Golf Handicap – The Complete Beginner’s Guide

Golf Handicap a Beginners Guide Article Feature Image

I’ve been getting several emails over the last few weeks about the golf handicap, “what is it, how do I work mine out, how do I even get one?” are just a few of the questions I’m getting almost on a daily basis.

A complete guide to the golf handicap

So as a reference this is the best guide I can put together to hopefully help you all with any questions you have relating to the golf handicap. If you don’t find the answers relating to handicap here or are unsure about something just send me an email and I’ll try my best to answer anything you throw at me.

What is a Golf Handicap?

A golf handicap is the approximate measurement of a golfer’s playing ability. A golf handicapping system is used so that golfers of all skill levels can play from a level playing field. It allows the weaker player to deduct a stroke off certain holes. At the end of a round a group of golfers of varying handicaps add their scores minus the strokes they were allowed to take off. This gives them each a net score based on their handicap and provides a winner based on how well a person played given their current skill level. Which means on any given day you have the ability to beat a Rory or a Tiger! Pretty good huh?

Perhaps the greatest reason you should keep record of your handicap is the ability to track your progress. With it you can see how well you’re progressing, and in what areas you could improve to keep you moving forward.

While there are a few variations of handicap systems, the general calculation is based around a golfers most recent rounds. Therefore a handicap is never out-dated, so your handicap increases and decreases based on your current level of ability.

In the United States, Mexico and now Australia, the handicap is calculated using additional variables. These include course rating and slope (more on those below). A “handicap differential” is calculated for the golfer’s round by using the course rating and slope, then the golfer’s handicap differential is used to calculate their handicap. Sounds quite complicated doesn’t it? Not to worry I’ll explain a little more on how to calculate your handicap below.

A Scratch and Bogey Golfer

Golfers with a handicap of 0 are known as scratch golfers. A golfer who has a handicap in the 20’s is known as a bogey golfer. It’s actually possible to have a minus handicap, which are known as ‘plus’ handicaps. At the end of a round the golfer with a plus handicap adds on his handicap to his score. Professional golfers play off scratch and don’t use the handicap system.

The USGA Golf Handicap System

The USGA Golf Handicap is used across America, Mexico, and now Australia. It’s a little more complex than the one in the UK & Ireland, but you don’t have to worry yourself with how the formula works, you just need to know that it does.

The USGA Handicapping System underwent a complete overhaul in the 1980’s when slope rating and course rating were added into the equation. This was an attempt to level the playing field as previous methods were less fortuitous to the higher skilled golfer.

What is Course Rating and Slope Rating?

The course rating is the number of strokes it would take a near scratch golfer to play round a certain course. A USGA course that has a course rating of 75.2 would mean that the average of scratch golfers best scores on that particular course is 75.2 strokes.

Slope rating is a number given to a course to represent the difficulty expected for bogey golfers (those which regularly shoot 20 over par). The slope rating of a course can range anywhere from 55 to 155. The higher the number the more difficult the course.

Par doesn’t play any part in calculating your handicap with the USGA, this comes down to your adjusted gross score, course rating, and slope rating. The adjusted gross score is the total number of shots allowed on a course  after taking off the maximum allowed strokes on certain holes around the course. The number of strokes which can be taken off during a round would be determined by Equitable Stroke Control or ESC.

What is Equitable Stroke Control?

ESC or Equitable Stroke Control is a number given to golfers on USGA golf courses which provides them with a maximum number of shots to take off  on any given hole during a round. This number changes based on the golfer’s handicap. Usually you will find a chart on the course you’re playing that states what that number will be in regard to your current course handicap. If not you can find a Equitable Stroke Control chart here.

The ESC is designed to help limit the damage of those disastrous holes in a given round. Imagine you were to shoot a consistent bogey each hole only to hit a 12 on just 1 of them. The ESC will help limit that damage and therefore it will not unfairly reflect in your handicap.

