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What is a Golf Handicap and How is it Calculated?

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In its simplest form a golf handicap is a score a player gets which helps to level the playing field and scores among golfers of different calibers. It is the number it would take to lower your score to par on the average golf course. This score is calculated using a golfer’s score over a number of rounds. These scores are valued based on the difficulty of the course they were played on, and then used in a few calculations to ultimately come up with your handicap index- or handicap. So, what is a golf handicap and how is it calculated, you may ask? Continue reading to find out.

These scores range from very low numbers for experienced golfers to high numbers (+26) for beginner golfers. The scores are then used in another calculation to fairly compare the final score after a round between golfers. Before we get into the meat of what a golf handicap is, we must first look at a couple of terms and numbers that are used in the calculations a little later. Those terms are the course rating and course slope.

Course Rating

Course rating is a numerical value showing the level of difficulty of golf course compared to a well-trained/expert golfer (par golfer). A par golfer is also known as scratch golfer who continuously shoots par the course. Or in other words, it is the score that a scratch golfer would get on that particular course.

This rating is a value that is similar to the par for that particular course, and is indicated by a single number with single decimal digit, like 70.3. This number is generally between 67 and 77, with higher numbers equating to harder courses. In this example a golfer who normally pars the courses he/she plays would get an average score of 70.3 when playing this course.

Course Slope

Course slope is a single quantitative value which explains the level of difficulty faced by the bogey golfer. A bogey golfer is a one who consistently has a shooting score of 90 on average on a 72 regulation course. In other words a person who usually scores a bogey on every hole or a +18 on average. These numbers run from 55 on the easy end to 155 on the hard end with a normal or average ‘hardness’ being a 113.

What’s the Difference Between Course Rating and Course Slope?

Well the difference comes mainly from consistency. What I mean is that, as courses get more difficult as a bogey golfer will have increasingly higher scores, and not in a linear fashion. Usually the bogey golfer will score much worse because of their inconsistent play than a ‘scratch golfer’ who may only add an extra stroke. A quick example.

On a course that is harder than usual a scratch golfer may get a bogey instead of a par, where as a bogey golfer may end up getting +3 on the hole or worse (i.e. they added 2 strokes instead of just 1). Think of a course that has a green surrounded by water; the scratch golfer does not lose a ball, but has to take a longer putt, but a bogey golfer may lose a couple balls in the water AND still have to make that longer putt.

To remember the differences between the two I usually know the higher number is related to bogey golfers because they usually have higher scores than scratch golfers. Also, to remember ‘course slope’ I think of bogey golfers falling down that slippery slope of getting bad scores when they get frustrated.

How do You Calculate a Golf Handicap?

This is done in a couple of steps with a couple of different calculations. We’ll walk you through it and give you some examples along to way in hopes of keeping things clear. The steps:

  1. ​Calculate your handicap differential on a number of rounds (5-20 rounds)
  2. Use the handicap differential to calculate your handicap index (aka handicap score)

What is a Handicap Differential?

The course rating and slope number affects the handicap index extensively. You use both those numbers to calculate handicap differential. Which is used to later find the handicap index, and thus adjust a player’s score in relation to par according to the slope and rating of the course.

Below is the formula used. You can find a definition for Equitable Stroke Control here, but more or less it is the maximum number of strokes per hole allowed (basically gets rid of the really high scores on certain holes).

Handicap Differential

Eg. Let’s say Johnny Golfer golfs a course 10 times. He gets scores of 80, 82, 84, 81, 87, 85, 85, 83, 86, and 82 in those rounds. He plays on the same course every single one of those rounds (for simplicity sake). The course has a course rating of 71.2 and a slope of 123. The following is the calculation for handicap differential for 1 round:

HD = [(80 – 71.2) x 113] / 123 = 8.08 = 8.1

You will do this calculation for all 10 rounds. We did this and got the following handicap differential numbers:

8.1, 9.9, 11.8, 9.0, 14.5, 12.7, 12.7, 10.8, 13.6, and 9.9

Next you will calculate your handicap index.

What is a Handicap Index?

As mentioned above this is the score that is ultimately called your ‘handicap’. How do we determine it? This takes 2 steps:

  1. ​Finalize your handicap differential based on the chart below.
  2. Multiply that number by 0.96, for your excellence. Then take the number to the nearest tenth (no rounding).

As mentioned, you need to finalize you HD score. You will use only your best rounds based on the number of rounds you have used in your calculations.

Differentials chart

So for our continued example, Johnny Golfer, used 10 rounds, so we will use the lowest 3 HD scores calculated above, and figure out the average.

(8.1, 9.0, 9.9)/3 = 9.0

The last step is to take that number and multiply by 0.96 to ultimately get the handicap index score:

9.0 x 0.96 = 8.64 or 8.6 would be Johnny Golfer’s handicap index!

How are Course Rating and Course Slope Used to Even Out Scores?

As mentioned at the start, a handicap isn’t just a number assigned to each golfer so you can tell how good they are. Yes, it is pretty useful for that, but it actually has a more meaningful use. That use is to even out scores between golfers of different levels.

How do we do that? Another calculation of course! This time we will use the course handicap calculation seen below:

Course Handicap Calculation

At this point you now have the knowledge (and numbers) to complete this calculation. Once you have the course handicap number, you will subtract that number from your actual score to get your adjusted score. This adjusted score is what you will use to compare yourself to other golfers.

Let’s look at an example to show how it works. This time we have Johnny Golfer (Handicap of 8.6) and Jamey Golfer (Handicap of 14.1).

Johnny’s score = 84

Jamey’s score = 89

Course slope = 118

Course rating (not used here) = 72.4

Johnny’s Course Handicap = (8.6 x 118) / 113 = 8.98 or 9

Jamey’s Course Handicap = (14.1 x 118) / 113 = 14.72 or 15 (yes, you round to the nearest number here)

So, therefore we adjust the score by subtracting the above numbers from their scores.

Johnny’s Adjusted Score = 84 – 9 = 75

Jamey’s Adjusted Score = 89 – 15 = 74

As you can see, even though Johnny beat Jamey on the scoresheet, after you adjust the scores using their handicaps, Jamey actually won this round!

What are the Ranges for Handicaps?

Much to some of the readers chagrin, there is a cap in the handicap number you can receive. For men it is 36.4 and for women it is 40.4. The average for men is around 14.3 - 16.1 and for women it is around 26.5 - 28.9.

What is considered low, mid, or high handicaps can range depending on who you talk to, but for purposes on this site we will define it as follows:

Low handicap: 7 and under (or shooting sub 80)

Mid handicap: 8 – 22 (or shooting 80 – 94 on average)

High handicap: 23+ (or shooting above 95)

How does Handicap Change Over Time?

Since you are using your last 20 rounds to calculate your handicap, it will be somewhat of a moving average as you continue to play. Some of those really high scores that were used to calculate it might get pushed out and increase your index or maybe you improve and the handicap number goes down over time.

It can be a pain to manually calculate your handicap over time, so luckily there are a number of online sources and/or apps for your smartphone you can use.

Wrap Up

You now have the knowledge you need to calculate your golf handicap. As noted these are used to help people understand how good you are at the game, as well as evening out scores with your buddies, but also for use in tournaments. There are some different conventions used around the world, you can see some of them here.


Not every course you play on will have their course rating and slope available, so be aware of that when trying to figure out your handicap. If you are in a pinch and don’t have the ability to calculate your handicap, you can take your average score when golfing and compare that to the average par for a course (72). So if you average a score of 90, your handicap would roughly be 18 or slightly less. Your handicap will continue to change over time as your game improves.

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