how does the golf handicap system work

How the Handicap System Works in Golf

One of the many reasons to love golf is that as an amateur, can compete with a PGA Tour pro. Well technically, your score won’t be the same but thanks to the handicap system, you can make it a fair fight.

Without a handicap system, it makes it very difficult to compete with players that aren’t quite at your level. This is very rare in other sports like basketball, tennis or running.

But there is a lot of confusion about the handicap system in golf. So many golfers ask, “How does the handicap system actually work in golf?”

If you have ever thought about this, we have all your answers. This post will show you how why handicaps were originally created, how to calculate your handicap, how to get signed up, and some of the most commonly asked questions.

Let’s get to it…

Golf Handicap for Beginners

Why the Handicap System Was Created

Have you ever found yourself thinking… “Why was the handicap system created?”

It’s a good question because it’s actually been around a lot longer than you probably think. Golf gained a lot of popularity in the 1800s and it wasn’t long before handicapping existed as well. It was originally used to match a less skilled golfer to one that was more competitive. Handicapping simply evened the playing field.

This was before courses were rated like they are today. Instead, handicapping players was based on a committee decision or the individuals playing one and other.

Originally, it involved averaging the three best scores of the year and subtracting the par from the average. But this favored the skilled players and made it nearly impossible for golfers who simply had a few good rounds.

As you can imagine, the system didn’t last. It was redone as players, courses, and technology changed evolved over the years.

But the biggest changes happened to handicaps in 1979 when Dean Knuth started factoring in the difficulty of each course. Because as I’m sure you know, no two courses are created equal.

Dean created a formula to predict what bogey golfers would shoot on a course based on a particular set of tees. He then compared the bogey rating to the scratch rating and develop the slope rating for each course. This is a pretty good way to predict how scores change on each course based on handicaps.

Now that the history lesson is over, let’s dive into how to get a handicap in golf.

Golf Handicap System

How to Get a Handicap in Golf

As you keep reading, you might get a little overwhelmed with the numbers. But getting a handicap in golf isn’t difficult.

You can sign up for one at your home course or register online as If you’re a member of a golf club, they tend to include the small fee in the annual membership. If you’re signing up on your own, it’s roughly $30-$40 per year.

Once your application is accepted, then you will receive a GHIN number. Your GHIN number will allow you and others to post scores on your behalf online.

Simple enough right?

The more complicated part is how to calculate a handicap. Luckily, the computer does most of the heavy lifting for you.

How to Calculate a Handicap

First off…does every golfer need a handicap?

If you’re just getting started with the great game of golf, you don’t need a handicap just yet. Instead, wait until you can break 100 and then sign up as there is a max handicap for men and women. But if you’re already breaking 100 or are getting close, here is how you can establish a handicap.

Start Keeping Score (Without Cheating)

To get started with a formal golf handicap, start keeping your score without cheating or fudging the rules. To create a truthful handicap, track all of your shots during the round. If you hit it OB, take the penalty. If you miss a 2-foot putt, count it. No more gimmes!

You also need to have another player witness your score to technically count it toward your handicap. Otherwise, players could stretch the truth and take a few fewer shots each round.

Make sure that you have at least 15-20 rounds, preferably on different courses. In general, most courses require that you have at least 10 rounds before signing you up.

Adjust Your Score

The headline of this section could seem confusing…adjust your score?

I thought you said no cheating…

While I’m not telling you to use the eraser and make your score look better, the USGA does have a set of basic handicapping score. Basically, there is a cap for the highest number you can card on every hole.

So if you blow up and make a 13, you actually don’t have to card a 13. I know it sounds weird but here is how it works based on your handicap:

  • 40 or above handicap – Maximum score of 10
  • 30-39 handicap – Maximum score of 9
  • 20-29 handicap – Maximum score of 8
  • 10-19 handicap – Maximum score of 7
  • 0-9 handicap – Maximum score of double-bogey

Check the Slope on the Scorecard

As I mentioned in the beginning, no two courses are created equally. You’re much more likely to shoot a lot better at your local municipal club instead of Bethpage Black or Pebble Beach. That is why every course has a slope and course rating assigned by the USGA.

The higher the slope and course rating, the more difficult the golf course is to play. The slope is based upon people who play at a bogey golf level (roughly 18 handicap). While the rating tells you how difficult the course is for a scratch golfer (zero handicap).

