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What is a golf handicap — and how do you calculate yours?

a photo of a man playing golf
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The concept of the golf handicap is unique in competitive sports. Calculated via a process approved internationally by the game’s governing bodies, the system allows any golfers to compete against each other fairly — evening the proverbial playing field by subtracting strokes from the less skilled player in keeping with his or her skills. 

Once you learn how to calculate your handicap, that official number would allow you to play any PGA pro competitively as long as all players agree to put the handicap system to use. While you can certainly play golf for your entire life without ever knowing your number, you will need to calculate your handicap if you ever want to enter most competitions or official golf leagues.

Developed by a process agreed upon by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews (the game’s founding organization dating back to 1754) and the United States Golf Association (the governing body setting all rules in U.S. golf), the World Handicap System makes the process of calculating your handicap a 10-step process.

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 How to calculate your handicap 

Step 1

Play a lot of golf. This is the best part of your little piece of math homework. To determine how good a player you are, you must play enough golf on recognized courses to create an index of scores. Once you play enough golf you can begin the process of measuring your “demonstrated ability calculated against the Slope Rating of a golf course of standard playing difficulty (that is, a course with a Slope Rating of 113),” according to the USGA.

The slope rating of a golf course refers to a mathematical record of the difficulty of the course. Slope rating takes into account the USGA par rating of the course and the expected score of a higher handicap golfer.

Step 2

You can get your handicap at your local golf course or golf club. Most courses that welcome regular players or membership have a computer or golf pro devoted to handicap establishment and recording. If you don’t have a home course or belong to a country club, you can utilize the Allied Golf Association to find your local golf association. You will have to create a profile, but this is a very popular way to obtain your Handicap.

Step 3

Gather the course rating and slope rating for a given course you’re playing. A course rating is calculated by the best average number of strokes a professional player needs to finish the course. A slope rating is a record of how much more difficult a course will be for an average golfer.

Step 4

Figure your adjusted gross score. That’s the strokes it takes for you to complete a given course as interpreted by the World Handicap System.

a photo of a man playing golf

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Step 5

Calculate your score differential by subtracting your adjusted gross score from the course rating. You can look up the numbers via the USGA database.

Step 6

Multiply the difference between your adjusted gross score and the course rating by 113. That seemingly random number is a calculated average slope rating. The result scores how many strokes you were over par without considering the difficulty of the course.

Step 7

Calculate your average score differential. Five is the minimum rounds you need to play before you can determine your handicap index. From those five score differentials, you take your lowest score. As you play beyond five rounds, you take the average of multiple score differentials. At 10 rounds, you take the average of your three lowest score differentials to determine your handicap.

Step 8 

Keep playing. Your average score differential should account for the last 20 rounds of golf. If you play more than 20, you use the ten lowest score differentials and calculate the average.

Step 9 

Multiply that calculated average by 96. Evidently, 96 is used in statistical mathematics. I’m just a golfer, so we’ll have to take the staticians’ collective word for that.

Step 10

Understand what your number means. A maximum handicap for a beginner golfer is 54. The average golfer or a mid-handicap is about a 15. A scratch golfer is a zero, and an excellent player who shoots under par moves into plus numbers.

John Scott Lewinski hustles around the world, writing for a network of publications recording a monthly readership of more than 300 million people. He covers lifestyle, travel, golf, cars, technology and hard news. As an author, he is represented by the Fineprint Literary Agency, New York.