The golf handicap has been leveling the playing field since — well, woods were made out of wood, and irons were made out of iron. It’s a way to create a match between golfers of differing skill levels, essentially turning a total rout into something far more competitive. So if you’re wondering, “what is a handicap in golf,” we have the answer. Here’s everything you need to know about a golf handicap, how to calculate yours, and ultimately make yourself a bit more respectable on the golf course.
A handicap in golf is a measure of how good you are on the links. Stretching between 0 and 36, the lower your golf handicap, the better you are at the sport over an 18-hole round. A 0 handicap is known as a scratch golfer and only 2% of golfers ever achieve this level.
On the flip side, a 36-handicap golfer is as rough as it gets in the game of golf. It’s basically a starting point for beginners that should be overcome with a bit of practice on the putting green or time on the driving range.
In the middle sits a bogey golfer, which as the name implies, averages about a bogey on each hole (score of 90) and has a handicap of around 20. This score is respectable, and it’s one that a beginner should strive to achieve if they want to participate in amateur tournaments in either stroke play or match play or have a reasonable shot at making some cash on golf betting games with friends.
For example, if you have a golf handicap of 24, you’re essentially spotted 24 strokes on a course. So if you shoot a 94 on a par-70 course, the 24 strokes you get would mean that you hit par! Another example would be that you have a handicap of 30. If you’re on a par-72 course and you shoot a 100, you would actually shoot two strokes less than your handicap, which would equate to a 2 under par. That’s not bad shooting, considering.
The United States Golf Teachers Federation (USGTF) defines a golf handicap as “a measure of his current ability over an entire round of golf, signified by a number. The lower the number, the better the golfer is.”
Moreover, the United States Golf Association (USGA) classifies a golf handicap system as one that “promotes equitable competition for all genders and ages by allowing players to compete fairly on any rated course.”
Essentially, it’s both a measure of skill and a way to create a more interesting game, whether you’re an established veteran or a newbie on the golf course.
Getting your ass handed to you on the course seems like an obvious reason why someone would create a golf handicap. But seeing as golf is the quintessential gentleman’s game, the handicap was again, merely a simple way to keep things fair.
The original handicap was first mentioned in the late 17th century, but the idea didn’t gain traction until the late 19th century as the sport grew in popularity in Britain. The first handicap was typically the average of a golfer’s top three scores during the year subtracted from par.
However, this idea didn’t really take into account course ratings (difficulty of each course) and the number of strokes per course. This made it increasingly difficult for handicappers to hit their assigned score and a marked downturn on the fairness spectrum.
To make this system even more complicated, almost every golf governing body in each country had its own different handicap index or rules.
In 1911, the USGA introduced its modern iteration of the handicap system. While it was initially based on the British three-score average, the USGA quickly found that this wasn’t exactly fair.
This led to the par rating system based on the scores of scratch golfers, as well as course handicap ratings and the slope rating, which measures the difficulty of a course based on the average of a bogey golfer rather than a scratch golfer.
Although the USGA handicap method gained traction throughout North America, five other golfing associations had their own handicapping systems, which led to confusion and problems, especially in international competitions or even with amateur golfers trying to play overseas on vacation.
That’s why the major golf associations finally decided to create the World Handicap System, which created a single handicapping system for every golf course in the world.
Introduced in 2020, the World Handicap System replaced the USGA Handicap System in the U.S. and all other foreign handicap systems.
Without getting too much into the complicated methodology among the six major golf associations, the World Handicap System mimics the USGA Handicap System in terms of slope ratings and course ratings with sprinklings of the five other associations thrown into the mix.
Essentially, it approximates how well you might play on a specific course based on the top eight scores you’ve achieved over the last 20 rounds. Today, 119 countries use this, should you should be good to go unless you want to see what golfing Yemen has to offer.
Now you’re finally thinking, “OK, OK, so what is a handicap in golf and how do I calculate my own?” Those are valid points, but the needlessly complicated history and methodology at least needed a quick discussion. So without further ado, here’s how to calculate your handicap in golf for different courses — but bear in mind — it’s a bit more involved than you may have anticipated.
Confusing enough? Here’s the formula written out to keep your wits about you:
Keep in mind that the course slope rating and course rating — the average score by a scratch golfer — are usually located on the scorecard. If you can’t it, ask someone at the clubhouse.
Where you stand on the spectrum of the golf handicap system is somewhat in the eye of the beholder. It doesn’t take into account your time on the course or experience. It’s all just what you shoot. So to that effect, there’s not truly a good or bad golf handicap as long as you’re playing to your full potential. However, a handicap of 20 or below is usually considered a good handicap, a 9 or below is usually considered a great handicap, and a 30 or more is a bad handicap.
Generally speaking, you can use these guidelines to determine if a player’s handicap is good or bad:
What is a golf handicap? It’s a number that should provide the motivation to get your butt out on the course. So if you want to shave some strokes off your handicap calculation of 30 and lower your handicap strokes once and for all, practice and playing regularly is probably the only way to do it.
Add an office putting green to the home office, hit the driving range, play hooky to get on the course, or do whatever you need to do. You just might find your 18-hole score and your bad holes drop significantly, firmly cementing you into a respectable handicap.
The choice is yours. But if you want to impress on the golf course, the lowest handicap comes with a prestige that few other achievements do. So what are you waiting for? Get out there and play.