How to Calculate Your Golf Handicap

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Calculating your golf handicap may seem complicated, but all it really takes is some simple arithmetic. See more sports pictures.

Golf is a pretty simple game, right? Just hit the ball into the hole in as few attempts as possible. The person who takes the fewest strokes after 18 holes wins.

While the scoring is a little counterintuitive -- golf is one of the few sports where a lower score is better -- most people know the difference between a birdie and a bogey, a putter and a driver, a green and a fairway. Then there's the golf handicap. Even the most avid weekend golfers may stumble when trying to explain what it does or how it's calculated. But what may seem like the product of arbitrary numbers and equations is actually a highly developed and largely standardized system that allows players of different skill levels to compete on the same level.

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Standardized golf handicapping has been in existence for more than a century. Around 1900, the Ladies Golf Union (LGU), an organization based in Great Britain and Ireland, became the first group to establish a unified handicap system. The United States Golf Association (USGA) followed suit in 1911, creating a standardized course rating system that made handicapping consistent from course to course. The idea soon caught on in Great Britain, where the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews adopted the Standard Scratch Score and Handicapping Scheme in 1926. Today, the USGA administers the handicap system at more than 10,600 golf courses in the United States, providing precise rules and regulations that golf associations and clubs must follow in order to participate in the county's unified handicap system [source: USGA].

Now that you know a little about the history and purpose of the golf handicap, we're ready to dive into the details of just how it is calculated.

Understanding Golf Handicaps

golf handicap

Calculating a golf handicap can seem confusing at first. But once you understand the basics, all you'll need is a grasp of elementary school arithmetic. The first thing you should know is the difference between a scratch golfer, whose handicap is zero, and a bogey golfer, whose handicap is 18. These terms are important because they influence two very important variables: course rating and slope rating. The course rating is typically a number between 67 and 77 that approximates the score of a scratch golfer. A course's slope rating is a number between 55 and 155 that indicates the course difficulty for a bogey golfer relative to a scratch golfer. Both ratings should be found on your golf scorecard.

Finally, you need to know how to find your adjusted gross score. Also known as an equitable stroke control (ESC) score, this variable sets a limit on the number of strokes you have to count on an exceptionally bad hole. The lower your handicap, the fewer strokes you have to count. If you haven't been assigned a handicap, you'll have to count the maximum allowed: up to 10 strokes per hole. After adjusting your score for each hole, you can add them all together to get your adjusted gross score.

Once you have all of this information, you can calculate your handicap differential for each round. To do this, subtract the course rating from your adjusted gross score. Then multiply this number by 113 and divide by the slope rating. In other words:

handicap differential = (adjusted gross score - course rating) x 113 / slope rating

Differentials are rounded to the nearest tenth.

golf handicap

The next step is to calculate your handicap index. If you've played 20 rounds of golf on any USGA rated course, you'll take the average of your lowest 10 handicap differentials and multiply the average by 0.96. Any numbers after the tenth digit can be deleted. You can calculate your handicap index after playing as few as five rounds, but the more rounds you play, the more accurate your index will be.

You can then use your handicap index to calculate your course handicap for a specific course. Simply multiply your handicap index by the slope rating and divide by 113. Round the result to the nearest whole number:

course handicap = (handicap index x slope rating) / 113

When you finish a round of golf, you can subtract your course handicap from adjusted gross score for that round to get your net score.

net score = adjusted gross score - course handicap

If all this is still a little unclear, read on to see a sample handicap calculation.

Golf Handicap Calculation

Let's say you're a lawyer in sunny Monterey, Calif. Work has been slow lately, so over the last three months you've played 15 rounds at the nearby Pebble Creek Golf Links. Now, for the first time, you're ready to calculate your handicap. You calculate your adjusted gross score for each round, careful to cap your stroke total at 10 on each of the disastrous holes you played. Your adjusted gross scores for the 15 rounds are as follows:

 

85

87

92

96

92

88

86

80

91

97

87

89

95

90

86

 

You always play from the gold tee, which, according to the scorecard, has a course rating of 72.3 and a slope rating of 137. With this information you're ready to calculate your handicap differential for each round. This is what your calculation for the first round should look like after rounding your answer to the nearest tenth:

handicap differential = (adjusted gross score - course rating) x 113 / slope rating

handicap differential = (85 - 72.3) x 113 / 137

handicap differential = 10.5

After calculating the handicap differential for each round, you get these results:

