How To Calculate and Improve Your Handicap

One of the great things about the game of golf is that almost anyone can play it and be competitive. Unlike baseball, football, soccer, or a variety of other major sports, an 80-year old man can play a match against a 30-year old woman. No matter your skill level, there is a way of leveling the playing field, so that anyone can compete with anyone. This is made possible through a system called handicaps.

Not only can a golf handicap make it so that you can compete fairly with anyone, it also allows you to compete with yourself. How does that work? It’s simple! Once you have an established handicap (which we will discuss below), you’ll have a number that represents your best average potential skill level. Meaning, you can consistently push yourself to beat your handicap. If you ever played video games as a kid, a lot of car racing games had what they called a “ghost racer.” This was a translucent racer who drove the exact speed and route as your previous best race. Then, you could play over and over again against yourself (aka: the ghost racer) and try to beat yourself. A golf handicap is a little bit like that, it gives you a “ghost” version of yourself that you can compete against.

Basically, a golf handicap is a number value that each player carries, signifying their skill level. Many people believe that the handicap represents a player’s average number of strokes compared to par, but that is not entirely true. In fact, a golf handicap more closely represents a player’s best, average score. So, when a golfer is playing their best, their average number of strokes compared to par will be their handicap. There is a fairly complex system for calculating a golfer’s handicap, which I will discuss more in depth below.

The Purpose of a Handicap

According to the United States Golf Association (USGA), the governing body for golf in the U.S. and Mexico, “The purpose of the USGA Handicap System is to make the game of golf more enjoyable by enabling players of differing abilities to compete on an equitable basis.” It is a system that allows golfers of all skill levels to compete with one another on a level playing field. (USGA)

Golf handicaps are not used in professional (and some amateur) events, since the purpose is to identify the best golfer. That being said, golf handicaps come in handy for amateur events and friendly games where there is a desire to allow all players to be competitive and identify the player who play the best, relative to their abilities during that competition.

For example, there could be a group of four golfers, one who has been playing for 20 years, another who just picked up the game 2 months ago, a third who has been playing for 5 years, and the last who has won a professional event, and the four could have fun competing together if they all carried a golf handicap.


Understanding Handicap

There are quite a few terms that a person must know in order to fully understand the golf handicapping system. The first, is a handicap index. The USGA defines handicap index as a number taken to one decimal place that is issued by a golf club or authorized golf association, which indicates a player’s skill. Basically, this is a universal number, for example 8.7, which indicates a player’s skill level. (USGA)

In order to receive a Handicap Index, a player must post a minimum of five 18-hole scores, and ideally, 20. Posting a score is normally done through a governing body whom oversees golf handicaps. Once a player finishes a round of golf, they will electronically submit their score to be recorded to their handicap. The first 5 rounds a player posts are referred to as “adjusted.” Basically, this means that it’s not as accurate as it could be, but you’ll receive an official USGA Handicap Index after posting five more scores. (Thoughtco)

Like I said, ideally, a player’s Handicap Index will include their twenty most recent scores, with the actual calculation being made from a player’s lowest ten. (Thoughtco)

A player’s Handicap Index is then converted into a Course Handicap based on the golf course and set of tees they will be playing that day. For example, with a Handicap Index of 8.7, a golfer may have a Course Handicap of 9 at golf course A playing from the far back tees. On the other hand, that same player may have a Course Handicap of 10 at golf course B playing from the forward tees.

Each golf course will have a Course Handicap Table, which converts a player’s Handicap Index into a Course Handicap. Then, the Course Handicap determines how many total strokes to par, a player will receive. For example, if there is one player who has a Course Handicap of 5 and another who has a 9, then the player with a 9 will receive 4 strokes on that golf course in order to make the match even. (USGA)

Strokes are given to a player based on the hole’s difficulty. Every golf course ranks their holes, 1-18, based on their difficulty. So, the most difficult hole will be given a 1 and the easiest will be an 18. In the previous example, the player who received 4 strokes would subtract 1 stroke from their score on holes ranked 1, 2, 3, and 4. If there is ever a situation where one player receives more than 18 strokes in a match, let’s say 20, then they would subtract 1 stroke from their score on every hole except the holes ranked 1 and 2, where they would subtract two strokes. (Golfweek)

One of the terms you may hear about when it comes to handicaps is “scratch.” Normally, this refers to a player’s handicap when it reaches zero. Similarly, if a golfer is an 18 handicap, this is over referred to as a bogey golfer because they would receive one shot per hole in a round of golf.

Calculating Handicap

Like I mentioned earlier, a handicap is calculated when a player posts their scores into a scoring system after they have finished playing a round of golf. Typically, a golf course will have a computer designated for posting scores in their golf pro shop. This is where a player, if they have set up a handicap, can enter in the score they shot that day.

