The Ultimate Guide To Calculating & Improving Your Handicap

A golf handicap allows players of differing abilities to play against each other and level the playing field for the less-skilled player.

A good player gets bored playing against inexperienced players, and the person with the lower skill level get frustrated playing against experienced players. The golf handicap is designed to even the playing field and allows players of all skill levels to play with each other on any course without fear of a "mismatch."

Golf handicaps are used for amateur players affiliated with any United States Golf Association (USGA) club, though any group of players can use apps or manual scoring to figure their handicaps. Golf pros don't use handicaps since they are all highly skilled players.

The golf handicap consists of two main numbers – the golf handicap index (a general number applied to any course) and a course handicap applies to a specific golf course.

There a few other terms you should know – slope rating, handicap differential, bogey player, bogey, scratch player, under par – and they all factor into your golf handicap.

Your handicap is more than a number. It lets you know when your playing is improving and when you need more practice. A golf handicap gives you a sense of belonging (everyone in your club or group will also have one), and offers a sense of accomplishment after each round or game.

Official handicaps are overseen by the United States Golf Association (USGA). Formed in 1894, the USGA is the national association of golf course, clubs in the U.S. and Mexico.

What is a Scratch Golfer?

A scratch golfer plays at or below par. (Par means the number of strokes needed to complete a hole.) These golfers have a handicap of zero or below. When you hear golfers discuss handicaps, and they say someone is “scratch” or “plays to scratch”, this means the golfer has a zero handicap.

According to the USGA, a scratch golfer has a zero handicap on all rated courses. A male scratch golfer hits tee shots an average of 250 yards and can reach a 470-yard hole in two shots. A female scratch golfer hits tee shots 210 yards and can reach a 400-yard hole at sea level in two shots.

Only 1.6 per-cent of male golfers and 0.37 per-cent of female golfers registered with the USGA qualify as scratch players. Most USGA players (and unaffiliated golfers) are bogey golfers, meaning they have a handicap of one or above.

What is a Bogey Golfer?

A bogey is a score of 1-over par on a hole. Most holes are par-3, par-4 or par-5, so if a golfer takes 4, 5 or 6 strokes, respectively, to finish a hole, it’s called a bogey. You may hear golfers use bogey as a verb, as in “I need to bogey the final hole.”

A bogey golfer, according to the USGA, has a Handicap Index of 17.5 to 22.4. A male bogey golfer hits tee shots an average of 200 yards and takes two shots to reach a 370-yard hole at sea level. A female bogey golfer hits tee shots an average of 150 yards and takes two shots to reach a 280-yard hole at sea level.

Why Bother with a Golf Handicap?

Why should you bother to get a handicap if you play for fun and relaxation? Even amateur athletes like to check progress, and handicaps help golfers chart their improvements in their playing. It shows you where you need help (maybe you could be a scratch golfer on flat courses, but you haven't learned how to maneuver obstacles yet. It eliminates unfair advantages if scratch golfers play against bogey golfers. And it allows you to enjoy the game more.

You can’t figure your golf handicap before a game unless you know the course rating and handicap and slope rating of the course. All courses aren’t equal, and you must take this into account.

How to Determine a Course Handicap

THE USGA uses course handicaps as the fulcrum of its golf handicap system. Each course has a handicap, and this rating is used to determine a player’s handicap. The course handicap determines if you can reduce your net score by a particular number of strokes at each hole you play at every course you play.

Another way to describe Course Handicap - it represents the number of strokes a bogey golfer needs to play to equal a scratch golfer or the course rating of a set of tees. It's expressed as a whole number and determined by charts located at the course where the game is played.

Golf Courses – Design, Slope Rating and Difficulty

Each golf course is designed differently, and courses have different ratings. Players will have a harder time on a course with many obstacles (trees, rock formations, water) than on a level course.

The standard slope rating is 113, with 55 being the easiest and 155 the toughest. The numbers alone don’t mean much until you actually see the corresponding course.

The Kiawah Island Ocean Course in Kiawah Island, South Carolina, is considered to be one of the toughest golf courses in the U.S. It has a 153 slope rating from the championship tee, a 79.9 course rating and 108.1 bogey rating. Kiawah is along the Atlantic Ocean, and the water makes it a tough course to play. Conversely, the trees and mounds in Pikewood National in West Virginia give it a 155 slope rating on the back tees and a 109.4 bogey rating a golf course middle of a dense forest.

Toughest Golf Courses In America

Champions Golf Club in Houston, Texas is mostly flat, and the terrain is clear, with few obstructions. Azalea Sands in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina is mostly flat terrain, making it less challenging for bogey golfers.

The average slope rating for most courses is 120. Elkins Ranch Golf Course in California has a slope rating of 121, so check out the description of this course to get an idea of what an average course entails.

