Golf Handicap Explained: What is a Golf Handicap?

guys playing golf on a golf course

It happens to every new golfer at some point. You're talking to a fellow golfer and sipping a drink in the clubhouse or making your way to the next hole in a tournament. Things are going great, but then they pop the question: "What's your handicap?"

Discussing handicaps is a common part of golf small talk, but knowing the answer to the question "What does handicap mean in golf?" does more than keep you from feeling awkward when chatting with other golfers. Knowing what your handicap is in golf can allow you to track the progress you've made in developing your skills.

What Is a Handicap in Golf?

A golf handicap is a measure of how many extra shots over par you'll typically make on the course, and it is an easy way to measure how good a player is. More experienced players who have mastered the basic skills will typically come closer to par when they play, giving them a lower handicap than newer players who will make more strokes at each hole.

Let's look at some examples.

Say your handicap is 25, you will typically play 25 over par. If you're playing on a par 70 course, you could expect to take 95 strokes from the first through the 18th holes. If your handicap is 2, on the same courses you would expect to take 72 strokes. A handicap of 10 would mean you would likely take 80 strokes.

History of Golf Handicaps

The first mention of handicaps for golfers appears in the diary of a student named Thomas Kincaid, but the idea of assigning a handicap wouldn't become popular until the end of the 19th century.

Different methods of calculating golf handicaps emerged, but they all had the same goal--to make it possible for people of varying skill levels to enjoy playing together. A golf handicap allows you to take to the course with players who are above your skill level and still have a good time. It allows you to play with a larger pool of golfers.

Starting in the 20th century, the United States Golf Association (USGA) established official rules for calculating and using golf handicaps. The USGA has amended these rules a few times.

What Is a Course Handicap?

Your golf handicap index is an indication of your ability on the course. When you play on different courses, you can use it to determine your course handicap. The term refers to the number of strokes that are required to play to par for the specific tees you're playing. At the end of the round, you use your course handicap to determine your net score based on your gross score.

The course handicap takes the fact that all courses present unique challenges into consideration. It is a way to expand the equitable playing opportunities of the golf handicap, so players of differing abilities can compete on courses of varying difficulties.

Your course handicap will be higher on more challenging courses than on easier ones. You basically get a bigger boost when you're putting your skills to the test on a more demanding course.

You can calculate the course handicap on your own, but it's a complicated process. A much easier way is to use the USGA's Handicap Calculator. To do so, you'll need to plug in:

  • Your handicap index: Jump to the next section to learn how to calculate this.
  • Course rating: The course rating is a measure of the course's difficulty.
  • Slope rating: The slope rating ranges from 55 to 155 and represents how hilly the course is. You can find the course and slope ratings on golf course websites and scorecards.
  • Par: The total par for the number of holes you're playing.

How To Calculate My Golf Handicap

Now that you've had the concept of the golf handicap explained to you, it's time to calculate yours. To do so:

  1. Review your scores for the most recent 20 rounds that you've played.
  2. Identify your eight best rounds.
  3. Add the scores for the top eight rounds.
  4. Divide the sum of the scores by eight.
  5. Round down if the number is the decimal .5 or less and up if the decimal is over .5.

The number is the score you can expect to get on a course of average difficulty. To determine your handicap index, subtract 70.

Let's walk through an example step by step.

  1. Out of your last 20 rounds, your best scores were 89, 91, 91, 92, 92, 93, 96 and 98.
  2. Add those eight figures together for a total of 742.
  3. Divide 742 by 8 giving you 92.75.
  4. Round up to 93. You can expect to take 93 shots on a score of average difficulty.
  5. Subtract 70 from 93 to get 23, which is your handicap index. On a par 70 course, you will usually take 23 strokes over par.

Keep in mind that handicaps in golf aren't fixed. With each new round you play, your handicap may increase or decrease. As a result, it's best to recalculate your handicap after every round by following the steps above.

Practice Is the Key to Lowering Your Golf Handicap

Once you know your golf handicap, you can continue to track it over time and experience the satisfaction of lowering it as you continue to master the game. The key to lowering a handicap in golf is getting out on the course regularly to practice. Devereux can help you look and feel your best during every practice round and trip to the driving range with our line of golf apparel and accessories designed with both style and performance in mind. Discover what's new in our collection, and get ready to work on that handicap.

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