). You deduct your opponent's course handicap of seven from your own of 16 and are left with a course handicap of 9. And that's how many strokes you get during the round: You get to deduct nine strokes. (Those deductions are made on the nine toughest holes on the golf course, which will be shown on the "handicap" line of the scorecard.)

Taking Part In the Handicap System

The fact is, most golfers around the world don't bother with an official handicap index. They might trade handicap strokes informally, bartering with each other before a match begins ("How many strokes you giving me today?). Or, as is the cast with most golfers, they probably never play in formal competitions or in money matches.

But if you do want to play in real, competitive matches, or in tournaments, getting a handicap index is a very good idea. You might also consider just so you can closely track the state of your good, whether you are trending up or down at any given time as a golfer.

To take part in the World Handicap System, a golfer must join a club authorized to use the system. Most golf courses have clubs that can issue handicap indexes, so finding one isn't that difficult. Ask the golf pros at your favorite course about establishing a handicap index.

Once in such a club, a golfer will turn in or post his or her scores following every round, most often electronically by using a computer in the clubhouse or, if the club uses the GHIN service, by using any computer.