What Does Handicap Mean in Golf?

When it comes to golf, handicap refers to a scoring system that allows players of different skill levels to compete against each other on more equal terms. In golf tournaments that use handicaps, the higher-handicap players starts with a number of strokes subtracted from their total score for the round. This ensures that everyone has a chance to win, no matter how good or bad they are at golf.

What Does Handicap Mean in Golf?

According to the USGA, handicap "is a numerical measure of a player's potential playing ability based on the best 10 of their last 20 rounds." In simpler terms, your handicap is a number diretly correlated to how good of a golfer you are-the lower the number, the better you are on average.

Every time you play a round of golf, you will have a score differential compared to parl, which is your score minus the course par rating. For example, if you shoot an 85 on a course with a par of 72, your differential would be 13. These differentials are used to calculate your handicap index, which is then used to determine your handicap for each new course you play.

The USGA formula for calculating your handicap index is relatively complex, but there are many online tools that can do it for you. Once you have your handicap index, you can look up the  the courses you plan to play and use that to calculate your handicap for that particular course.

Why Handicaps are Important for Recreational Golfers

Handicaps are an essential part of the game of golf for recreational players. Without handicaps, it would be difficult for players of different skill levels to compete against one another on an equal basis. 

In addition, handicaps provide a way for players to track their progress over time. By monitoring their handicap, players can see how their game is improving and set goals for themselves.Handicaps add an element of excitement to the game by giving players something to strive for. They provide a sense of accomplishment when a player lowers their handicap and give recreational golfers motivation to keep practicing and keep playing. . 

How Handicaps are Determined

Handicaps are determined by a number of factors, including age, gender, and physical ability. The most common method of handicapping is to use a points system, with each player being assigned a certain number of points based on their individual abilities. For example, a player considered a better golfer might be given 9 points, while a less skilled player may only be given 6 points. The number of points can also be adjusted based on the course handicap rating, which considers the course's difficulty.

In general, the higher the handicap rating of the course, the more points that will be assigned to each player. Once the points have been assigned, they are then used to calculate each player's score relative to par. The final handicap is then determined by taking the average score of the players over a period of time. By using this system, handicaps can be accurately determined and used to level the playing field in golf competitions across different golf courses.

How to Use Your Golf Handicap in Scoring

Handicaps range from 0 (a scratch golfer) to 36 (a beginner). For example, if you have a handicap of 0, it means that you should be able to shoot even par on a course with a par of 72. To calculate your score, simply subtract your handicap from your total strokes. 

So, if you shot an 85, and you have a handicap of 18, your score would be 85-18=67.

If your handicap is over 18, then you would subtract shots from the more difficult holes–represented by the hole's index score. For example, some scorecards list an index of 1 through 18, where 1 represents the most challenging hole while 18 represents the easiest hole. So, if your handicap is 19, you would get 2 strokes deducted from the most difficult hole. If your handicap is 20, you will get two strokes deducted from the top 2 most challenging holes.

This type of scoring is important for "skins" style games, where golfers compete for cash based on who wins the hole.

5 Tips for Improving Your Handicap

There are several ways to improve your handicap.

  1. Practice regularly

The more you practice, the better you'll become. Try to make time for at least one practice session per week to make your handicap better. You may also consider personal training or joining a virtual training site to learn tips on improving your form and strategy.

  1. Study the game

Learn as much as you can about the different aspects of golf. The more you know, the better equipped you'll be to improve your game. Besides technique, there are a wide range of strategies deployed on the golf course that you should start to notice as your play increases.

  1. Improve your swing and equipment

Early in your golf career, you may start with a pair of borrowed or used clubs. As you continue to progress, however, you will want to improve your equipment. Today's golf equipment is light years ahead of what golf clubs and accessories used to be. Not only can clubs help you hit the ball farther, but they are designed to hit the ball straighter or with a specific shot shape. By improving your swing and visiting a club fitter, you can discover exactly which clubs are right for you.

  1. Improve your fitness

At first glance, it may not seem that important to be fit for golf. But, the truth is that better flexibility and a stronger core are vital to having a good golf game. Not only does being fit improve your stamina, but it can help improve your focus, balance, and shot length.

  1. Play often

In theory, the more you play, the better you'll get. If you're in a competitive league or want to improve, it's essential to play often. Different aspects of a golf game rely heavily on touch and feel that is only developed over time. Sure, you may just rear back and swing hard for some shots, but for others, you'll need to know the distance and amount of power needed. Putting and the short game are two vital parts of the game that are commonly overlooked by high handicappers. When you practice, be sure to practice all aspects of your game, not just your iron or driver swings.


Golf is a game that takes time and effort to master, but the rewards are well worth it. Not only will you compete better and improve your handicap over time, but you will get more enjoyment out of hitting the ball well and scoring lower. Having a high handicap for a time can be a benefit to golfers who work hard because they can play better than their average and win more often because of it.