The Golf Handicap System


The Golf Handicap System: A Beginner's Overview

Golf’s handicap system has been around in one form or another for several hundred years.  We know this because golf historians have uncovered written references to a rudimentary system of handicapping that golfers had used as early as the late-17th century.

That early system has naturally evolved and become much more pervasive over the years (it’s estimated that approximately 15 million golfers worldwide currently have an approved handicap index) but, even with all the changes the system has gone through, its basic purpose today is exactly the same as it was back in the 1600’s:  to allow golfers of varying skill levels to compete with one another on an equal footing.  Essentially, it’s all about fairness, allowing golfers of lesser skill levels to compete with better players and still have a chance to win. 

Perhaps an analogy can better explain the intent of the handicap system.  Let’s suppose that you decided to enter a track race, only to find out that your competitor was Usain Bolt, considered by many as the fastest sprinter of all time.  Not only would the outcome of the race be certain before it even began but getting beaten in such a demoralizing manner would certainly make the whole experience a lot less enjoyable.  

But what if, prior to the race commencing, it was determined that you were entitled to a 30-meter head start, due to the overwhelming speed advantage of your competitor?  With that head start (i.e., that “handicap”) there’s at least a chance that you could compete with, and possibly even beat, the much speedier Bolt.  That is what the handicap system in golf is all about.  

Instead of an actual head start as in the racing example, the golf handicap provides the golfer of lesser ability a predetermined number of strokes when playing against a stronger player which levels the playing field and allows a fair competition.


At its most basic, a golf handicap is a numerical representation of your ability based on previous scores that you’ve posted.  Knowing your handicap number (referred to as your handicap “index”) allows you to compare yourself with other golfers and, as your handicap index changes over time, you can also use those fluctuations to track your own progress.  Keep in mind that, in golf, the lower a player’s handicap index is, the better the player. 

In calculating a golfer’s handicap index, the system factors in only the best 8 scores out of the last 20 scores that were posted (more on that later).  The actual mathematical computation that is used is rather complex, and beyond the scope of this article.  But it includes complicated factors such as your “adjusted gross score,” the golf course rating, the course’s “slope” rating, handicap “differentials,” etc.  Fortunately, though, you don’t need to know the exact formulas; once you’ve signed up in the handicap network, all you need to do is plug your score into a computer that has the handicap software installed (which are located at almost every golf course), and the software does the rest.


Let’s use an example to highlight how this would work in a real competition.  In a match in which a highly skilled golfer with a handicap index of, say, 3.0 is competing with a less skilled golfer whose handicap is 15.0, the differential between the two players’ handicaps is 12 (the golf equivalent of the 30-meter head start against Usain Bolt).  Consequently, at the end of the round, those 12 strokes get subtracted from the gross score of the weaker player, resulting in that player’s net score. 

That is how the handicap system makes the contest more equitable.  In this example, if the better player shot a 75, and the weaker player shot an 86, the weaker player’s net score of 74 (86 – 12) would actually win.  So, in what appeared to be a lopsided and unfair match at the outset ended up being a compelling and enjoyable competition.  As was its main purpose, the handicap turned out to be the great equalizer.


Most golfers assume, incorrectly, that their handicap index is a representation of their average score, thinking that their index identifies how many strokes over par they should score each time they play.  That is a misperception.  In actuality, your handicap index represents your potential playing ability.  Technically, it represents what you would be expected to score when you have one of your best rounds, not the average of the most recent rounds you’ve posted.

How does it do that?  By factoring in only the eight best scores out of your last 20 rounds, it means that, by design, it tosses out your 12 highest scores.  Using only your best rounds in the calculation, therefore, ensures that it is reflecting your potential rather than your average score. 

Not understanding that nuanced distinction can lead to unwarranted frustration on the part of golfers who assume that they should regularly play to their handicap.  But research done by the United States Golf Association’s (USGA) Handicap Committee suggests that players are only expected to shoot their handicap once every four to five rounds, or about 25% of the time, and that golfers will usually score three strokes higher on average than their index.


Most golfers are interested in knowing how they compare with other golfers.  If you’ve ever wondered where your handicap stacks up, we have the breakdown for you.  A golf statistical analysis organization called The Grint analyzed millions of golf scores to determine the distribution of golfing handicaps and to identify the “average” handicap.  Their results appear in the chart below.

As you might expect, the results are reflected in a trusty old bell curve distribution, with most golfers in the middle and progressively fewer on either end of the curve.  Their studies revealed that the average handicap is 13.2.  Where does your handicap fit among other golfers?

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Golf is much more enjoyable when players can compete with one another on a fair basis, wherever they play around the world. Competing against another golfer who is significantly better than you predetermines the outcome and makes the entire experience less enjoyable – for both players.

For centuries, the handicap system in golf has played a key role in leveling the playing field for golfers and in enabling fair competition, regardless of the players’ abilities. All golfers are certainly not created equal, but because of the handicap system, all of them can compete with one another on an equitable basis

- Bill Sullivan