How Do I Get a Golf Handicap? (USGA)

A player’s official USGA Golf Handicap or Handicap Index, is derived from a complicated formula that you’ll be glad to know isn’t on a need to know basis! But if you’d like to tickle your mathematical taste buds, then a full explanation of the formula can be seen here.

With as few as 5 rounds it’s possible to get a handicap from golf clubs that are qualified to issue them. However, a true handicap index is issued from the best 10 of a golfer’s last 20 rounds, all you have to do is become a member of a club and start posting your scores with them. Some even let you enter in your own scores using the GHIN. Once you have your handicap index you can then work out what your course handicap is.

A golfer’s course handicap (not the handicap index) tells a golfer how many strokes he/she is allowed on a particular course. Most golf clubs have charts in their clubhouse that give you your course handicap based on your handicap index, the course rating, and the course slope. However, there are an abundance of golf handicap calculators you can use online for free. All you have to do is enter your handicap index and the slope rating of the course. One of those course handicap calculators is the one from the USGA here.

To get issued a handicap you need to be part of a golf club that’s qualified to issue golf handicaps. Most golf clubs have the means to issue them, so getting one shouldn’t be too difficult. If your local club doesn’t issue them there’s always the opportunity to start your own golf club! Yep, the USGA offers the ability to start a golf club without real estate, so as few as 10 friends can form a golf club and create a handicap committee posting their scores to the GHIN on behalf of its members. Or alternatively you can use a service like NetHandicap, they provide you with an official USGA Handicap without joining an actual golf club. This way you can save on those expensive course memberships.

The UK/Ireland Golf Handicapping System

The current golf handicap system that’s used in Britain & Ireland is known as the CONGU Unified Handicapping System. It’s published by the Council of National Golf Unions (CONGU). Fortunately for those in the UK/Ireland and some other parts of the world, the way in which the handicap is calculated is a lot less complicated than the one the USGA has in place. But without getting in to too much detail about the ins and outs of it all, the CONGU can give an unfair advantage to the lower handicapped player.

If you want to read all about the USGA vs CONGU Handicapping System then I recommend reading the British Vs USGA Handicaps article from Pope of Slope.

The CONGU system allows a player to take strokes off certain holes from their round. This system allows you a maximum of double bogey on each hole. So if you were to score a 10 on a par 5 you can score that hole as a 7 and not a 10. Doing this for each hole gives you your total net score for that round.

How to Calculate a Golf Handicap in the UK/Ireland

Golf handicap calculation is based on the golfer’s starting golf handicap. To work this out there are two bits of info you need.

  1. The SSS (Standard Scratch Score) of the course and tees you’re playing on. These usually range from 70-74.
  2. Three scorecards for your rounds on an 18 hole golf course.

An example of a golfer’s first three scores are below:

Round Strokes Standard Scratch Gross Score Adj. Gross Score
1 108 72 36 32
2 105 72 33 28
3 101 71 30 24

The ‘Gross Score’ is the number of strokes minus scratch. ‘Adj. Gross Score’ is the total number of strokes minus the scratch, minus the strokes allowed under the CONGU System. 84 is the total of all the Adj. gross scores. To work out this above golfer’s starting handicap all you have to do is divide that number (84) by 3 (the number of rounds). So in this case the golfer’s starting handicap is 28.

Buffer Zones – Adjusting your Handicap

Your current handicap dictates which category and buffer zone you fall into. This then relates to how your handicap decreases or increases over time. Following on from the example given above we would be in category 4 with a starting handicap of 28.

