What Is the Highest Handicap a Golfer Can Have?

golfer trying to play out of tall grass
Do you have the highest golf handicap? Don't worry, you're not alone (even if the unfortunate golfer in the photo is). Jetta Productions/Photodisc/Getty Images

Is there a maximum handicap index in the USGA Handicap System, the highest handicap index a golfer can have?

Yes, there is. In fact, there are two: One maximum handicap for men and a different (slightly higher) one for women.

On this page we'll run through how the highest golf handicaps come into play, and what they are.

Maximum Scores Per Hole

First, if you're looking for info on maximum hole scores under the USGA Handicap System, know that those do exist, too. But we have a separate article that explains that feature, which is known as ESC, or Equitable Stroke Control. So please see our Equitable Stroke Control explainer.

Highest Handicap Index for Men

The highest handicap index a male golfer can have in the USGA Handicap System is 36.4. Repeat: 36.4 is the maximum index for men. (Or, for a 9-hole handicap index, 18.2 is the maximum for men.)

The USGA's statistics show that less than 1-percent of male golfers with handicaps - 0.92-percent, to be exact - have handicap indexes from 35.0 to the maximum of 36.4. Coincidentally, that is the same percentage of men whose USGA Handicap Index is +1 or better. So the extremes - the lowest handicaps and the highest handicaps - include equal numbers of golfers.

Highest Handicap Index for Women

The highest handicap index for women under the USGA Handicap System is 40.4 (or, for a 9-hole handicap, 20.2).

And it turns out that a handicap index of 39.0 to 40.4 is the most common index for women golfers: According to USGA stats, 10.09-percent of all women who carry a USGA index fall into that range. (Only 0.25-percent of women golfers have an index of +1 or better.)

Is There a Maximum Course Handicap?

In theory, no, the USGA does not specifically set out a limit on course handicap. But there is a practical limit due to the handicap index maximums listed above combined with the fact that there is a maximum achievable slope rating for golf courses.

When a golfer carries a USGA handicap index, he or she converts that into a course handicap before playing a golf course.

And course handicap is calculated by multiplying a golfer's handicap index by the golf course's slope rating, then dividing that sum by 113. So a golfer who has the highest golf handicap and is playing a course with the maximum 155 slope rating will, in practice, get the highest-possible course handicap.

For men, 36.4 multiplied by 155 and divided by 113 equals a course handicap of 50.

For women, 40.4 multiplied by 155 and divided by 113 equals a course handicap of 55.

Is There a Maximum Number of Handicap Strokes That Can Be Used Per Hole?

How many handicap strokes you get to use on a given hole is determined by your course handicap. If your course handicap is 9, you get to deduct one stroke from each of the nine hardest holes on the course (as designated by the "handicap" row on the scorecard, which ranks the holes from 1 through 18).

If your course handicap is 18, you get one stroke per hole. If it is 36, you get two strokes per hole. And if it is the maximum 50 for men? That golfer would get two strokes per hole plus a third stroke on holes 1 through 14 from the handicap row of the scorecard.

A woman with the maximum of 55 would get three strokes per hole plus a fourth stroke on the No. 1 handicap hole.

(See How to Use Your Course Handicap to 'Take Strokes' for more about using the handicap row of the scorecard.)

But Back to the Original Question ...

To bring this back around to the question we started with - what is the highest golf handicap? - here is the answer (or rather, answers) again:

  • The highest golf handicap index a male golfer can have under the USGA system is 36.4;
  • and the highest handicap index a female golfer can have is 40.4.

A Change Is Coming: Highest Handicaps Go Up in 2020

Beginning in 2020, the USGA, R&A and other handicapping bodies around the world will switch to new handicap system called the World Handicap System. One of the things that will change beginning in 2020 is the maximum handicap index for both male and female golfers.

Beginning in 2020, with the adoption of the World Handicap System, the highest-possible handicap will be 54.0. That number will apply to both men and women. The change, the USGA explained, will "encourage more golfers to measure and track their performance to increase their enjoyment of the game."