One of the important things to know is the term “slope rating.” This is a number, unique to each golf course, which indicates the relative difficulty of a course for players who are not scratch golfers. This number is taken into consideration when figuring out a player’s course handicap on a specific golf course. “Course rating” is another term that golfers need to be familiar with. The “course rating” is another number that indicates the evaluation of the playing difficulty of a golf course. (USGA)

A lot of people think that a golf handicap is the average strokes a player finishes compared to par in a round of golf. That ends up being pretty close to a player’s handicap, but is not completely true. The truth is, a golf handicap is calculated by the following formula: (Golfadvisor)

[(adjusted score – course rating) x 113]/actual course rating = handicap

As mentioned earlier, you can establish a handicap with only five scores, but a complete golf handicap is figured by entering 20 scores. The reason why it is best to use 20 scores is because a golf handicap does not use all the scores entered. Instead, part of the formula requires that you use only the lowest differential of scores. Meaning, if a player has 20 scores entered, only the best 10 will be used to figure a handicap. So, a player’s handicap is more accurately described as a player’s average out of their best rounds. (Golfadvisor, Hittingthegreen)

On the surface, that seems fairly complicated, and it is a little bit, but don’t worry. Most golfers do not calculate their own handicap. Instead, there are handicap services who do the calculations for a player for a fairly reasonable service fee. (Golferhill)

Another term that you need to understand when dealing with handicap is equitable stroke control. This is a number assigned to golfers that gives them a maximum number of shots they can reduce their score to on certain holes. Most golf courses provide players with a chart which states the number given to you based on your handicap. The USGA defines equitable stroke control as the downward adjustment of individual hole scores for handicap purposes in order to make handicaps more representative of a player’s potential ability. It allows a player’s score to not become distorted by a single large score on a hole. (Golferhill, USGA)

Training Aids and Tools for Lowering Your Handicap

Now, let’s talk about some training aids and tools you can utilize that will help lower your golf handicap.

Bushnell Tour V4 Jolt Golf Laser Rangefinder

One of the most important skills to have when trying to improve your golf skill is knowing exactly how far you hit each club. In order to do this, you need to start knowing the exact distance for every shot you take. Most golf courses have some way of notifying players when they are 100, 150, and 200 yards away from the green. That’s great, but often causes players to estimate how far they are from the green. On the one hand, you can get a number that is fairly accurate, but you’ll never know when you get it wrong. So, I recommend that you invest in a laser rangefinder. This is a device that allows you to “shoot” the flag from wherever you are on the golf course and learn the exact yardage. Then, the more you play with it, you’ll start to discover the exact yardage that you hit each of your clubs. This will cut down on missed shots and help you hit more fairways and greens, thus lowering your score. My favorite laser rangefinder is made by Bushnell, you can see it below.

The Net Return Pro Series Multi-Sport Golf Net

The next item that will really help you lower your handicap is a golf net. If you live in an area of the world where you can’t play golf all 12 months, then this will be especially helpful. Even if you do live in a warm climate though, this will help you practice when you don’t have a lot of time.

A golf net is a net that you can hit a golf ball into while indoors or in a place with limited space, like your backyard. It allows you to work on your ball striking when you don’t have the time to run to the driving range. It’ll help you get a lot of quality swings in and work on your muscle memory because you don’t ever have to chase your shot. A lot of the nets are designed to return the golf ball right back to your feet, so that it minimizes that amount of time wasted collecting golf balls. All you need to use a golf net is enough space to swing your golf clubs without hitting anything around you. As you can see in the image below, it can even be easily set up in a kitchen. You can set it up and take it down really easily, so you don’t use valuable space in your house when it’s not being used.

Voice Caddie SC 200 Portable Golf Launch Monitor

Now, the next item is really important for those days where you are on the driving range or hitting into your at-home golf net, it’s a launch monitor. This is a fairly rarely used device by the average golfer, but can be incredibly valuable. As I said earlier, it’s important to know exactly how far you hit each of your golf clubs, but when you are hitting on the driving range or into a golf net, that isn’t always possible. So, a launch monitor allows you to know the exact distance you hit a shot.

Basically, it’s a device that is placed next to your ball and it uses radar to measure the ball speed and spin rate. Then, it’ll tell you the exact distance you hit a shot without having to walk to your ball.

Game Golf Live Tracking System

Not only do you need to know how far your clubs are going, but you also need to know where you are losing shots during a round of golf. This means, that you need to know if you are putting too much, missing too many fairways, or missing too many greens. That way, you know what to work on when you go to the driving range to practice.

Most people, when they go to the driving range, take out their driver or other club they love to hit and hit it over and over again. They believe that this is quality practice, but the truth is, it’s not. In order to get better and lower your handicap, you need to work on the skills that you are not as good at. So, it helps to record all of your shots during a round so that you know what to work on.

There are tools out on the market that help you do that. The GAME GOLF Shot Tracking System is a great way to do that. You simple tap your club against a device on your belt and at the end of the round, your entire round will be recorded and you will be able to see where you were losing shots and where you can improve.

Zepp Golf 2 3D Swing Analyzer

The golf swing can be something that is very difficult to change on your own. Often times, we don’t even realize we are doing something wrong and, when we do try to change something, we can’t tell if we’re doing it correctly or not because we can’t see our own golf swing. This makes improvement a challenge without the help of a local professional who can analyze your swing and tell you what you’re doing wrong.

That being said, there are tools out there that can help you analyze your own swing in between getting a professional lesson. The one below, the Zepp Golf swing analyzer, allows you to visually see your golf swing simply by clipping a sensor to your glove. It’ll provide you with a 3D swing analysis, club speed, club plane, tempo, backswing length, and more. All of those data points are great for making sure that your swing is looking good without being able to see your own swing.

Golf Handicap Wrap-up

The golf handicap system is an incredibly unique tool in sports. It is the one sport that allows everyone to compete fairly on an even playing field, while also giving you the opportunity to compete with yourself every time you go out. Whether you’ve got a game with a playing partner or not, the golf handicap will challenge you each and every day. It’ll push you to become a better golfer and help you have even more fun with everyone you play with.

Be sure to check out the training aids and tools listed above that will, no doubt, help you lower your scores, improve your handicap, and compete with other players. Most of these training aids are very new technology that are constantly being improved in order to help you love the game more every time you go out to play.

A very special thanks to my friend Eric Peyton for contributing this article.