How to calculate handicap in golf

Picture this: you’re a relatively new golfer with little playing experience. For a competitive round of golf, you get paired with a 35-year-old who has been playing his entire life. Imagine how disheartening it would be at the end of your round if you shoot a 90+ while your playing partner shoots in the mid-70s? That is precisely the purpose of the golf handicap system.

The golf handicap is the great equalizer that ensures everyone, regardless of skill level, has a shot at victory. It’s essentially a numerical representation of skill that allows everyone to compete on a level playing field. The higher the handicap, the more strokes a player is entitled to, evening out the odds. But, do you know how to calculate handicap in golf? And do you truly understand how it works? We’ve got all the information you’re looking for. 

What is a Golf Handicap? 

At its core, the golf handicap is a benchmark that reflects your average performance over a specified number of rounds, accounting for the inherent difficulty of different courses. Whether you’re a scratch golfer or someone who’s still learning the sport, the handicap system provides a universal language to gauge improvement and foster healthy competition among players. It’s often used in tournament play to ensure you’re grouped with players of the same skill level, too. That’s why learning how to calculate handicap in golf comes highly recommended.

How Does Golf Handicap Work?

If someone has a handicap of 5, this means that on average this player typically shoots 5 over par. So, on an 18-hole course with a par of 72, they would be expected to shoot 77. Essentially, the lower your golf handicap is, the better player you are. If you have a 14 handicap, you’d be expected to shoot 86. 

Handicap strokes can be allocated in different ways, but in most cases, it’s distributed the following way: If your handicap is an 18, you will receive a stroke on every hole. If it’s an 8, for example, you’ll receive a stroke on the top eight most difficult holes on the course. If your handicap is over 18, we’ll use 27 as an example, you’ll get one stroke on every hole plus an additional stroke on the top nine handicap holes.

Top 10 Golf Handicap Terms to Know

There are a few moving parts when it comes to learning how to calculate handicap in golf. So, first, we’ll go over some common terms you may see in your journey to become a better player.

  1. Handicap Index: A numerical representation of a player’s ability that’s calculated by recent scores and the difficulty of the golf courses played.
  2. Scratch Golfer: A scratch golfer is a highly skilled player who has attained a handicap ndex of zero. In essence, a scratch golfer is capable of consistently completing a round of golf at or better than par.
  3. Bogey Golfer: Players with a 20 to 24 handicap.
  4. Course Rating: A measure of the difficulty of a particular golf course that’s based on what a scratch golfer would be expected to score. A combined course rating and slope rating are used to determine ratings for each set of tees, too. For example, a par-72 golf course may have a rating of 72.5 from the blue tees and 71.5 from the white tees.
  5. Slope Rating: A measure of the difficulty of a particular golf course for bogey golfers, compared to scratch golfers. It is expressed as a number, and a higher slope indicates a more challenging course. For example, a golf course with thick rough, several water hazards, long carries, and narrow fairways will be more challenging to bogey golfers and will therefore have a higher slope rating. 
  6. USGA (United States Golf Association): The governing body for golf in the United States, responsible for establishing and maintaining the handicap system.
  7. Gross Score: Refers to the total number of strokes taken during a round, including penalty strokes.
  8. Net Score: A player’s gross score minus their handicap strokes, resulting in the net score, which is often used for competitive play.
  9. Net Double Bogey: The maximum score on any hole for any player (+2).
  10. GHIN: Stands for Golf Handicap & Information Network® and is one of the largest handicap management tools in the world.

How to Calculate Handicap in Golf

  1. Learning how to calculate handicap in golf is a straightforward process once you get the hang of it. The formula takes into account your adjusted gross score (AGS), the course rating, and the slope rating of the course. The calculation typically involves multiplying the difference between your AGS and the course rating by a factor derived from the slope rating. While this may sound complex, numerous online calculators and apps simplify the process, allowing you to focus more on your game and less on the math.
  2. Handicap index can be calculated with as few as three 18-hole scores. When less than 20 scores are in your scoring record, a fewer number of scores are used to calculate your handicap index. However, once you have 20 rounds recorded, your handicap index is calculated by averaging the best 8 out of 20 Score Differentials™.
  3. Now, what is a Score Differential? Essentially, it measures your playing performance during a given round in relation to the difficulty of the golf course. The Course Rating and Slope Rating are used to measure this. The PCC, or playing conditions calculated, may also factor in if weather significantly affected scores that day. For your reference, a Score Differential is calculated using this formula: (113 / Slope Rating) x (Adjusted Gross Score – Course Rating – PCC adjustment)

Frequently Asked Questions About How to Calculate Handicap in Golf

How do I get a handicap index?

