The Golf Handicap System…Explained (Sort of)

The handicapping system is part of what makes the world of golf work. Players of all abilities can compete against one another on any rated course. Whether it is at a local county course or a place like Pebble Beach, the handicap system levels the field. It is part of what makes golf so enjoyable and universal.

The handicap system takes into account a couple of different factors. Most notably and importantly is course difficulty. A round of 80 at a local municipal course is not the same as an 80 at difficult course that has hosted tour events. Lucky for us, the handicap system takes this into consideration.

Also one last note, the handicap system is designed to err on the side of caution. If you play regularly, the handicap is established based on your best 8 rounds of the last twenty played. If you do not play often, the handicap will still be established based on your best scores. The objective is to handicap the way you are capable of playing. That capability is based on your posted scores.

So, how are the numbers are actually determined?

We have to start with course ratings and slope ratings. These are an important part of the calculation.

The rating of the course is determined by a group, usually a state golf organization. The rating is a number that predicts what a scratch golfer would score from that particular tee. On most scorecards, a course rating and slope are listed near the tee for which they are applied. Obviously, the higher a course’s rating, the more difficult.

Slope takes into account the fact that courses can play different for players of different sill levels. A course may still be rated close to par, but have a very high slope. This is a good indication that the course may have many water hazards, out of bounds, or other difficulties that may present more of a challenge for a higher handicap player than a scratch player. For example, length may not have an impact on scratch players as much as it does on those of higher handicaps.

Every course and tee set has a slope and rating. A player will take his handicap index and apply it to a slope chart. That is how the determination of number of strokes received is ultimately determined.

So, how does the “system” figure out your handicap? It is just a little math that we will detail below.

In order to establish a handicap, you need to post at least three scores.

Once a player posts his score, a score differential is calculated. Below is the calculation for Score Differential. The adjusted gross score is what a player posts for a score.

Score  Differential = (113/Slope Rating) x (adjusted gross score – course rating)

Let’s say that player is establishing a handicap for the first time in several years and shoots 80, 82, 86 in his first three rounds at a course with a 70.5 Course Rating and a Slope Rating of 125. Using the formula above, the computers will spit the following differentials out.

Score     Score Differential

80           8.6

82           10.4

86           14

In this particular case, the USGA requires that since only three rounds have been played, the lowest score differential is used as a handicap. However, as players compete more often, the score differentials are averaged out per the chart below. Once a player has submitted 20 scores, the lowest 8 differentials from the most recent twenty rounds are averaged to establish the handicap index.

Number of Score Differentials in scoring record Score Differential(s) to be used in calculation of Handicap Index Adjustment
3 Lowest 1 -2.0
4 Lowest 1 -1.0
5 Lowest 1 0
6 Average of lowest 2 -1.0
7 or 8 Average of lowest 2 0
9 to 11 Average of lowest 3 0
12 to 14 Average of lowest 4 0
15 or 16 Average of lowest 5 0
17 or 18 Average of lowest 6 0
19 Average of lowest 7 0
20 Average of lowest 8 0


Once an index is established, it is used to determine the number of strokes a player receives at a course based on the difficulty of the course. In the past, slope charts existed that would match an index to the number of strokes a player would receive at a particular course. These days, it can be done online and in just a few seconds.

In our example, a player who had posted the three rounds referenced would have an index of 8.6 would receive 10 strokes at this course.

If you want to get more detailed, is is possible. Some details that are not covered in this post include the fact that the highest score that can be posted for handicap purposes is a net double bogey. The course conditions can also play a role in determining how difficult a course is playing. This relatively simple number can get quite complex. However, we did our best to cover the basics in this post.

If you made it to the end of this, congratulations! Now you understand (hopefully) just where those “pops” come from.

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