golf handicap

Golf Handicap System: How It Works (USGA & GHIN)

In this guide we’re going to explain the Golf Handicap System in simple terms for beginners. You will come away understanding what is a golf handicap, how the golf handicap system works, who needs a golf handicap, how GHIN and the USGA are involved, and more.

Why does golf have a handicap system?

Like any other sport, there are different skill levels of players within Golf. But unlike most other sports, golf has a handicap system and this allows players to compete against each other on a level playing field.

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Who should sign up for a golf handicap?

A question many beginners will ask is “Do you even need a golf handicap?” and the answer is…if you’re currently scoring under 100 for 18 holes of golf then you should probably establish a golf handicap if you wish to enter competitive play.

If you’re not scoring below 100 consistently yet, then you may not need to worry about getting a handicap just yet. There is a maximum handicap for men and women golfers so this mainly applies to brand new beginners who have very high scores above 100 that should wait to try and establish a golf handicap.

Here’s what’s covered below in our Golf Handicap Explained guide:

  • The history of the Golf Handicap System
  • How to get a golf handicap?
  • How to calculate your golf handicap?
  • The golf handicap formula
  • When do golfers use handicaps?
  • How do golfers get strokes for handicap scoring?

Okay so now let’s break down the history of golf handicap systems and how to calculate your handicap as well as the cost to sign up for the golf handicap with the USGA.

Let’s dive in…

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Golf Handicap for Beginners

The History of the Golf Handicap System

While the golf handicap system underwent a major overhaul in 1979, it has been around for a long time prior. Over time and history, the golf handicap system has gone through different evolutions and has changed how it calculates handicaps.

Starting back in the early days of golf, the handicap system used to take your 3 best golf scores for the year and average them together. Then it would subtract par from this average score and that was your handicap.

This wasn’t fair to less skilled players because they might have had a few good rounds during the year but 90% of the other golf rounds were terrible scores, yet this handicap calculation method said they were a low handicap player because of those couple of good rounds.

The old golf handicap system also didn’t factor in the difficulty of the golf course. So golfers could score low scores on easy courses and achieve a low handicap index while golfers playing harder courses had higher handicaps.

When the two would face off, their was a disadvantage to the golfer who had the higher handicap and was now playing an easier golf course.

1979 came around and Dean Knuth created a formula that would factor in the difficulty of each golf course into the handicap calculation.

His formula predicted what score a golfer would shoot on a course based on the distance for that set of tees. His bogey rating that the formula spit out was then compared to the scratch rating and used to create a slope rating for that set of tees.

This made the course more fair based on if you were playing from the red tees, the white tees, the blue tees, etc. It factored in total yardage of the tees being played which can impact if a golfer bogies vs double bogies a hole due to the extra distance causing higher chances of higher scores.

How to Get a Handicap in Golf

Getting a handicap in golf is quite simple and pretty easy to set up. Here’s what to know about establishing a golf handicap index for the first time as a beginner.

Step 1: Go to your local home golf course and ask to sign up for a golf handicap. Or you can register at the website.

Step 2: Pay the fee. Your local golf course will charge you a handicap membership fee which is usually around $25-40 per year.

Step 3: Get your GHIN number. After the USGA folks review your application and accept it, you’ll receive a GHIN number. This number will allow you to post your scores in the system and it allows others (like the Pro Shop Staff) to post your scores on your behalf.

Once you’re established in the Handicap System with the USGA, now comes the fun part…play lots of golf.

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How to Calculate Your Golf Handicap

The first step to calculating a golf handicap index will be to play several rounds of golf. The handicap system will need to compute an average score from at least 15-20 rounds of golf.

Each new round of golf that gets entered into the system will kick out an old one so the system is constantly re-calculating the average of the 15-20 rounds. As your scores trend lower over time, your handicap will also trend lower.

When playing a round of golf, it’s important to realize that handicap golf allows you to adjust your score. This doesn’t mean lie and cheat about what score you had on a hole.

It means follow the chart bulleted below to give yourself a maximum score on each hole based on your handicap level.

This adjusted score system eliminates the problem of blow up holes where you card an extremely high score that is against the norm and would throw off your handicap severely.

The USGA, instead, lets you adjust your score on the hole to take a maximum stroke total for that hole so the blow up hole doesn’t severely ruin your golf handicap.

