How to get a golf handicap, and what is a golf handicap?

by Andrew Pritchard

A birdie putt that lips out. The good drive that takes a bad bounce. To many, golf seems downright unfair. However, golfers can find a little peace of mind knowing at least one organization has their back: the USGA (United States Golf Association). The USGA developed the golf handicap index, often called a golf handicap, which allows players of differing abilities to fairly compete against one another. Betcha can’t name another sport where players of vastly different abilities can compete on a level playing field!

What is a Handicap in Golf?

The golf handicap is a brilliant device for equalizing the game and giving not-so-great players the opportunity to compete against great players without being at a disadvantage.

The lower the player’s handicap, the better they are. So, when competing, handicaps determine how many strokes the lower handicap player gives to golfers with higher ones. This way everyone in your foursome can compete – and bet – against each other in a fair manner.

So how do you get a golf handicap? Basically, golfer’s track their rounds, and a USGA formula calculates their handicap (we’ll get to how in a minute).

How is a Golf Handicap Index Established?

To start establishing an official USGA golf handicap, a player simply needs to record five rounds of 18 holes. Talk to the pro at your golf club, public golf facility, or join your state golf association to get access to handicap services that track your handicap. There are a variety of handicap services, like GHIN or Golfnet, used by golf courses and associations to compute official USGA handicap indexes for their members. The golf professionals are very knowledgeable and can walk you through the process.

I understand a golf handicap index, but there is a course handicap? What is the difference?

Good question! If the USGA currently rates you as a 15.5 handicap index, that stays consistent until you update your scores. However, your individual course handicap depends on the difficulty of the course you are playing. A 15.5 index may be a 13 handicap at an easier course or a 17 handicap at a difficult course, according to measurements like course rating and slope (explained below). Don’t worry, the officials at each course can tell you what your course handicap is prior to teeing off. It is much more important to remember your handicap index.

How is a Golf Handicap Index computed?

You may look at a scorecard and see words like “course rating,” and “slope” and scratch your head. Those are factors that rate the relative difficulty of each course and which the USGA algorithm factors in the equation to calculate your handicap. When entering (also called “posting”) your score after a round, the system will also ask you to enter course rating and slope numbers, then voila, your handicap index begins to take shape. Keep playing and posting scores, because to get an accurate picture of your current playing ability, the USGA will continually update your handicap index. Confusing? Yes, but don’t worry, the USGA does all the math, you just enjoy your round and enter your score.

Here’s the best part, a handicap index is the reflection of your potential, not those bad rounds when your nasty slice shows up. This is because the USGA algorithm uses the best 10 rounds out of your last 20. What does that mean? Well, if you’re index says 8.5 you should potentially shoot an 80.5 on a par-72 golf course, depending on the golf course’s difficulty. See, you are a better golfer than you thought!

How do I Use My Handicap Index?

Now that you’ve established your handicap index, it’s time to use it, and here’s how. Let’s say you’re teeing it up on a par-72 golf course and playing to a ten handicap on this course while your golf buddy is playing as a two handicap. You play well and shoot an 84 while your buddy has a rough day, and posts a 78. While your “gross score” is an 84, your “net score” is a 74 (84 – 10 handicap strokes = 74). Your buddy’s “gross” 78 is now a “net” 76 (78 – 2 handicap strokes = 76). And thanks to the magic of a handicap index, you, my friend, are the big winner.

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