How to Calculate Golf Handicaps: The Ultimate Beginners Guide

Here is what a handicap means in golf, and how its calculated and implemented using the USGA handicap system. Includes a step-by-step breakdown of how to calculate your golf handicap.
How to Calculate Golf Handicaps

One of the most motivating things about playing golf is that a Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) Tour pro can compete against an amateur. This is rare in other sports such as football, tennis, and basketball.

But what makes it possible for players of different skill levels to have a fair chance of winning? Well, that’s where the handicap system comes in. 

If you’re determined to become a pro golfer, understanding how to calculate the golf handicap is an essential skill. The system may sound confusing at first but in reality, it’s quite easy. 

By the end of this article, you will know exactly how to calculate golf handicaps and how the handicap index system works.

Let’s dive into the details.  

What Does Handicap Mean in Golf?

How to Calculate Golf Handicap

A golf handicap is basically a number that represents the capability of a golf player based on their past scores. It helps track your progress and compare yourself with other competitors. 

What is a golf handicap? This refers to the difference between the combined golf course par and an average of the number of strokes you play in around 10 games. 

Par is the number of strokes it takes you to finish the entire course or hole. So, a par five means it should take a golfer five strokes to sink a ball.  

In other words, the golf handicap is the total number of strokes played over the average strokes it takes for that course.  

Usually, the handicap is a number between zero and 36 for women and between zero and 28 for men. 

How does golf handicap work? Here are some key things to keep in mind:

  • If your handicap is high, you need more than the recommended number of strokes to finish a golf course
  • What is a good golf handicap? A low handicap means the better you are at playing golf. The higher the number, the less skilled you are. Hopefully, this answers that question.
  • Most pro golfers have negative handicaps, meaning they finish a course in fewer strokes than the suggested number

The Origin of Golf Handicap 

The Origin of Golf Handicap 

Although golf gained popularity in the 1800s, the handicaps system was introduced approximately 100 years ago. Initially, it involved two players and the referee only. As such, handicapping players was based on individuals competing against each other or a committee decision. 

The most significant changes happened in 1979. This is when Dean Knuth factored in the difficulty of different courses. Since then, handicaps are now used in both friendly matches with friends and club championships. 

Now that you understand the origin, let’s go into the calculations. 

How To Calculate Handicap in Golf

How To Calculate Handicap in Golf

You calculate a Golf handicap using the existing public information about the difficulty of various golf courses across the world. 

If it’s your first time playing golf, you don’t have a golf handicap. For you to determine your golf handicap for the first time, track your nine and 18-hole scores. Record the scores in a scorecard and ensure it is signed by two individuals: you and the other person who accompanied you to the game. 

Such signatures play a vital role in verifying scores and minimizing cheating.

Before we proceed to the next step, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the following terms used to calculate a handicap in golf:

The adjusted gross score is the golfer’s gross score adjusted under United States Golf Association (USGA) Handicap System procedures for conceded strokes, unfinished holes, Equitable Stroke Control, and the number of holes not included or not played following the rules of golf. 

The Course Rating is a numerical value that represents the difficulty of a particular course for the bogey player or scratch player under normal conditions. Some of the obstacle factors considered in determining the course rating are trees, topography, green target, fairway, bunkers, green surface, psychology, and lateral obstacles.

Slope rating measures the difficulty of the golf course for a bogey golfer relative to a course rating. Basically, the rating helps a bogey player determine how difficult a golf course will be.

Let’s briefly look at handicap differential in a mathematical formula for better understanding since you now understand its components based on the above definitions.

Handicap Differential = (The Adjusted Gross Score – The Course Rating) x 113 ÷ The Slope Rating 

What is a handicap index? It’s a number that represents a golfer’s ability to score. For instance, if your handicap index is 22.3, it implies that it takes you 22 strokes over par on a standard course.

You can sign up to a wide range of programs and apps that calculate handicaps. You could also use a golf handicap calculator. But if you’d like to do it manually, we got you covered. 

Golf Handicaps: Step-by-Step Summarized

Golf Handicaps Explained Step-by-Step:

Step 1: Change the Original Gross Score into an Adjusted Total Score

Apply the United States Golf Association’s Equitable Stroke Control (ESC) to get the Adjusted Gross Score. Use the Equitable Stroke Control downwards as you adjust the individual 18-hole scores so that you can create a handicap that best represents the golfer’s ability to play. 