If you are considering playing a particular course and what to know what you're in for, most course website layout video of each hole so you can mentally prepare for your game. Here are sample course layouts:

Royal Links Golf Club, Las Vegas

Laguna Seca Golf Ranch, Monterey, CA.

Many golfers play at one course, and the figure based on your most frequented course is your home course handicap.

How the USGA Determines Slope Rating

What does the USGA look for when determining slope rating? Think of the natural obstacles you might encounter while playing. Hills, sand traps, trees, bushes, slopes wind, ponds and rock formation are all impediments to getting the ball where you want it to go. 

The USGA looks at a number of factors to determine a course’s slope rating. The slope’s numerical rating comes from the difference between the bogey rating and official USGA rating.

Here are the playing length and obstacle factors the USGA considers when rating each course:

  • Roll

The USGA representative assesses how far shots roll for both bogey and scratch golfers.

  • Elevation

The rep examines how changes in elevation affect play from hole to hole.

  • Wind

The effect of prevailing wind from the ocean, plains or other areas exposed to prevailing winds is assessed.

  • Forced Lay-Ups/Dogleg

Do one or more of the holes on the course have a “bend” forcing players to “lay up” or cut the corners or obstacles impeding the players’ ability to hit a proficient shot?

  • Altitude

If a course is located at an altitude of 2,000 feet or above, shots fly farther due to thin air, making play more difficult.

  • Fairway

Fairway ratings look at how hard it is to keep the ball in play. It assesses rough, trees, hazards and hole length.

  • Topography

If slopes and mounds are present and require uphill or downhill shots, this will increase the difficulty factor for all players.

  • Bunkers

The proximity of bunkers to target areas is examined, as well as the difficulty of recovering a ball.

  • Water

The representative evaluates water hazards, their distance from the green, and the chance of a water hazard making a hole difficult to play.

  • Trees

The size and density of trees on the course, and the chance of recovery if a ball is hit near them, is assessed.

  • Green Surface

A measure of how difficult it will be to putt on the green.

  • Out-of-bounds/Extreme Rough

This measures the middle of the landing zone to the extreme rough. Some long grasses or underbrush may make the ball unplayable. (Rough is long grass along the fairway.)

  • Recoverability

This rates the chance of missing the landing zone or green and the difficulty of recovering. The green target rating is considered when measuring recoverability.

  • Green Target

How hard will it be to hit the green with an approach shot? Green contour and firmness are assessed, along with the length of the approach shot.

When a course is rated rough due to physical layout, a tenth obstacle, psychology, is added.

The course rating lets scratch players know how hard it will be for them to play a particular course. The slope rating tells bogey players how difficult it will be to get a low par on the same course. In other words, the course rating lets good golfers know what to expect; the slope rating lets average golfers know how much tougher the course will be for someone of their skill level. The standard slope rating for the average golfer (male or female) is 113.

How to Lower Your Golf Handicap

Bogey golfers don’t need to spend extra time on the course to practice. By using golf practice equipment designed for both indoor and outdoor use, you can improve your swing and stance anywhere. Here are a few types of affordable golf practice equipment:

Golf Nets

You can practice in your basement, office, living room or even on a high-rise rooftop with golf net. Practice putting, chipping and other strokes or shots on imitation turf. The ball is then caught by a net, preventing injury and damage to windows or furniture.

Some nets have built-in ball return technology, so you don’t have to move from the green to retrieve balls every few shots. The Net Return Pro Series Multi-Sport Golf Net is 7' 6" tall, 8' wide and 3' 6" deep, with automatic ball return, push-button assembly, and a 250,000 shot guarantee.

The Rukket Portable Driving Range 

3 in 1 Golf Set contains a portable triangular golf net, Tri-Turf Hitting Mat and chipping attachment. The net is 7' tall and 9' wide and made of heavy, double-stitched material.

Practice Golf Balls

Using real golf balls during practice can be costly, with errant shots flying throughout the room or yard. Use inexpensive, foam-filled practice golf balls instead.

You can even use Wiffle brand plastic golf balls (yes, that Wiffle brand) if you want to practice in your yard without the balls flying too far off your property.

Putting Greens and Hitting Mats

Use a putting green and indoor golf mat to improve your putting stroke – and your handicap. The pro-tested putting green by Shaun Webb is made of high-quality material that won’t scratch the bottom of your putter. Golf balls roll easily on the mat and don’t curve to the right or left.

The Callaway Ft Launch Zone Hitting Mat simulates a fairway or tee box. Improve your swing by practicing on this 8" x 16" hitting mat in your garage or office.

Exercises to Help Improve Your Golf Game and Handicap

Increasing your strength and flexibility are more important to lowering your handicap than expensive golf clubs. Adding a few lunges, planks and twists to your exercise routine. They will strengthen your core, feet, ankles and eliminate reliance on your arms and wrists when swinging. Overusing your arms when golfing leads to lower back pain and other problems.

