How Do You Use a Handicap in Golf?

Woman writing down her golf score on the scorecard
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A golf "handicap" is a numerical representation of a golfer's playing ability. The lower a golfer's handicap, the better the golfer is. A 2-handicapper is better than a 10-handicapper who is better than a 20-handicapper.

But, beyond giving an idea of golfer's skill level, what is the use of a golf handicap? If you have one, how do you use it?

How Golfers Use Handicaps

Handicaps are used by golfers to produce net scores — a golfer's gross score (her actual number of strokes played) minus her "handicap strokes" (a number of strokes roughly equivalent to but not necessarily exactly the same as her handicap).

And why would golfers do that? Because that is the true purpose of golf handicaps: making it possible for golfers of different playing abilities compete fairly against one another. A golfer whose average (actual) score is 95 will never beat a golfer whose average (actual) score is 75, for example. But if both golfers have handicap ratings, those handicaps level the playing field and allow those two golfers with very different skill levels to compete fairly against one another.

The reason is that the 95-scorer has a higher handicap than the 75-scorer and, therefore, will get more "handicap strokes." At the end of a stroke-play round played using handicaps, the two golfers adjust their net scores (their actual strokes played) downward by subtracting those handicap strokes. If the 95-scorer got, for example, 22 handicap strokes while the 75-scorer got one handicap stroke, their "gross scores" become 73 and 74, respectively.

What's An 'Official Handicap'?

Any golfer can claim to have a handicap, and any golfer can average out her scores, subtract 72 (the average par of a golf course) from that average, and claim the difference is her handicap. (There are websites and apps that do this for you, too.)

But beginning in the 20th century, there have been various bodies in golf that govern and administer official handicaps in different parts of the world. In the United States, that was the USGA; in the U.K., it was a governing body known by the acronym CONGU. There were, into the early 21st century, around six different such bodies in the golf world that administered "official handicaps."

Beginning in 2020, a new World Handicap System rolled out, making the various handicap systems around the world compatible with one another.

It has always been the case that any golfer who wants to claim an "official handicap" needs to belong to a club (as in group or association). But such clubs are easy to find.

Once you're in, you simply need to turn in to the club's handicap committee (or go online and log-in to a handicap website, as the club might instruct you) your scorecards. After that, computers handle the calculations and provide regular handicap updates.

There is much, much more to the details of golf handicaps — explore the World Handicap System website linked above.