Golf Handicap Simplified | Pro Tips to Drop Your Score Today

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Trying to understand your golf handicap? Plus handicap, negative handicap (+ vs – handicap), and other terms can sound very confusing. Our golf expert breaks it all down to save you time!

Golfers know their handicap, but very few understand what goes into the handicap and how your index or course handicap actually changes. I’ll admit that the golf handicap system can be a little complicated, but it’s something you can certainly learn to understand. 

If you have ever questioned what a plus or negative handicap is and how you can finally understand why your handicap is what it is, I have you covered. I’ll also throw in a few tips to help get your handicap down (legally!). 

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What is a Golf Handicap?

Showing a golf tournament and golfers on the golf course
An official handicap index is needed for a golf tournament

A golf handicap is a way for golfers to numerically represent how good they are at golf. When talking about golf scores, my idea of “good” and yours may be two different things. Golf handicaps give us a way to tell what type of player someone is and to have a fair match with another golfer. 

History of the Golf Handicap 

In 2020 the Wold Handicap System was created to unify the USGA and the R&A handicapping system. The new system made things easier for everyone and united something that should have been united for quite some time. 

In the early days, around 1851, at Prestwick Golf Club in Scotland, a system was put together that became known as the first handicap system. Of course, our system today is a bit more complicated. I like to think of this early one as giving someone a head start, kind of like when you are racing as a kid. 

Golfers would get a certain number of strokes per round based on their skill level as perceived by others that they have played with, how good they thought they were, and previous scores. It wasn’t an exact system, but it certainly was a start. 

Golf Index vs Handicap

When you have an official handicap with the United States Golf Association (USGA), you have a golf handicap index. That official golf handicap index is then converted to a golf course handicap for every course you play. 

The golf course handicap is adjusted based on the course you are playing by using the course rating and slope for that course. Let’s say you are a 15.2 index and you are playing a difficult golf course. 

Your golf handicap for the day may be a 17, giving you a few more than your average of 15 shots above par. If, on the other hand, the course is relatively easy, your course handicap could be a 14 for the day. 

What Does Your Golf Handicap Mean?

Your golf handicap essentially says how good you are at golf. It gives a general idea as to how many strokes over par you will shoot in a normal round of golf. Most golf courses have a par of 72, so a 10-handicap golfer would shoot about 82. 

Golf Handicap IndexType of Golfer
+2-870’s Golfer or Single Digit 
9-1880’s Golfer
19-2890’s Golfer

A handicap is not a guaranteed score. Ask any 10 handicap about the last time they shot 90, it’s not an everyday occurrence, but it can happen. 

The great thing about the golf handicap is it allows you to have a match with any other golfer who has a handicap. A scratch golfer can be matched with a 20-handicap golfer because of how the handicap allowance works. 

Plus or Minus Handicap Explained

Some golfers shoot better than par when they go out to play golf. These players are considered plus handicap golfers. Sometimes you will also hear this referred to as a minus handicap.

A minus handicap is really a way of explaining that someone is better than a par golfer. The correct terminology, because it’s how handicap indexes work, is to call a golfer a plus handicap. However, the term minus comes around because golfers think of a handicap as a way to “get strokes.”

The more strokes you “get,” the easier it is to win a match or a tournament. However, golfers with a plus handicap will lose strokes, so it’s sometimes called a minus handicap.

For example, in this situation:

The handicap index for a golfer that shoots an average score of around 68 will be a +4 (this is not exact just an estimate). If this golfer plays against others in a net tournament, instead of having shots subtracted from their score, they will have them added.

If this player shoots a gross 75, the net score would be 79. and a net 79. This is why you sometimes hear the “minus handicap” term getting thrown in. However, as far as the World Handicap System is concerned and an official handicap index, these golfers are plus handicap golfers.

How to Figure Out Your Golf Handicap 

close up of score card showing golf handicap and par for plus handicap golf or minus handicap golfers.
Understanding handicap differentials

You can figure out your golf handicap independently, but it is best to get a USGA official golf handicap index, input your scores, and see how you stand. The reason behind this is that there are some caveats to score posting that the system will do for you that can be hard to keep track of on your own. 

Here is a basic step-by-step of how to figure out your golf handicap: 

  1. Take a look at the score you shot and the course you were playing. 
  1. Use the formula for calculating the score differential to give you the differential for the round you just played: 

    (113 / Slope Rating) x (Adjusted Gross Score – Course Rating)

  2. When determining your adjusted gross score, you have to consider a net double bogey. For example, Player A is a 7 handicap, and on the 3rd handicap hole (a par 4), where they would normally get one shot, they make a 9. 