Learn how to rotate your body for a proper swing by placing a rolled up towel across your chest and keep it in place with your arms while you swing. This prevents you from moving your arms and allows your body to rotate freely.

Golf Digest and other major golf websites and publication offer handicap lowering tips. Incorporate golf-specific exercises into your daily or weekly workouts. If you’re having problems improving your handicap practicing on your own, consider hiring a golf coach.

Good Form Lowers Your Handicap and Prevents Common Golf Injuries

People who use bad posture or technique at their computers may develop carpal tunnel syndrome or other repetitive motion injuries.

Repetitive movements and bad technique when playing golf may result in the same types of injuries. What do repetitive motion injuries have to do with my golf handicap? More than you think, because often poor stance, swing and body movements lead to a high handicap-and these common golf injuries. (source)

To prevent injuries and improve your golf handicap, follow these tips:

  • Stretch and do yoga to prevent back pain from prolonged, strenuous golf swings.
  • Avoid striking the ground first when you swing. This may cause golfer’s elbow.
  • Overextending your swing gives you tennis elbow. Work on fixing your swing, and treat inflamed tendons with ice and rest.
  • Slow down your back swing to prevent wrist impaction syndrome.

Don’t overexert yourself during play or practice. Always strive to improve your handicap, but play for enjoyment first and foremost.

How Much Can I Lower My Handicap in 10 Weeks?

The Handicap Index

A USGA handicap index indicates a golfer’s scoring ability. It’s an estimate of what golfers might score on their good days, not an average of their scores, and can be used on any course.

The Handicap Index formula is complicated, and a golfer's club is likely to keep track of it.

Formula is as follows –Your adjusted gross score (must be a minimum of 5 with a cap of 20)The course ratings and slope ratings of the courses you’ve played.

Once you have those numbers, you need to find the handicap differential of each round of play.

A handicap differential is calculated for every score a golfer posts. It's the difference between a player's adjusted score and the course rating where the score was made. It's multiplied by 113, and divided by the slope rating played, and rounded off one decimal place.

That seems complicated to a newbie, but it’s not that daunting.

Formula = Your score - Course Rating x 113 divided by Slope Rating. As you can see, if you play a lot of golf, you (or your club or app, will be doing a lot of math)

So now you have five to 20 handicap differentials. If you used 20 rounds, you'd use the 10 lowest differentials. If you used five or six differentials, you'd use the lowest differential.

Next, you average of your differentials. Add them up and divide by the number of differentials ten differential add up divide total by 10

Finally, multiply the average of your differentials by 0.96 (96%). Delete digits after the tenths. 11.34 becomes 11.3 This is your differential.

Best Golf Handicap Apps

Any golfer can use a golf app on their mobile phone, iPad or laptop to find suitable golf courses, figure handicaps and keep track of scores in real time. You’ll need to belong to the USGA to take advantage of some features. Here are a few of the most popular apps for Andriod and iPhone.

The Grint has a golf GPS for over 37,000 golf courses, free golf handicaps from USGA licensed clubs, live scoring, and game and point calculations. A yearly pro membership includes Scorecard Picture Service. Upload a photo of your scorecard, and your handicap is instantly transcribed.

The Golf Handicap and Information Network (GHIN) is an online computation service for handicaps. Founded in 1981 by the USGA, it now has a mobile phone app that lets registered USGA members post scores, view handicaps, and tournament scores, and figure (or look up) handicaps with the Interactive Course Handicap™ Calculator. You must have an official USGA Handicap Index to use most of the features on this app.

If you don’t belong to a GHIN sanctioned organization, you can still use the site’s online handicap lookup to find the handicap of any USGA member.

Diablo Golf, a free handicap tracker, allows you to import scores from GHIN to My Diablo. It lets you post ratings, reviews, and scores. It even has Facebook integration. Post five scores to get a handicap index, and review course descriptions from all over the U.S. There’s even a tee box drop down menu with slope information.

Golf Clubs Licensing and Official USGA Handicaps

The USGA developed the Handicap Index, and all official Handicap Indexes for golfers must be issued through a licensed state or regional golf association. You can find a list of affiliated clubs here.

An organization with at least ten members, with bylaws, a peer review and handicap committee can be classified as a golf club by the USGA and officially issue handicaps.

The USGA defines three types of golf clubs:

  • The members play at a single golf club with a USGA Course Rating and Slope Rating. The club’s records are stored at this location, and all events take place there.
  • Club members belong to a social, business or fraternal association and play golf together regularly.
  • Club members were recruited by a newspaper or Internet ad and didn't know each other before answering the ad.

The USGA provides a comprehensive guide on handicapping on their website, with the latest news on this 105-year old scorekeeping technique (It was introduced on October 11, 1911.)

With all the apps and instant calculation offered by USGA clubs, you don't need to be good at math to understand golf handicaps. All you need to do is enjoy playing golf and watch your game improve with each new handicap.