Golf Handicap Instructions

By M.L. Rose
Golfers of different abilities can level the playing field by using their handicaps.
Golfers of different abilities can level the playing field by using their handicaps.

Establishing and applying a golf handicap under the United States Golf Association’s system isn’t difficult. The USGA’s formulas do the heavy mathematical lifting to ensure that golfers of varying skill levels can compete on an equitable basis. All you have to do is go out on the course and play golf. Once you’ve established your handicap, you’re ready to take on all comers with a fighting chance of emerging victorious.

Establishing a Handicap Index

To gain an official handicap, join a club that’s licensed to use the USGA’s handicap system. That doesn’t necessarily mean joining a club located at a single course. Several other types of organizations, including some business or fraternal groups, can qualify as USGA-certified clubs. Confirm with a club pro or officer that your chosen club is certified. To begin establishing your handicap, play five rounds on courses with course and slope ratings. Post your scores with your club’s handicap committee, which will use the USGA system to calculate your preliminary handicap index, based on your scores and the difficulty of the courses you’ve played. Continue to post your scores after every round. Because a USGA handicap measures a golfer’s potential, rather than his average play, your index will eventually be based on the best 10 scores among your most recent 20 rounds of golf. Think of your "handicap index" as the number that you will use to find your handicap at different courses and from different sets of tees.

Calculating the Course Handicap

A handicap index is convert to a course handicap based on the difficulty of the course. Most clubs post a chart on which you’ll see a range of indexes in one column and corresponding course handicaps in another column. Look up your handicap index on the chart to determine your course handicap for that location and the set of tees you will be playing. Many courses also have handicap computers that will have a handicap conversion utility. Alternatively, obtain the course’s slope rating, and then plug the rating and your handicap index into the USGA’s online calculator. If the course you’re playing is more difficult than the standard course rating of 113, your course handicap will be higher than your index. Conversely, your handicap will be lower than your index if the course’s slope rating is lower than 113.

Applying Handicaps in Stroke Play

Course handicaps, which are always whole numbers, are applied straightforwardly in stroke-play events. For example, if your handicap is 7, you’ll subtract 7 from your score at the end of the round. If your course handicap is 24, you subtract 24 from your final score. In a team event like better ball of partners, you apply the handicaps per hole. Your scorecard will rank each hole by difficulty, with the most difficult hole ranked No. 1 and the easiest hole 18. A 7-handicapper, therefore, would subtract one stroke on each of the seven most difficult holes to obtain his net score on the hole. In better ball of partners, the lowest net score is the team's score. For example, if the 7-handicapper has a net 4 on the hole and his partner has a net 3, the team's score is 3.

Applying Handicaps in Match Play

In match play, the handicaps are applied hole by hole, as in the stroke play better ball of partners, with one exception. In a head-to-head match, the players use the difference between their handicaps. For example, if Player A carries a course handicap of 3 and Player B’s course handicap is 12, Player B receives nine strokes, one at each of the course’s nine most difficult holes, while Player A plays at scratch, receiving no handicap strokes. In a four-person match in which the players’ course handicaps are 2, 5, 11 and 17, respectively, then the three highest handicappers should calculate their handicap strokes relative to the best player. The first player would play at scratch, the second player would receive three handicap strokes, the third player would get nine strokes and the fourth player would receive 15.

About the Author

M.L. Rose has worked as a print and online journalist for more than 20 years. He has contributed to a variety of national and local publications, specializing in sports writing. Rose holds a B.A. in communications.

Photo Credits

  • Ryan McVay/Digital Vision/Getty Images
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