What Is A Golf Handicap?

It's fundamental to amateur golf, but what exactly is it?

What Is A Golf Handicap?
What Is A Golf Handicap
(Image credit: Tom Miles)

One of the great things about amateur golf is that players of all ages and abilities are able to compete on a level playing field.

This is made possible by the handicap system.

But what is a golf handicap?

The golf handicap is a numerical measure of an individual golfer’s ability, allowing them to compete on a level with other amateur golfers of different abilities.

A golf handicap can go up to a maximum of 54.

The better the golfer, the lower their handicap.

A “scratch” golfer is a player with a handicap of 0; they generally receive no strokes.

A player with the maximum handicap of 54 will receive 54 strokes.

A player better than “scratch” will play off “plus figures” – this means they will add on strokes rather than receive strokes.

At the end of a strokeplay round of golf, where players record their total number of shots or strokes, a player will subtract their handicap from their actual “gross” score to give their “nett” score total.

In matchplay, where players compete against one another hole by hole, the player with the higher handicap will receive strokes from the player with the lower handicap.

A player’s handicap will be calculated, based on recent performances.

As of 1st November 2020, all golfers in the UK and Ireland will adopt the World Handicap System, (WHS) meaning golfers across the globe will be using the same handicapping system.

WHS calculates handicap by taking an average of the best eight of a player’s 20 most recent scores to give a “Handicap Index.”

Players new to golf or looking to obtain a first handicap will need to submit scorecards amounting to 54 holes.

From those, an initial Handicap Index will be provided.

This will be altered when 20 scores have been submitted to deliver a fully developed Handicap Index.

The Handicap Index is used in conjunction with the difficulty of a course to provide a Course Handicap.

Each course has a “Course Rating” – this is the total score a scratch golfer would be expected to return over 18 holes. (it may not be level par.)

There is also a “Bogey Rating” – this measures playing difficulty for an average golfer (20 handicap for a man, 24 for a women.)

From these a “Slope Rating” is calculated allowing players to calculate how many strokes they receive on a particular course.

The system will calculate a player’s exact Handicap Index to one decimal place although actual Course Handicap will be a whole number rounded up or down.

A player can reduce their handicap through submitting good scores, conversely a player’s handicap will increase to reflect poorer performance.

Fergus Bisset
Contributing Editor

Fergus is Golf Monthly's resident expert on the history of the game and has written extensively on that subject. He is a golf obsessive and 1-handicapper. Growing up in the North East of Scotland, golf runs through his veins and his passion for the sport was bolstered during his time at St Andrews university studying history. He went on to earn a post graduate diploma from the London School of Journalism. Fergus has worked for Golf Monthly since 2004 and has written two books on the game; "Great Golf Debates" together with Jezz Ellwood of Golf Monthly and the history section of "The Ultimate Golf Book" together with Neil Tappin , also of Golf Monthly. 

Fergus once shanked a ball from just over Granny Clark's Wynd on the 18th of the Old Course that struck the St Andrews Golf Club and rebounded into the Valley of Sin, from where he saved par. Who says there's no golfing god?