Golf is an exciting game, but there’s a lot to learn. From the industry jargon to the different types of clubs, golf grips, golf tech, and swing basics, you can spend a lot of time researching and learning and barely scratch the surface. The fact that things are always evolving doesn’t make it easier.

A term you might have come across, and that threw you in a loop is golf handicap. Although the definition hasn’t changed, the rules changed in 2020. Unfortunately, not many sites have updated content on the new rules.

Let’s learn about the golf handicap rules, how it’s calculated, and everything in between.

What’s a golf handicap index?

The golf handicap index is the score that indicates a player’s potential ability to play golf.

This score allows golfers of varying abilities to fairly compete against each other. Generally, the lower your handicap score, the better you are.

The handicap index is expressed as a number to one decimal place and represents the number of strokes a golfer can make on a course in normal playing conditions. Note that this number isn’t what you should shoot. If anything, you might shoot two or five more strokes than the handicap index on a bad day.

What is a score differential?

This is a measure of a player’s performance in a single round of golf, considering the difficulty of the course. It is calculated using the handicap player’s adjusted gross score, the course rating, and the slope rating.

Score differential = (113/Slope Rating) X (Adjusted Gross Score – Course Rating – PCC adjustment) 

The score differential allows you to compare performances across different courses and conditions.

How is a golf handicap calculated?

You can calculate the handicap index with three 18-hole scores. But if your scorecard reads under 20, you’ll use fewer tournament scores to calculate the handicap index.

When you have 20 recent scores, you can calculate your handicap by determining the average for the 8 best score differentials. There are safeguards in place to adjust the handicap index if a player submits an exceptional score or if their average score differential is significantly higher than their previous low handicap index.

What minimum number of holes should be played for an acceptable handicap index?

If you played on a 9-hole golf course, you should have played at least 7 holes. And if it was an 18-hole course, you should present scores from at least 14 holes.

If you play at least 9 holes but less than 14 holes, you’ll present your 9-hole score and combine it with another 9-hole score to get an 18-hole score for handicap purposes. This process allows players unable to complete a full 18-hole round to submit scores for their handicap.

What’s the maximum hole score?

If you’ve already calculated your handicap index, the maximum score for every hole you play is a net double bogey. You get it by adding handicap strokes you’re entitled to, to the double bogey.

Why is peer review important in handicap calculation?

Peer review is a process that allows golfers to verify each other’s handicap index. Although the new method of calculation has built-in safeguards to prevent manipulation, the human element is crucial to guarantee fair competition.

The peer review is done by another player in the same group during a game of golf. It can also be done by a player who knows your abilities on the course and can verify the handicap measures.

To safeguard this process, player scores should be posted immediately after completing a round. Any challenges arising should be taken up with the player in question or reported to a golf club’s Handicap Committee, where the player in question is a member.

What is a good golf handicap?

Good handicap indexes are relative and depend on whether you’re a beginner golfer or a pro. But before we get into that, the maximum handicap is 54.0 for men and women.

Handicap indexes are split into:

  • Low handicap: 0 – 10.0
  • Mid handicap: 11.0 – 18.0
  • High handicap: over 19.0

On average, a good handicap for male golfers is 16.0 and 28.0 for female golfers. Although this is rarely the case for beginners, you can improve your handicap by taking time to play, practice, and learn the game.

Who is a scratch golfer?

A scratch golfer is a player who can keep a zero handicap on any rated golf course. They are expected to play the course at par or better, meaning they should complete a round at or under the course’s par score, taking into account the course rating and slope rating.

The top golfers in the PGA tour have handicap indexes of about +8, meaning they were eight better than the scratch.

How to get a handicap index

The USGA handicap indexes are only issued to golfers through authorized golf clubs. The requirement to be a part of a golf club is because peer review is important in determining your handicap index. So, if you’d like to start playing golf with friends and getting your strokes, join a golf club or form your own.

We should point out that the USGA’s definition of a club doesn’t only mean golf clubs with real estate (although they are good examples). Instead, a golf club is an organization consisting of 10 or more golfers operating under stipulated bylaws and has a committee to supervise all golfing activities, offer peer review, and maintain the integrity of the rules of handicapping.

How to calculate the course handicap in 2023

A course handicap is the number of strokes a golfer gets on a certain golf course based on the course difficulty and their handicap index. The formula for course handicap is:

Course handicap = [Handicap Index * (Slope Rating/113)] + (Course rating-Par)

How to improve your golf handicap

For your handicap to drop, you need to develop the following skills:

  • Consistent drives: Hitting a good drive with equally good distance can help drop your handicap scores. To improve your drive and distance, you need to practice good posture and your setup.
  • Solid contact: A good percentage of your shots should make contact with the middle of your club’s face. Mastering the swing basics is important to hitting good shots.
  • Hit more greens: Your goal should be six to thirteen greens. A short game can compensate for hitting fewer greens, but to convert birdie putts, you need to land on more greens in regulation.
  • Reduce the number of three putts: Many low-handicap golfers don’t three-putt often. They do this by controlling the speed and distance of your ball to settle closer to the pin.

Determine your handicap index today

Calculating your handicap index isn’t an expensive service. It’s a good way to even the playing field when playing against pros and a good measure to know if your skills are improving. At the start of every season, set a goal to reduce your handicap index by two or three. With consistent practice, you’ll notice your index starts to drop.