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How To Calculate A Golf Handicap

Written by   (author of Obvious Conclusions)

On this page, we will explain in detail how to calculate a golf handicap.  The golf handicap is perhaps one of the most misunderstood systems in all of sports.  We will explain this system in detail, show you how to manually calculate your golf handicap, and provide a complimentary golf handicap calculator so that you can easily tabulate your own handicap.

This page is part of our series on How To Play Golf. Whenever you want to improve your game, stop on by for the latest how to golf videos.

Why We Use Golf Handicaps

Golf, unlike any other sport, allows players of different abilities to fairly compete against one another. The system that allows for this is what is known as the golf handicap.

If you are playing golf consistently, you will want to establish your handicap with an authority organization sanctioned by the United States Golf Association. This usually comes in the form of your local private or public golf course. If you do not have any local courses that you would like to join, you can also establish your golf handicap online. There is usually an annual fee of about $50-$100 to establish your legitimate golf handicap.

However, many people want to know the science behind the numbers. They want to know how to calculate a golf handicap manually…and that is what this page is about, explaining the golf handicap system.

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Calculating a Golf Handicap: Definitions

There are three definitions that you need to know in regards to calculating a golf handicap: course rating, course slope, and adjusted gross scores (which many people do not know about).

Course Rating: A USGA Course Rating is used to factor golf handicaps. The course rating is expressed as a “golf score” and assesses the level of difficulty of a course based on how a scratch golfer–a par golfer–would do on that course. Thus, if a par 72 golf course has a rating of 73.5, a scratch golfer would shoot slightly over par on average at this course.

Slope Rating: The golf course slope rating is slightly more difficult to understand because it is expressed as a ratio rather than an actual golf score. It is always a number between 55 and 155 and represents the difficulty of a course for bogey golfers in relation to the courses’ course rating. As a benchmark, a slope rating of 113 is considered average.

Adjusted Gross Score: Many players are unfamiliar with the term “adjusted gross score” or implement it incorrectly. The idea behind the adjusted gross score is to prevent one or two bad holes from completely throwing off your handicap. For example, if you were playing a stellar round of golf, but then hit the ball out of bounds 3 times on one hole and received a 13 on the hole, this would throw off your overall score and thus your handicap. This is why you report your adjusted gross score (which provides a “max score” given your handicap) in the handicap system rather than your actual score, which included the 13.

Adjusted gross scores are determined by something called Equitable Stroke Control. For example, a golfer who is a 15 handicap cannot take higher than a 7 on any hole. For beginners, a golfer can take no higher than a 9 on any given hole.

How To Calculate a Golf Handicap

Ok, now that we know the definitions, let’s take a look at how to manually calculate a golf handicap. Remember, the more golf that you play, the more representative your golf handicap becomes of your actual potential. Also, note that a golf handicap is representative of your best potential, which most people forget.

With that in mind, let’s begin:

Calculating a Golf Handicap Manually

Step 1: Gather your golf scores from the last 5 rounds of golf that you have played. For this example, we will assume that your last five rounds are as follows: 89, 93, 97,85, 95

Step 2: Get the golf course slope and rating for each of these scores. In this example, we will assume that each round was played at the same course, my beloved Harding Park in San Francisco. (Have a look at their scorecard here. Playing from the white tees, you can see in the upper left corner that the course rating is 70.6 and the slope is 123.)

Step 3: Take your score and subtract from it the course rating. Thus, from the first score of 89, we subtract the course rating of 70.6 and get a value of 18.5.

Step 4: Multiply the number that you just calculated by 113, which gives us a value of 2079.2.

Step 5: Divide the number you just calculated by the slope of the course. Thus, 2079.2 divided by 123 gives us a number of 16.9. This number 16.9 is known as the differential.

Step 6: Take your lowest differential number of your 5 golf scores and multiply it by .96. Thus, my differential numbers for the five rounds of golf are: 16.9, 20.58, 24.25, 13.23, 22.42. The lowest number among those is 13.23, which I now multiply by .96, giving me a number of 12.7. This is my golf handicap.

Golf Handicap Misconceptions

As we see in the above example, this golfer with a handicap of 12.7, has also turned in a score of 97. Thus, when he has a bad round of 95 or higher, people are likely to sneer and say, “Are you sure your are a 12 handicap?”

This is because people, in general, do not really understand the golf handicap system. Your golf handicap represents your best rounds of golf not your average rounds of golf.