How a Handicap is Calculated

This is the part that can get a little bit confusing but it’s important to know for matches and people who don’t yet have a handicap.

Individual handicaps are determined by a formula created by the USGA. The formula takes your adjusted score (when you first set up your handicap, including hole maximums) minus the course rating.

That figure is then multiplied by 113 (which represents the slope rating of a course of average difficulty) and divided by the actual course rating for the selected set of tees.

Golf Handicap Formula: Adjusted Course – Course Rating x 113 / Slope Rating

Only Bryson DeChambeau could have created this formula right?

Anyways, here is how it looks in an example to keep things as simple as possible.

Golf Handicap Example

  • 100 – 71.0 x 113/120 = Handicap
  • 100 – 71.0 = 29
  • 29 x 113 = 3,277
  • 3,277/120 = 27.3

This means the golfer in the example has a 27.3 handicap differential. Basically, they would shoot, on average, 27 strokes over par.

Once you get to 20 scores turned in, the average of the 10 lowest differentials of your last 20 scores determines your overall handicap. This figure is then multiplied by .96, and that is your handicap index.

Remember, you won’t need to do these numbers. The USGA’s software will automatically update your handicap every two weeks.

Here is a helpful video to learn more about how your handicap is created by the USGA:

What Your Handicap Means

So what does your handicap really mean anyway?

In the most basic sense, it’s an educated guess on what you will shoot based on an average par 72 course. If you’re an 18 handicap, you should shoot around a 90 (18 over par). If you’re a scratch golfer, you should shoot right around par.

While the majority of golfers shoot over par, there is a positive handicap as well. For example, a +2 handicap means you normally shoot around two under. PGA Tour pros are usually in the +4 to +6 range on championship-level golf courses.

Handicaps in Tournaments and Matches

I want to keep this simple and not over complicate it. Here’s a quick example when you’re playing with your weekend group of guys.

Let’s say that you’re a 10 handicap and your friend is a 15 handicap. That means you have to give him 5 shots during the round. You can do this a few different ways.

If you’re playing stroke play, you can just add five to your total number of strokes. Very simply, you have to beat your competitor by five or more strokes.

But if you’re playing match play, it’s slightly different. If your buddy gets five shots, that means he will stroke on the top five handicap holes. So if you both make pars on the top five holes, you would actually lose the hole as he scored a net three.

If you’re playing in a match, make sure to clarify stroke or match play and the number of strokes before teeing off. This will help avoid any confusion and potential awkwardness as the round progresses.

FAQs About Golf Handicaps

I know I’ve covered a lot so far but wanted to include some of the most commonly asked questions as well.

What’s a good golf handicap?

So many golfers want a “good” handicap…but what is good? The short answer is that it depends on what you’re trying to achieve. If you goal is to break 100, then a good golf handicap could be a 20.

But if you’re trying to become a scratch golfer, a 20 handicap is quite a ways from zero. In general, if you can break 90, that is a good standard of golf. If you can break 90, you can play with basically any golfer out there and not slow them down.

If you’re playing with a scratch golfer, it should take you only one more stroke than them per hole. Unless you’re a really slow golfer, this won’t inconvenience them at all.

Remember, having golf goals can really help improve your game. Instead of saying, “I want to be a good golfer” start creating tangible goals.

Maybe your goal is something like these:

  • “I want to be a 15 handicap by X date.”
  • “My goal is to break 90 for the first time by X date.”
  • “I want to average 10 pars per round by X date.”

By adding some clarity around your goals, this should help you accomplish them. Lastly, don’t forget to make a practice plan to help you achieve them! Check out our guide to breaking 80 here.

how the handicap system work in golf

What is a golf handicap for a beginner?

Similar to the previous question, beginner golfers don’t usually have handicaps. While you can, it probably won’t do much other than cost you money each year. Instead, wait until you’re close to breaking 100.

Generally speaking, this would mean you’re roughly a 28 handicap. So start there and work your way to breaking 100.

Why do I need a handicap?

Technically, you don’t need a handicap but they are very helpful for a few reasons. First off, they can make it easy when you’re competing with other golfers by averaging the playing field. This will help determine who gets strokes and who doesn’t on certain holes.