    A net double bogey on this hole would be a score of 7, so that is the adjusted gross score for this hole. 

  3. Once you have calculated your score differential, see if the score is 7 strokes or more lower than the current index played that day. If the score is not, it gets added to the player’s scoring record. 

  4. If the score is between 7 and 10 strokes below the normal index or more than 10 strokes below the current index, it’s considered an exceptional score and will impact all of the other scores that are currently being used to calculate the index.

    Anything more than 10 strokes is a -2 deduction on all scores; in the 7-10 range, it’s a -1 deduction. 

  5. Once this is done, the score differential is added, and the handicap index is adjusted. Again, this is simple to do with the USGA GHIN handicap system and an online account where you submit all of your rounds. 

Number of Scores Needed to Obtain Handicap Index

Once you have three scores submitted to the USGA Golf Handicap Index Network, you will get an initial handicap. You can use this handicap to compete in events and matches. However, your handicap is official when you have 20 scores posted. 

With 20 scores posted, your index will be the average of your 8 lowest rounds at any given time. 

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Golf Handicap Calculation Changes for 2023

In 2023 there were no major changes for golf handicap calculating. The only significant impact was a removal of a penalty if you don’t have your handicap index correctly identified on your scorecard in an event. 

With more digital scoring, this penalty was no longer deemed necessary. 

Golf Course Handicap Calculation Formula & Steps

How to calculate your golf handicap

Most golf courses will have a golf course handicap calculator that will help you quickly convert your index to the course handicap that matches the tees you will play that day. If you want to calculate this on your own, you can use this formula. 

Multiple your handicap index by the slope rating (from the tee you will play). Divide that number by 113, which is a standard difficulty rating for all golf courses. Round that number to the nearest hole. 

Let’s say, for instance, you have a 12.2 handicap index, and you are playing Bethpage Red which has a slope rating of 126 from the white tees.

Your formula would look like this: 

(12.2 * 126) /113 = 13.6 or 14 

If that same 12.2 handicap decides to step back and play from the blue tees, the formula will look like this: 

(12.2 * 128)/ 113 = 13.8 or 14

In this situation, playing from the white tees makes sense if you are playing a net event. Golfers who spend a lot of time looking at tees and index and score differentials can tell you that it gets complicated, and there is also some strategy involved. 

Pro Tips on How to Improve Your Golf Handicap

When it comes to improving your golf handicap, here are a few basic tips I would use to try and get better: 

  • Don’t work on improving your entire game at once; take it one step at a time and find the area where you struggle the most
  • Get a strokes gained app to help you start seeing where you are losing the most shots 
  • Play some golf courses that are a little challenging and see how it helps you; you may find that you play better, and it can actually lower your handicap 
  • Make sure you are playing with golf equipment that gives you the best chance to succeed on the course. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a minus handicap in golf?

A minus handicap in golf is really a golfer who shoots lower than par. In the handicap system, this is considered a + handicap (plus handicap). If a person normally shoots around 2 under par, they will have a handicap of +2. 

What’s the handicap on each hole?

Every hole on a golf course has a golf course ranking from most difficult to least difficult. The most challenging golf hole on the course is the #1 handicap hole. 

What does a +3 handicap mean in golf?

A +3 handicap is a golfer who will typically shoot about 3 under par when they go out to play a round of golf at a course with a course rating close to 72. 

Can you have a handicap lower than 0?

You can have a golf handicap lower than 0, which is considered a + handicap (plus handicap). Golfers with a +1, +2, etc., will shoot under par most times they play. 

What is the lowest handicap in golf?

The USGA handicap system does not cap the lowest handicaps in golf, but most players get to around a +6 or +7 as the lowest. 

What is a scratch golfer?

The term scratch is not a new term used in sports. Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes scratch being used with runners or bowlers, and not allowing better players to have an early start or any advantage. This is because in golf, a scratch golfer is someone who has a 0 handicap, and usually plays par golf.

Final Thoughts on Understanding Your Golf Handicap

Hopefully, I helped to clear up any of your questions about golf handicap, how it works, and how you can improve it. I highly recommend getting a golf handicap index through the USGA and then using that to track your scores. If you want to play in tournaments and events, this is the number they will use to make sure the event is fair. 

For more great information on golf handicaps, you’ll want to continue reading on the USGA website.

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Brittany Olizarowicz is a Class A PGA Professional Golfer with nearly 30 years of experience. Many of her teaching years were spent training senior golfers. In recent years, Britt's career has moved to golf writing, where she shares her knowledge with a global audience. Britt is still a scratch golfer and enjoys playing golf with her husband and two young children several times a week.

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