What is a Golf Handicap and How to Get One?


A golf handicap is a measure of how well you are able to play. It indicates the potential you have when playing at or near your best.

The lower someone’s handicap the better their golf should be.

Golf is unique because its handicap system allows players of all ages and abilities to still enjoy playing against one another.

For example, could an average club tennis player even return the serve of someone like Pete Sampras? In golf the handicap system allows you to have a chance even against professional players!

Remember though that a golf handicap is something to be aspired to not necessarily played to!

Some people think they should be beating their handicap every time they play. If you’re able to do that then quite simply your handicap is too high!

World Handicap System
What is a golf handicap (ver 2)

History of Golf Handicaps

Although not known by the term handicaps, people had been calculating the number of strokes they should receive from another player in a match since the late 17th century.

By the late 19th century people in the UK were calculating handicaps based on the average of their three best scores during the year relative to par.

This was still effectively at the core of the CONGU Unified Handicapping system until it was replaced in 2020 by the World Handicap System (WHS).

Despite the new system being called the “world” handicap system, some governing bodies haven’t adopted all aspects of the system! Dean Knuth, one of the original architects of the USGA system explains the flaws in the WHS.

Mr. Knuth points out that while handicap indexes are being calculated in a uniform manner, course handicaps are not. This might mean players using forward tees are losing shots that they would have been entitled to under the old USGA system.

Why Should I Get a Handicap!

There are several reasons why you should attempt to get a handicap and these include:

  • It allows you to access courses that require you to have a handicap
  • It allows you to play in competitions
  • It measures your level of performance and therefore it can be used as a guide to show you are improving as a golfer
Glen Abbey
Top courses may insist you have a handicap

How Do I Get a Handicap?

To obtain a handicap you would usually need to join a club that is affiliated with the local governing body. Under the current WHS system, you would need to submit three scores played over 18 holes (or you could do six scores of nine holes).

The club would then work out your handicap index based on the course rating for the tees that you played from. There is also an allowance for any major mistakes in your play leading to high scores on a single hole.

How Does the Golf Handicap System Work?

The World Handicapping System is largely based on the system used by the United States Golf Association (USGA). It was introduced in an attempt to standardize the method of handicap calculation for all golfers.

At its core, the WHS is merely taking an average of your best scores to calculate your handicap. The calculations involved however are more in-depth than were used in the CONGU system for example.

The WHS introduced new terms for golfers outside the USA to get used to:

Handicap Index – This is the figure that represents your handicap and is calculated from the average of your returned scores.

Course Handicap – This is a handicap you would actually use when playing a round of golf. This will vary depending upon the course and the tees that you have chosen to play from.

Course Rating – Every set of tees on every course will have a rating specified based on the score that a scratch player would be expected to produce.

Slope Rating – This is an attempt to quantify how difficult a golf course is for a bogey golfer (18 handicap) when compared with a scratch golfer (0 handicap). The rating runs from 55 to 155. The higher the number then the greater the relative difficulty for an 18 handicapper.

What is a golf handicap
Beeston Fields 36 hole rd 2 card

Calculating an Initial Handicap

So let’s say you just joined a golf club and handed in your first three scores of 91, 85, 89. Here’s how your first handicap index would be calculated.

First, any really high individual hole scores would be adjusted to no more than a net double bogey. (For an initial handicap it is assumed that a net par is 3 over). This reduces the impact of any really high scores.

So you scored an 11 on a par-4 in your first round which is reduced to a 9. You also scored a 10 on a par-3 in your third round so that is reduced to an 8 meaning your adjusted scores are now 89, 85 and 87.

You played from a set of tees with a course rating of 72.7 and a slope rating of 122.

To calculate the differential for each round you use this formula:

Differential = ((Adjusted score – Course rating) * 113)/ Slope rating

Round 1: ((89 – 72.7)*113)/122=15.1

Round 2: ((85 – 72.7)*113)/122=11.4

Round 3: ((87 – 72.7)*113)/122=13.2

So your first index would be (15.1+11.4+13.2)/3=13.2.

This would give you a playing handicap of 14 on the same course.

How does a Handicap Index Change?

As you play more golf and submit more scores your handicap would adjust based on the level of scores you are returning.

The number of scores used in the calculation varies depending on the total number of scores returned. If you have entered 20 scores or more then your index will be based on your best 8 rounds. If you haven’t entered 20 scores then the table lists how many rounds are used.

Number of roundsDifferentials to useAdjustment to average
3lowest 1-2.0
4lowest 1-1.0
5lowest 10
6lowest 2-1.0
7 or 8lowest 20
9 to 11lowest 30
12 to 14lowest 40
15 or 16lowest 50
17 or 18lowest 60
19lowest 70
How many rounds to use for average

Should I Only Submit Competition Scores?

The CONGU system was primarily designed to calculate handicaps based on competitive scores. The new WHS system is going to work best when you submit as many scores as possible including “social” rounds.

What is a Handicap Allowance?

Handicap allowance is an adjustment to your course handicap When playing in certain types of competition. For example, when playing in fourball better-ball players might receive 90% of their course handicap.

Can I Get a Handicap Without Joining a Club?

Yes, it is possible. Initiatives such as iGolf by England Golf allow you to get an official handicap without being a club member.

In the United States, the USGA allows like-minded individuals to form their own “club”. So if you have a group of at least 10 people you can form your own club to administer their handicaps

There are also a number of online options. These are generally not going to be considered official handicaps and will only be suitable for casual play amongst friends.

What is the Maximum Handicap?

Under the WHS maximum handicaps are now 54! The authorities believe that increasing the maximum handicap will mean more people will want to play golf. To be honest I’m a little skeptical. I think the biggest reasons why people don’t play golf are the cost and the amount of time it takes to play. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say “man, if I could only have a handicap of 50 then I’d be there on the course every week”.

It’s not so long ago that the maximum handicap for men was 28!

What is a Plus Handicap?

Plus handicaps are awarded to players who regularly play better than par. The top amateur players appearing in events such as the US and British Amateur and the Walker Cup would all be playing from a plus handicap.

This means rather than their handicap being deducted from their gross score their handicap is added to their gross score.

A professional might also play from a plus handicap if he happens to be playing at his local club with his friends.

My Opinion on the WHS

For me, the only positive aspect of the WHS is that it attempts to make allowance for the different levels of difficulty between courses.

I’m not a fan of increasing the handicap limit to 54. I really don’t see how that is giving people an incentive to improve. I don’t think anyone would confuse me with an athlete yet my first handicap was still 14.

I always thought that 28 was too high!

I’m also not keen on having to take a card and pencil out every time I play.

What is a Golf Handicap: Conclusion

There shouldn’t be anything stopping you from getting a handicap even if it is not strictly speaking an official one!

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