The Meaning of "Golf Handicap"

By Clint Hale
A handicap in golf has two definitions; 1) Course difficulty, and; 2) A players skill rating allowing golfers of all levels to compete together.

Handicap, a term used to describe course difficulty and a golfer's skill level, might seem like a confusing concept to those new to the sport. Fortunately, the definition of handicap is quite simple, as is the formula used to calculate it.


According to the USGA, a course handicap "indicates the number of handicap strokes a player receives from a specific set of tees at the course being played to adjust the player's scoring ability to the level of scratch or zero-handicap golf."

Course Rating and Slope

Course rating and slope are both important when defining and calculating a handicap.

Course rating indicates the difficulty of a course for a par golfer. For instance, if par is 72, a course rating might be 71.6, as course ratings are typically expressed with a decimal point.

Meanwhile, slope indicates the difficulty of a course to a "bogey golfer," one who routinely shoots 18 over par for an 18-hole round. This number is always a two- or three-digit figure, between 55 and 155, with 113 as the average.

Handicap Purposes

The purposes of a golf handicap are many. For instance, many charity and corporate outings employ them in "scramble tournaments," as these tournaments often feature players of varying abilities. Amateur tournaments employ them as well, while pros even use them when getting together in foursomes for a friendly round. Once the round is complete, players deduct their handicap from their final score to get what is deemed the true "final score."

Scratch Golfer

Those with zero handicaps are deemed scratch golfers. These golfers average par on USGA-approved courses, and in the case of scramble play, do not deduct any points from their final scores.

Handicap Calculators

Handicaps calculators, many of which are free, are available online. To obtain an official handicap, simply input the date of the round, the score tallied, and the course rating and slope of the course in question. To register an official handicap, a golfer must input five rounds on a handicap calculator.

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