Golf Basics: Handicaps

By J.D. Chi
Handicaps level the playing field, so golfers of all abilities can play together.
Handicaps level the playing field, so golfers of all abilities can play together.

Golfers use a handicap to measure their ability to play from a certain set of tees on any golf course. Handicaps allow players of all levels to play the same course and compete with each other, according to the U.S. Golf Association's (USGA) Handicap Manual. Professional players usually have a handicap of less than 0, meaning they consistently score below par. Recreational golfers may have a handicap from 0 to 36, with 36 being the poorest players.

What Is It?

The U.S. Golf Association (USGA) oversees handicapping in the United States. It uses a math formula based on par, slope and rating to determine a player's handicap. According to the USGA's Handicap System, a handicap index will be determined using up to 20 scores. A minimum of five is required to start a handicap index. Though most golfers think the handicap is their average score, it is, in fact, their potential to score. The lower your handicap, the more likely you are to consistently play to your handicap. Golfers with handicaps of about 18 or higher may be referred to high handicappers; those with handicaps between 10 and 18 may be referred to as mid-handicappers; and those with handicaps of 10 or below may be referred to as low- or single digit-handicappers.


Every golf course has three relevant numbers associated with it--par, slope and rating. Par is the score that a scratch (or 0 handicap) golfer would shoot. The slope of a golf course is measured on a scale of 55 to 155 and is the measure of difficulty for a bogey golfer (one who shoots an average of 1-over-par per hole). The rating is measured on a scale between 67 and 77 and represents how often a scratch golfer would shoot a good score. These numbers are usually found on the back of the scorecard and should be available for each set of tees.


The Golf Handicapping and Information Network (GHIN) is a service provided by the USGA to determine a golfer's handicap. Golfer's can join the GHIN network and are then entitled to enter their scores at any course into a computer and their handicap index will be tabulated. According to the GHIN website, the computer figures out an index, rather than a handicap, but the golfer can use this number to compute his handicap on a particular course. This system is available through 70 associations across the United States, Bermuda, the Dominican Republic, Guam and Puerto Rico and is the most widely used handicapping system in North America.

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