According to ESC, there’s a maximum number of strokes a golfer can enter in any given hole. You can get that maximum from a golfer’s Course Handicap. Check the table below to understand how you can obtain this maximum.

Course HandicapMaximum Score
Nine or lessDouble bogey
40 and above10

Let’s look at this example for better understanding. Suppose a golfer scores a nine on one hole and their Course Handicap is 18. The nine should be adjusted to seven because players who fall under the Course Handicap 10 through 19  are only allowed seven as the total score on any hole. 

Once you make the necessary adjustments to 18 holes, the total of these holes becomes your Adjusted Gross Score. 

Step 2: Calculate the Handicap Differential for Every Score

Use the following formula to compute the Handicap Differential:

Handicap differential = (The Adjusted Gross Score -The Course Rating) X 113 / The Course slope ratings.

The course rating refers to the score of a new golf player on a course under standard playing conditions. As earlier stated, 113 is the slope rating of a golf course based on typical difficulty. 

Remember to round off the results to the nearest tenth to obtain the Handicap Differential (i.e, 18.2 becomes 18)

Step 3: Choose the Lowest or Best Handicap Differential

If you’ve entered over 20 scores, use 10 best differentials from the most recent scores for the calculation.

Use the following table to select the lowest:

Number of Available Handicap DifferentialsLowest Differentials Used
5 or 61
7 or 82
9 or 103
11 or 124
13 or 145
15 or 166

Step 4: Average of the Lowest (best) Handicap Differentials

Out of your 10 Handicap Differentials, choose three of the lowest. The next step is calculating an average of the three. 

If you have 15 Handicap Differentials, calculate an average for the six lowest. For 20 scores, find an average of the 10 best. 

Step 5: Multiply That Average Handicap Differentials by 0.96 or 96 Percent

This is the next step of calculating the total Handicap Differential Average. 

Step 6: Delete or Truncate the Number You Get in Step Five to the Right of Tenths

Delete any digit after the tenths for that number you got in step five. Don’t round off that figure to the nearest tenths. For instance, 12.1903 becomes 12.1.

According to the USGA, the default highest Handicap Index for women is 40.4 and 36.4 for men. This applies to an 18-hole course.

If it’s a nine-hole course, the Handicap Index for women is 20.2 and 18.2 for men.

Step 7: How to Calculate Course Handicap

This is the total number of strokes a golfer receives on a specific course. Below is the formula you use to calculate. 

The Course handicap = The Handicap Index X The Slope Rating/113 + (The Course Rating-Par)

Round off the result you get to the nearest whole number.


Suppose the course slope is 120 and the Handicap index is 12.5.

The Course Handicap will be 12.5 x 120 / 113 

The result is 13.27

Round it off to 13


Lastly, your Handicap Index is technically the Golf Handicap. And now you have everything you need to know to calculate it. As you’ve probably noticed, these calculations aren’t rocket science as long as you understand each component of the formula.

Alternatively, if this feels like its too much then another option to track your handicap is to use a golf tracker app. There are lots of apps for both Apple and Android phones that can help calculate your golf handicap. Check out this list of the 8 best free golf GPS apps that can help track your score, and help calculate your golf handicap.

All the best as you tracking and improving your scores!

Frequently Asked Questions:

Do Weather Conditions Affect the Handicap?

Unfortunately, the weather isn’t a determinant when calculating handicaps because it’s almost impossible to monitor it for all players. 

How Can You Improve Your Handicap?

Now that you know what your golf handicap means, go out there and improve it. Try these tips out:

  • Practice more to improve your swing. Seek professional guidance for faster progress
  • Use high-quality equipment to reduce the risk of injury and perform the best
  • Set higher goals every time you play. This helps push your limits
  • Control your emotions
  • Record your swing to track patterns and progress
  • Avoid focusing on the score


Check out our latest reviews and buyers guides of the best golf equipment, gear and training aids on the market. We do extensive research and testing so that you don’t have to. Hope you enjoy reading!

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