Use this chart here for adjusting your score:

  • 40 or above handicap – max score of 10
  • 30-39 handicap – Max score of 9
  • 20-29 handicap – Max score of 8
  • 10-19 handicap – Max score of 7
  • 0-9 handicap – Max score of double bogey

Example: If I was playing as a 24 handicap golfer, I would fall in the 20-29 scoring bracket above. This means on any given hole I could take no more than an 8 on my scorecard. So if I had a bad hole and shot 11, I would write down the 11 but then mark down an 8 as well for that hole to adjust my score for handicap. The adjusted score will get entered into the system.

The Golf Handicap Formula

Here is the official, yet confusing formula for calculating a golf handicap score:

  • [(Adjusted Score – Course Rating) x 113 ]/ Slope Rating

Starting with your adjusted score, what score did you shot for the round after adjusting for the maximum score on each hole that you’re allowed to take based on your handicap.

Next, subtract the course rating for the set of tees you play from your adjusted score.

Then multiply this number by 113.

Lastly, divide that number by the slope rating of the course.

Pretty simple right?

Math Example:

  • Golf course rating = 70.6
  • Slope rating = 116
  • Your adjusted score = 88

Step 1: Take the 88 minus 70.6 to get 17.4.

Step 2: Multiply 17.4 by 113 to get 1,966.2

Step 3: Divide 1,966.2 by 116 to get 16.95

In this example, if you shot 88 at this golf course with a course rating of 70.6 and slope of 116 then the handicap system would calculate a handicap of 16.95 which is 17 strokes you’d be expected to score above par.

The handicap gets calculated at each golf course you play based on the above formula and all of this data gets averaged together to come up with a final index number by taking your 10 best rounds out of the last 20.

Each new round of golf adjusts the index number very slightly since it’s being averaged by your last 20 rounds. This means one bad round of golf won’t hurt you.

That bad round of golf will probably get tossed out anyway, since the system takes your top 10 rounds out of your last 20 rounds, discarding the worst 10 rounds from its calculation.

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When Is Your Golf Handicap Used?

The reason to have a golf handicap is if you intend to play competitively against other players, whether at your local golf club or competing in statewide tournaments.

Your handicap represents roughly the number of strokes you score above par on average and will help level the playing field if two golfers of varying handicaps compete against each other.

For example, I used to play in local money games at my home golf course with other members and we used handicap for these money golf games to even the field so one team didn’t have an advantage if they had better skilled golfers than another team.

Local tournaments might use handicap to put you into different flights so you’re paired against similar skill level golfers. If you score in the 80’s consistently, you would get paired against other golfers who score in the 80’s consistently to compete for the 1st place trophy in your flight.

Golfers who score above 100 would compete in their own category against other 100+ scoring golfers for 1st place in their flight.

If you’re playing against a friend, you may give him so many strokes total for the entire round to offset the fact that you score lower than him usually. It’s like giving someone a head start since you will likely perform better than them, to make things more equal overall.

Read Next: How to Use a Golf Score Card for Beginners

How Handicap Strokes Are Used on the Golf Course

If two golfers have varying handicaps, the higher handicap player will get extra strokes to count against their score to help level the game.

Strokes are handed out based on the difficulty of the hole, starting with the most difficult holes first. On a scorecard, you’ll find the difficulty number as the 18 holes will be ranked from 1 to 18 with 1 being the toughest hole and 18 being the easiest hole.

Let’s put this to an example…

Let’s say I have a handicap of 10 and you have a handicap of 16. That’s a 6 stroke difference, so you’ll get 6 strokes which will spread out on the 6 toughest ranked holes on the golf course.

If hole #1 happens to be ranked the third hardest hole for example, then you would get a stroke for that hole. So if you made a bogey and I made a par, we would tie as a result of handicap since you got a stroke for that hole.

Now if we play the 7th toughest hole on the course, then the scores would be even from the start since you only get a stroke on the 6 toughest ranked holes. So if I made a par and you made a bogey, then I would win that hole or have a 1 stroke lead on you.

The easiest way to keep track of which holes you get strokes on or are giving up strokes to your opponent, would be to mark little pencil dots on those holes.

In the above example, since I’m giving you 6 strokes, since my handicap is 10 and yours is 16, I would mark a dot on the toughest rated hole, the second toughest rated hole, and so on until I marked a dot next to the 6 holes that are ranked 1 through 6 for difficulty.

The other 12 holes rated 7-18 hardest would be fair game where our scores are equal to each other.

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