What Does Handicap Mean in Golf?

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what is a golf handicap

When it comes to golf, handicap refers to a scoring system that allows players of different skill levels to compete against each other on more equal terms. In golf tournaments that use handicaps, the higher-handicap players start with a number of strokes subtracted from their total score for the round. This ensures that everyone has a chance to win, no matter how good they are at golf or how much they need to improve their game.

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The Bottom Line:

  • What does a handicap mean in golf? A handicap is a number directly correlated to how good of a golfer you are. The lower your score, the better you are on average
  • How to use your golf handicap in scoring? To calculate your score, subtract your handicap from your total strokes. 
  • 5 tips for improving your golf handicap: Practice regularly, study the game, improve your swing and equipment, improve your fitness, and play often

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What Does Handicap Mean in Golf?

According to the USGA, handicap "is a numerical measure of a player's potential playing ability based on the best 10 of their last 20 rounds." In simpler terms, your handicap is a number directly correlated to how good of a golfer you are—the lower the number, the better you are on average.

Every time you play a round of golf, you will have a score differential compared to par, which is your score minus the course par rating. For example, if you shoot an 85 on a course with a par of 72, your differential would be 13. These differentials are used to calculate your handicap index, which is then used to determine your handicap for each new course you play. 

The USGA formula for calculating your handicap index is relatively complex, but many online tools can do it. Once you have your handicap index, you can look up the courses you plan to play and use that to calculate your handicap for that particular course.

Why Handicaps are Important for Recreational Golfers

Handicaps are an essential part of the game of golf for recreational players. Without handicaps, it would be difficult for players of different skill levels to compete against one another fairly. 

In addition, handicaps provide a way for players to track their progress over time. By monitoring their handicap, players can see how their game is improving and set goals for themselves. Handicaps add an element of excitement to the game by giving players something to strive toward. They provide a sense of accomplishment when a player lowers their handicap and motivate recreational golfers to keep practicing and keep playing. 

How to Use Your Golf Handicap in Scoring

Handicaps range from 0 (for a scratch golfer) to 36 (for a beginner). For example, if you have a handicap of 0, you should be able to shoot even par on a course with a par of 72. To calculate your score, subtract your handicap from your total strokes. 


So, if you shot an 85 and you have a handicap of 18, your score would be 85-18=67.

If your handicap is over 18, you will subtract shots from the more difficult holes—represented by the hole's index score. For example, some scorecards list an index of 1 through 18, where 1 represents the most challenging hole and 18 illustrates the easiest hole. So, if your handicap is 19, you would get two strokes deducted from the most challenging hole. If your handicap is 20, you will get two strokes deducted from the top two most difficult holes.

This type of scoring is necessary for "skins" style games, where golfers compete for cash based on who wins the hole.

5 Tips for Improving Your Handicap

There are several ways to improve your handicap and simple exercises to improve your golf game.

1. Practice regularly

The more you practice, the better you'll become. Make time for at least one practice session per week to make your handicap better. You could also get personal training or join a virtual training site to improve your form and strategy.

2. Study the game

Learn as much as you can about the different aspects of golf. The more you know, the better equipped you'll be to improve your game. Besides technique, there is a wide range of strategies deployed on the golf course that you should start to notice as your play increases.

3. Improve your swing and equipment

You may start with borrowed or used clubs early in your golf career. As you progress, however, you will want to improve your equipment. Today's golf equipment and technology are light years ahead of what golf clubs and accessories used to be. Not only can clubs help you hit the ball farther, but they are designed to hit the ball straighter or with a specific shot shape. By improving your swing and visiting a club fitter, you can discover which clubs are right for you. For instance, there are certain putters geared toward high handicappers

4. Improve your fitness

At first glance, it may not seem that important to be fit for golf. But the truth is that better flexibility and a stronger core are vital to having a good golf game. Not only does being fit improve your stamina, but it can also improve your focus, balance, and shot length.

5. Play often

In theory, the more you play, the better you'll get. If you're in a competitive league or want to improve, it's essential to play often. Different aspects of a golf game rely heavily on touch and feel that only develop over time. Sure, you may rear back and swing hard for some shots, but you'll need to know the distance and amount of power required for others. Putting and the short game are two essential parts of the game that high handicappers often forget about. When you practice, be sure to practice all aspects of your game, not just your iron or driver swings. There are many indoor putting drills to improve your golf game

Golf is a game that takes time and effort to master, but the rewards are well worth it. Not only will you compete better and improve your handicap over time, but you will also get more enjoyment out of hitting the ball well and achieving a lower score. Having a high handicap for a while can benefit golfers who work hard because they can play better than their average and win more often.

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Alexis Bennett

Alexis is a longtime student of the game. After playing careers both in college, at the Division 1 level, and 3 years as a touring professional on the developmental circuits, she most recently wrapped a 9-year stint as a collegiate Head Coach at two different universities. In that time, she led her teams to 8 top-4 finishes in conference championships and led one player to the NCAA Regionals as an at-large bid in 2021, capping the best individual playing career in program history.

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