What is a golf handicap?

What is a golf handicap? A golf handicap is somewhat akin to - but not exactly - the average number of strokes over (or under) par for a particular player. The golf handicap formula is a bit more complex than a simple average, though it is not rocket science (even though an MIT math professor helped develop the method currently used). Why is a golf handicap needed?


What the USGA says:

"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. The System provides a fair Course Handicap for each player, regardless of ability..."


It's about leveling the playing field

So a golf handicap is about fairness...about "leveling the playing field" so a really good player and a pretty bad player can have a fairly equal chance of winning. Think about some other sports. In a one-on-one game between an NBA player and, say, Curly from the Three Stooges, how would you level the playing field? Would you tie the NBA player's dominant hand behind his back? Would you put the NBA player's legs in a potato sack that he has to hold up? Maybe he has to shoot from outside a certain distance from the basket? There are any number of ways that you could attempt to even the game. The golf handicap, though, is much more precise and based on a ton of statistics.


Two steps to your playing handicap

The Handicap Index and the Course Handicap make up the two components of golf handicaps that sometimes get confused. You play with your Course Handicap for a specific set of tees on a specific course. The Course Handicap can vary depending on the rating and slope of the course/tee combo (i.e., your Course Handicap would be higher on a harder course and lower on an easier course). The Index, on the other hand, is the same no matter the course/tee combo that you play. The Index is, therefore, sometimes called a "portable handicap." The calculation for the Index is done first and then the Index is used in the calculation of the Course Handicap. See the golf handicap formula link at the top of this page.


Two types of scoring

There are basically two types of scoring in golf: match play and medal - or stroke - play. What is a golf handicap in relation to these two types of competition?


Handicaps in match play

In match play golf you are essentially determining a winner and loser on each hole played and you count up who won the most holes when finished. You may have seen this type of play in the Ryder Cup competition between U.S. golfers and European golfers although no handicaps are used in this international tournament. In match play, the player with the higher handicap receives the difference between the two players' handicaps in strokes. For example, if we have a match between a player with a course handicap of 3 and a player with a course handicap of 12, the player with a 12 handicap receives 9 strokes during the course of the match. Those 9 strokes are distributed to the player on the first 9 handicap stroke holes. How does this affect the winner of particular holes? Let's say one of these 9 strokes is received by the 12 handicap player on the third hole and he shoots a 5 on the hole and the 3 handicap player also shoots a 5. Who wins the hole? The 12 handicapper has a stroke coming to him so that turns his 5 into a 4 compared to the 5 of his opponent. The 12 handicapper wins the hole.


 Handicaps in stroke play

In stroke play the handicap comes into play for a handicapped event after all hole strokes are totaled and the competition is typically against all other golfers in the field. If a player shoots a 92 and he's a 15 handicap player, his net score total would be 92 minus 15, or 77. Another player with a handicap of 5 might shoot an 83 for a net score total of 78. The 15 handicapper, in this case, finishes ahead of the 5 handicapper in the competition. It is theoretically possible for the "worst" golfer - the one with the highest handicap - to finish at the top in a handicapped event, whereas in a non-handicapped event that would be virtually impossible.