The USGA provides a few ways to establish and learn how to calculate handicap in golf.

  • Join a growing community of golfers in your area. Sign-up is on the USGA website, but you’ll receive a membership with your local Allied Golf Association based on your location.
  • Most golf courses, public and private, are authorized – so if there is a course you play often, reach out to them and they can likely set you up on the spot. Easily search for an authorized golf club.
  • Your Allied Golf Association can recommend clubs in your area. Find your local AGA.

What is the maximum handicap index?

The maximum handicap index is 54.0.

What is the difference between a course handicap and playing handicap?

The USGA describes the difference between a course handicap and playing handicap as follows: 

To receive a course handicap, or a playing handicap, you must have first established a handicap index by posting at least 54 holes comprised of 9- and/or 18-hole rounds.

A course handicap represents the number of strokes needed to play to par of the tees being played. This is the number used to adjust hole scores for net double bogey or net par.

A playing handicap is the actual number of strokes you receive or give during a round and is the number used for the purposes of the game or competition. This number is often the same as a course handicap, however, if a handicap allowance is applied, if the format is match play, or if players are competing from tees with different pars, it may be different.

What is the maximum hole score for handicap posting purposes?

The maximum score for each hole played is limited to a net double bogey. This means that the maximum score is a double bogey plus any handicap strokes you’re given based on your course handicap. The USGA provides the following example:

For example, a player with a course handicap of 15 receives one handicap stroke on holes with a stroke index of 1 through 15 on the scorecard.

On a par 4 hole with a stroke index of 10, the player’s maximum hole score is 7. Double bogey (6) + 1 handicap stroke = 7.

Strategies to Improve Your Handicap

Many golfers use their handicap to track their progress. A handicap that continues to get lower is a great sign of improvement. However, improving your handicap isn’t something that happens overnight. It’s a goal that takes time, dedication, and lots of practice. Here are some strategies to help you enhance your golf game and lower your handicap.

Consistent Practice

Regular and deliberate practice is crucial for improvement. We suggest spending time on the driving range working on different aspects of your game, such as driving, iron play, and longer wedge shots. Develop a practice routine that covers all aspects of your game, and be sure to practice with purpose rather than just hitting balls mindlessly.

Focused Short Game Practice

The short game, including putting, chipping, and pitching, plays a significant role in lowering your handicap. Allocate a significant portion of your practice time to mastering these skills.

Work on distance control, accuracy, and consistency in your putting. Experiment with various putting drills to improve your overall performance on the greens.

Strategic Course Management

If you’re truly dedicated to lowering your handicap, you have to play strategically and not just all for fun. It’s important to develop a thoughtful approach to each hole, consider your strengths and weaknesses, and play to them. Avoid unnecessary strokes that may come from risky shots or aggressive targets.

Instead, play more conservatively and, rather than always aiming for the flag, focus on hitting the green and positioning yourself for easier putts. Learn to manage your misses, too, and not panic when you’ve hit a ball out of bounds or in other hazards. 

Improve Your Mental Game

Golf is as much a mental game as it is physical. Develop mental toughness, focus, and a positive attitude. While this is easier said than done, there are several easy ways to strengthen your mental toughness. Practicing positive self-talk is a great place to start. Additionally, visualization techniques that require you to imagine successful shots have often been found helpful.

Get Professional Instruction

Golf lessons from a qualified golf instructor can be beneficial no matter how good of a golfer you are. A professional can identify flaws in your swing and provide personalized drills and tips for improvement. While some players may need more guidance than others, we recommend having periodic check-ins with a coach to monitor your progress and make necessary adjustments to your technique.