 

10.5

12.1

16.2

19.5

16.2

12.9

11.3

6.4

15.4

20.4

12.1

13.8

18.7

14.6

11.3

 

Now you're ready to calculate your handicap index. Since you've played 15 rounds, you'll take the average of your lowest six handicap differentials and multiply the average by 0.96 (see table on previous page: "Determining How Many Differentials to Use"). Don't forget to drop any numbers after the tenths place:

handicap index = (6.4 + 10.5 + 11.3 + 11.3 + 12.1 + 12.1) / 6 x 0.96

handicap index = 10.1

Celebrity Golf Handicap Indexes

Kenny G: plus-0.6
Brett Favre: plus-0.8
Michael Jordan: 1.2
Samuel L. Jackson: 4.9
Justin Timberlake: 6
Bill Murray: 7.5
Celine Dion: 17
Snoop Dogg: 18
Arnold Schwarzenegger: 25
Derek Jeter: 30

[source: Bestrom, NBC Sports]

Now, say things at the law practice are picking back up and you have to go to New York City to visit Jim, one of your clients. Just across the Hudson is Liberty National, so you and Jim take an afternoon to play a round. The course has a rating of 77.7 and a slope rating of 151. You calculate your course handicap, rounding it to the nearest whole number:

course handicap = (handicap index x slope rating) / 113

course handicap = (10.1 x 151) / 113

course handicap = 13

Jim calculates his course handicap at 6. After 18 holes of stroke play, you finish with an adjusted gross score of 86 and Jim finishes at 80. Since your course handicap is 13, you are awarded one stroke on each of the first 13 holes. Jim is awarded six strokes on the first six holes. Therefore, your handicap-adjusted score is 73, while Jim's is 74. So even though Jim played the fewest strokes, you are declared the winner.

How to Get a Handicap Card

golf handicap

Now that you understand how golf handicaps are calculated, you might be interested in obtaining your own handicap index. In the United States, the USGA controls all aspects of this process through two entities: an authorized golf association and a golf club.

Authorized golf associations usually have jurisdiction over numerous golf clubs in a certain district, region or state. Georgia, for example, has one authorized golf association, the Georgia State Golf Association, which has more than 330 member clubs. Both the authorized golf association and the golf club must be licensed by the USGA to utilize the USGA Handicap System.

To obtain an official USGA Handicap Index, you must first join a golf club. Once you have done this, you must post a score for each round played. Your post should include the following information:

  • Player's name
  • Date
  • Course name
  • USGA Course Rating and Slope Rating of the course played
  • Adjusted gross score
  • Score type (for tournament scores only)

To ensure that the handicapping system remains fair, only post full and accurate information, preferably in person and immediately after you finish the round. Selectively posting scores to skew your handicap up or down is a violation of USGA rules and will result in a penalty administered by the club's Handicap Committee. If unposted scores are unusually low, the committee will post a score equal to the player's lowest round; if unreported scores are unusually high, the committee will post a score equal to the player's highest round. A player who continually misreports or fails to report scores may have his or her handicap index withdrawn.

Once you have posted five scores, the club can issue you a handicap index. This number will be printed on a card along with your name, authorized golf association, golf club, issue date, number of scores posted and score history. Your club's authorized golf association will revise your scoring history and handicap index periodically, usually once a month or once every two weeks. Your index is valid at any USGA-rated golf course, so get out and enjoy the links!

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Sources

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    http://www.golfdigest.com/golf-tours-news/2007-12/athleterankings_gd2007
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    http://www.golfdigest.com/golf-tours-news/2007-12/musicianrankings_gd2007
  • Furlong, Lisa, Craig Bestrom, and Steve DiMarco. "Hollywood's Top 100." Golf Digest. December 2005. (March 16, 2010)
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    http://nbcsports.msnbc.com/id/22220277/
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    http://www.pebblebeach.com/
  • The R&A. "Official Page." 2010. (March 13, 2010)http://www.randa.org/
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    http://www.usga.org/clubs_courses/club_history/Club-Membership/
  • United States Golf Association. "Handicap Manual." January 1, 2008. (March 13, 2010)
    http://www.usga.org/Rule-Books/Handicap-System-Manual/Handicap-Manual/
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