As you play more golf, you factor in more scores. With five rounds of golf, only the one score is factored. With seven rounds of golf, you average your two lowest differential numbers, and then multiply by .96.

Finally, once you have played 20 rounds of golf, you take the average of your 10 lowest differentials and multiply that number by .96. Obviously then, the more golf you play, the more accurate your handicap becomes.

Golf Handicap Calculator

Obviously, you want to play golf and not do math the whole time. Thus, golf handicap calculators are used to compute your golf handicap easily and effectively. If you have established a true golf handicap, you will simply enter your scores into the system at your club or online and all the golf handicap calculations will be done for you.

However, if you have not yet established a golf handicap, there are many golf handicap calculators online that will quickly allow you to calculate your golf handicap. Here are three that will allow you to quickly tabulate your golf handicap.

Calculate Your Golf Handicap (5 scores): This online calculator can be used to quickly calculate your golf handicap if you have a minimum of 5 rounds of golf.

Calculate Your Golf Handicap (1 score): If you are just starting out, this golf handicap calculator will tabulate your golf handicap based on just one round of golf.

Handicap Manager for Excel: This is a handy program to have to calculate your golf handicap or that of a whole league of people. It is a well-designed Excel spreadsheet that you can use to easily calculate your golf handicap using Excel.

Golf Handicap Videos

If you prefer videos, there are some videos that you may enjoy regarding golf handicaps. The videos, along with short reviews, are listed below. Simply click the link to launch each video in its own window.

Dan & Dan Talk Golf: “Handicaps”

This is an extremely enjoyable 2 minute plus video with two guys (who look exactly alike) talking about the golf handicap system. They take a straight-forward topic and make it fun. Is this really the same person?

Golf Link Handicap Video Instructions

In this straigtforward video found on YouTube, Kevin Battersby of Golf Links walk you through the definitions of course slope and rating by viewing an actual golf score card. We also see in video form the math behind the golf handicap and the methods used to determine your actual golf course handicap.

The Golf Handicap with Julio Nutt

This is a very short video with an overview of the handicapping system in golf. The instructor has a very Spanish accent like that of Sergio Garcia or the great Seve Ballesteros.

How Do You Get a Golf Handicap?

This is a very informative 1 1/2 minute video from Conan Elliot about how to get a golf handicap. Many people assume that you need to belong to a golf club to get a golf handicap. In fact, you do not need to be a member of any club. Conan walks you through the steps of forming your own club with your buddies simply by using the USGA golf web site. Plus, you can form a club of any name…I might just go set up my own. The ¨How-Tos¨…

One Final Note: Handicap Index Versus Course Handicap

One final note on your golf handicap that most people do not understand: There is a difference between a Handicap Index and a Course Handicap.

In the procedures above, you established a general golf handicap. And, if you make it official through your club or USGA organization, it is called a “Handicap Index”.

However, each course you play uses a separate golf course index based on the slope of the course. Thus, you may get extra strokes, or fewer strokes, based on the difficultly of the course.

Since an average course slope is 113, your course handicap will not vary from your handicap index. However, with a course slope of 134, you will be given a few extra strokes.

Thus, do not stop with just your handicap index. Always remember to calculate your course handicap for the golf course that you are playing. You can view a golf course handicap calculator here.

How To Calculate a Golf Handicap: Summary

On this page, we have provided you with a behind the scenes look at how golf handicaps are calculated.

Using variables such as golf course rating and slope, and your adjusted gross score, golf handicaps allow golfers of all abilities to compete against one another.

Though it is good to have an inside look at the numbers, you will want to use a golf handicap calculator after you have posted several golf scores. Once you have signed up for an official handicap, your club will provide its own behind the scenes golf handicap calculator and you will not have to calculate anything…it will do it all for you.

Now that you know how to calculate a golf handicap, remember that your handicap varies per course so don’t forget to calculate your course handicap for each golf course that you are playing.

And finally, to improve your golf game and thus your handicap, read the latest golf driving tips and learn how to swing a golf club properly. Each of these pages is part of our series on how to play better golf.

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Richard Cummings

Richard Cummings is writer, traveler, and web content developer. He creates fun, informative how to articles for this site and exercises his creative writing prerogative at ARichIdea.com.

Get your copy of his latest book entitled Obvious Conclusions, stories of a Midwestern emigrant influenced and corrupted by many years living in San Francisco and abroad. It just received its first outstanding review "...reminiscent of David Sedaris or Augusten Burroughs" on Amazon UK.
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