Understand Your Stats

Keep track of your statistics, including fairways hit, greens in regulation, and putts per round. Analyzing these metrics can be great for identifying areas for improvement. While this may seem tedious, it’s just as simple as writing down your score after each hole. Plus, there are tons of apps that help you keep all your stats in one place. But, more on that in a bit.

Physical Conditioning

Golf requires a combination of strength, flexibility, and endurance. Engage in a fitness routine that targets these aspects of your physical condition and watch as your golf swing becomes more consistent and more powerful.

Play Regularly and Compete

The more you play, the more comfortable you become in different situations on the course. Regular play helps build confidence and experience. Arguably even more effective is playing more competitive rounds in tournaments. The pressure of competition can simulate real scenarios and highlight areas that need improvement.

Equipment Evaluation

If you’re just getting started with golf, you’ll likely be playing with hand-me-down or used golf clubs. This is completely fine, and not every single golfer needs brand-new sticks. However, it is important to ensure your clubs are suitable for your swing, your power, and your playing style. Getting fitted for clubs is a great way to optimize your performance and maintain confidence in your equipment.

Play Varied Courses

The handicap system accounts for the difficulty of different courses. Playing a variety of courses helps refine your handicap to better reflect your overall ability.

Stay Patient and Set Realistic Goals

Improving your golf handicap takes time, and progress may be gradual. So, it’s important to set realistic and achievable goals, both short-term and long-term. Celebrate small victories and use setbacks as opportunities to learn and adjust your approach. Remember that improvement in golf is an ongoing process, and staying committed to your development plan will yield positive results over time.

3 Best Apps for Tracking Your Golf Handicap

The pursuit of a lower handicap is as much about the joy of the game as it is about the numbers. Thankfully, the digital age has gifted us with a variety of apps that track all those pesky numbers we talked about earlier. So, here’s a curated list of apps designed to make your journey to a better golfer smoother than ever.


The GHIN official mobile app is perfect for golfers using GHIN services through their golf association. It’s offered worldwide by the USGA and its easy-to-use interface is perfect for entering scores, tracking stats, and so much more.

Key features include:

  • Score Posting 
  • Stat Tracking 
  • Course Maps & GPS
  • Enhanced GPS Features 
  • Games & Group Score Keeping
  • Apple Watch integration
  • Golfer Lookup
  • Handicap Calculator

2. TheGrint: Handicap & Scorecard

TheGrint stands out as the quintessential golf app that redefines how you manage your handicap, utilize GPS, and more. Seamlessly link your GHIN number to effortlessly oversee your golf handicap.

Key features include:

  • Handicap Calculator
  • Score Keeping
  • Performance Statistics
  • Apple Watch Integration
  • Shot Tracker & Distance Calculator
  • Games & Group Score Keeping
  • Join TheGrint Community
  • Shot Video Editing

3. Golf GPS SwingU

Used by more than 6 million golfers around the world, SwingU rivals just about every golf app. It’s completely free and features a GPS rangefinder and seamless scorekeeping. Finally, knowing how to calculate handicap in golf has never been easier.

Key features include:

  • GPS Rangefinder
  • Digital Scorecard 
  • Free Handicap 
  • Apple Watch Integration
  • Shot Tracking
  • Daily Golf Instruction Tip
  • HealthKit Integration

Now that you’ve learned how to calculate handicap in golf, we encourage you to embrace the process, use your handicap as a roadmap for improvement, and relish the camaraderie that comes with competing on an equitable playing field. So, grab your clubs, hit the links, and let the journey toward a better handicap begin.

Megan Williams

Meet Megan Williams, a wordsmith with a passion for golf, travel, and the epic combination of the two! Originally from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, the Golf Capital of the World, Megan has played golf since she was a child, eventually playing competitively in college. She's since swapped her golf clubs for the keyboard and skillfully translates her on-course experiences into captivating narratives and insightful stories. When she's not crafting engaging content, you can catch her enjoying the company of her energetic golden retriever or trying new culinary delights around Tampa, Florida - her current stomping grounds. Join Megan on her literary journey as she explores golf courses and resorts worldwide, shares travel knowledge and shipping tips, covers industry news, and more - all exclusively on the Ship Sticks blog.