Category Handicap Range BufferZone Reduction (shot) Increase(Round)
1 0.1 – 5.4 +1 -0.1 0.1
2 5.5 – 12.4 +2 -0.2 0.1
3 12.5 – 20.4 +3 -0.3 0.1
4 20.5 – 28.4 +4 -0.4 0.1
5 28.5 > +5 -0.5 0

How to Continually Calculate your Handicap

Before I go on to explain more about the methods behind adjusting your handicap there’s a couple of things you need to know:

  • SSS (Standard Scratch Score) – This is the score a scratch (0 handicap) golfer is expected to go around the course in.
  • SI (Stroke Index) – The stroke Index is a rating given to each hole stating the difficulty level of that particular hole. This helps determine how many shots you can adjust your score with for that specific hole. If your handicap is less than 18 but more than the SI for a particular hole then you are allowed to take 1 stroke off your score for that hole. If your handicap is more than 18 + SI then you are allowed to take two strokes off your score for that hole.
Using the Stroke Index
So if your handicap is 16:
Hole SI Shots
1 18  
2 7 1
3 4 1
4 15 1
5 14 1
6 1 1
7 9 1
8 3 1
9 17  

If your handicap is 24:

Hole SI Shots
1 18 1
2 7 1
3 4 2
4 15 1
5 14 1
6 1 2
7 9 1
8 3 2
9 17 1

So as you can see from the first table, if you had a handicap of 16 and you were playing on a hole that had a SI (Stroke Index) of 15 you would be allowed to take one shot off your total strokes for that hole because your handicap is more than the SI but not more than 18 + SI.

In the second table it shows a golfer with a handicap of 24. If he plays a hole with a SI of 1 he’s allowed to take two shots off on that hole. That’s because the SI (1)  plus 18 is less than his handicap of 24, 18+1 = 19.

You’re not allowed to take any strokes off your score if your handicap is less than the SI for that particular hole.

Working out the Change in your Handicap

The adjusted scores for each hole are totalled up at the end of each round (Gross Adjusted Score). You’re allowed a maximum of two shots on those holes that the SI allows. So if you scored a 7 on a par 5 hole with a SI of 3 and you had a handicap of 24, you would take two strokes off that score and score that down as level par because your handicap is more than the SI + 18. With me 😉

Now, to work out your handicap change as you play more rounds you have to:

  • Subtract your gross adjusted score from the SSS (Standard Scratch Score) for the course.
  • Then take that gross score and take away your current handicap, this will leave you with your net score for the round.
  • Next step is to finally take your handicap category (which will be 1,2,3,4 or 5) and determine the adjustment based on what your buffer zone is.

Below is an example of this for a golfer whose handicap is in category 4:

How Does your Handicap Increase?
Adjusted Score – SSS = Gross Score103 – 70 = 33
Gross Score – Handicap = Net Score32 – 28 = 5
If Net Score > Buffer then ADD 0.15 is > +4
Running Handicap + 0.128.0 + 0.1
New Handicap calculated28.1
How does it stay the same?
If your H/Cap Range was within your buffer zone then there would be no change in your handicap.
Adjusted Score – SSS = Gross Score101 – 70 = 31
Gross Score – Handicap = Net Score31 – 28 = 3
Net Score is within buffer of +43 is < +4
No Change to handicap28.0
How does my handicap reduce?
Adjusted Score – SSS = Gross Score95 – 70 = 25
Gross Score – Handicap = Net Score25 – 28 = -3
Net Score < Handicap so reduction
is 0.4 per shot
3 * 0.4 = 1.2
Running handicap – reduction 28.0 – 1.2
New Handicap calculated26.8

Other Golf Association Handicap Systems

There are 4 main handicap systems around the world. Two of those I’ve discussed already (USGA and CONGU), the other two are the European Golf Association (EGA) Handicap System, and the South African Golf Association (SAGA) Handicap System. Unfortunately I’m not averse to the exact details of each of these handicap systems, but I do know that they don’t differ too much from the CONGU or the USGA handicap systems. If you want to read more about those please click on the links provided.


I hope by now you understand the whole concept and application of the handicap, if only a little. As soon as you join a golf club that is able to issue a handicap you’re likely to get more info if you ask for it. The important thing to remember is not to become overly concerned about the whole complex formulas behind the way the handicap is worked out. The best thing you can do is follow the advice of your local club pro and just get out and play the game and start handing your scorecards in. You’re just starting out so enjoy, you’ll soon pick up the bug and want to cut away at that handicap!! 🙂

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