Secondly, they will help monitor your progress. By logging your rounds into the system, you can figure notice trends in your game. Like anything, the more you measure it, the easier it is to manage it.

Is there a maximum handicap?

Yes, this is why I recommend waiting until you can break 100 or so before getting started. The USGA handicap system has maximum golf handicap for a male golfer of 36.4. The current maximum golf handicap for a female golfer under the USGA system is currently 40.4.

When is your handicap updated?

The USGA updates your handicap every two weeks on the 1st and the 15th. If you’ve signed up for an email, you should get an email on both dates with an updated card.

Make sure that you are adding in scores (that are legit) as often as possible. The deadline is midnight on the last day of the month and the 14th to have them applied to your handicap the following day.

How does a golf handicap work on a scorecard?

Each role is ranked from 1-18 on the scorecard. There is usually a men’s and a women’s handicap for each hole. One is the hardest, most difficult hole while 18 is the easiest.

How much does a handicap cost?

Handicaps aren’t much and might even be included. If you’re a member at a private club, often times they pay for your annual membership. This is roughly $30-$40 per year. If you’re at a golf club, they will usually automatically renew it for you.

But if you’re not at a club and are doing it all online, you need to make sure you check the box for automatic renewal. Otherwise, your handicap will freeze but it won’t delete.

So if you changed cards or forgot to renew, you can log back on and sign up again. This will allow you to keep all of your scores and once active, you can post again.

What’s the highest score I can enter for my golf handicap?

Here is a quick look at your max score based on your handicap:

  • 40 or above handicap – Maximum score of 10
  • 30-39 handicap – Maximum score of 9
  • 20-29 handicap – Maximum score of 8
  • 10-19 handicap – Maximum score of 7
  • 0-9 handicap – Maximum score of double-bogey

When playing, make sure you finish the hole, regardless of the score. Once the round is over, then you can adjust accordingly.

Does it matter on the weather conditions?

Unfortunately, the weather doesn’t factor into your handicap as there is no fair way to monitor this for each player. But if you are playing winter rules with lift, clean, and place, usually scores are not accepted.

Otherwise, make sure you read up on our winter golf post to make sure your game is solid despite inclimate weather.

Should I enter every score?

There isn’t a hard and fast rule when it comes to entering every score. If you’re playing a casual round, take a few mulligans and take some four foot gimmes, don’t enter it. But if you’re keeping score and finish every hole, make sure to enter it.

How can I lower my handicap?

Everyone wants to lower their handicap right? Well there are tons of helpful posts on the Left Rough to improve your game but here are some general ones:

What is your handicap if you shoot 100?

If you shoot around 100 for 18 holes, your handicap is roughly a 28 (100-72 = 28).

Are tournaments weighted differently?

Yes, tournaments do weigh more than normal scores. If you’re in a tournament at your club or a local qualifier, these can make a big impact on your total handicap. When entering tournament scores, make sure to check the “Tournament” box before submitting.

Final Thoughts on Golf Handicaps

Now that you understand golf handicaps and know how to calculate your own, get out there and start hitting the little white ball. Having a golf handicap has a ton of benefits when you’re playing matches and also helps you monitor your scores over time.

Remember, golf is like life and we all go through seasons (aka streaks). So if you see your game getting worse, know that it can get better if you work on the right stuff. If you’re scoring it well and see your handicap drop, use it as motivation to keep doing what you’re doing.

Hopefully, you found this post helpful and are confident in all things handicap related. Now, start monitoring your progress, work on your weaknesses and start shooting your lowest scores yet!

2 thoughts on “How the Handicap System Works in Golf”

  1. Best article I have read about handicaps. Particularly liked your encouraging and informative “tone of voice” for a beginner like me, gave me a sense that I am right where I need to be at this early stage of my game development. I will be subscribing to your site.
    Thanks, Eric

  2. Thank you for explaining a handicap. I score in the 80,s and prefer not to have a handy cap. The last two games I played was first day 86 and then 80 on the 2nd day. I try to par as many holes as I can and enjoy playing the game. If I shoot badly on the back 9 then I go back the next day and try and do better. Such as it shows I took off 6 points the next day. I wasn’t sure wether I wanted a handy cap but after reading your article I think I will just stick with what has been working for me. Thanks again it was very informative.

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