Everything You Need to Know to Calculate Your Golf Handicap

“What’s your golf handicap?”

“Hitting the ball.”

It’s a common joke that gets a good chuckle in a circle of friends, but like a Steven Wright one-liner, not everyone is going to understand it. To those who have golfed for years, the handicap is just as much a talking point of your game as clubs, tees, and a nip at the 19th hole—but for casual hackers, the concept may be lost. Here are some easy tips to explain a golf handicap to a non-golfer.

What is a handicap?

The handicap was introduced over 100 years ago so that players of different skill levels could play competitively together. Think of it as a gambler’s point spread. For example, when you give your friends “points” in a gentleman’s bet, the team can’t just win outright to collect—they have to win by a certain amount. The handicap in golf works the same way – you might beat your friend by 10 strokes, but if your handicap is 2 and his or hers is 15, they get the victory.

How to calculate your handicap

A handicap is essentially how many strokes over (or under) par you are able to play. On a par 72 course, a golfer with a 10 handicap would be expected to shoot an 82. Playing golf with a handicap gives each player a ‘net score’ to compare – it is their gross score (total number of strokes, for example 82) minus their own handicap (for example 10) for a net score of 72.

What course rating and slope have to do with it

A handicap is easy to figure out if the golfer plays 10-20 rounds on one course, but for scramble tournaments and when playing with friends on different courses, a ‘traveling’ handicap is calculated. This term is officially called a handicap index and uses a formula based on the golfer and the course, including:

  • Course Rating – a number that presents the difficulty of a course for a ‘scratch’ golfer (somebody with a handicap of 0 – who golfs at par).
  • Course Slope – the number indicating the difficulty of a course for a bogey golfer (somebody with a handicap of 18).

These numbers can be found on the scorecard from the golf course, or looked up in the USGA database. The numbers also vary whether you are playing from the white, red, gold, or blue tees.

These numbers come in handy for calculating a handicap after you have played some rounds. For example, say you go out and shoot an 85 over 18 holes. You could then look up the course and subtract the course rating from your score, in this case 85-71 = 14.

The other half of the calculation is done for slope rating. The number 113 is used because it is considered the standard slope rating difficulty. 113 is then divided by the slope rating of the course you are on (in this case 113/110 = 1.03.) The first half of the equation (14) is then multiplied by the second half (1.03) for a handicap differential of 14.42.

Of course this number represents only one round, so you’d have to make this calculation for each round played and the handicap index is always the lowest 10 of the last 20 rounds played. This average is then calculated by the number 0.96 to get an accurate running handicap.

Luckily these numbers can all be tracked automatically for you through sites such as GHIN.com to avoid the question:

“What’s your golf handicap?”

“Calculating my golf handicap.”

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