Golf Basics: Handicap Index and Course Handicap Explained

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What’s your handicap?

That’s something you can expect to hear around golfers or at the golf course. But you might not want to be asked that question at the office or school, or around the neighborhood.

While “handicap” is a word that often has a negative connotation, it has a different meaning and purpose in golf. It’s a good thing. All golfers are encouraged to have a “handicap index.” This article will explain “handicap index,” and how, when combined with “slope rating,” it becomes a “course handicap.”

The United States Golf Association (USGA) oversees the handicap system.

“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,” states the USGA. “The System provides a fair Course Handicap for each player, regardless of ability, and adjusts a player’s Handicap Index up or down as the player’s game changes.”

The system depends on integrity. The USGA says the handicap system works when golfers “try to make the best score at every hole, in every round, regardless of where the round is played.”

What Is Handicap Index?

A handicap index is a number taken to one decimal point (12.7) that indicates a golfer’s skill level. Here’s the official explanation from the USGA Handicap System Manual:

“A Handicap Index compares a player’s scoring ability to the scoring ability of a scratch golfer on a course of standard difficulty. A player posts scores along with the appropriate USGA Course Rating and Slope Rating, and date of each score to make up the scoring record. A Handicap Index is computed from no more than 20 scores plus any Eligible Tournament Scores. It reflects the player’s potential because it is based upon the best Handicap Differential(s) posted for a given number of rounds, ideally the best 10 of the last 20 rounds.”

The lower the handicap index, the more skilled the golfer. A 5.7 is better than an 18.3, which is roughly the difference between someone whose scores are in the 70s and a bogey golfer shooting about 90.

A handicap index is made to travel, going from course to course, which brings us to course handicap.

What Is Course Handicap?

The handicap index combined with the slope rating determines the course handicap.

“A Course Handicap represents the number of strokes needed to play to the level of a scratch golfer—or the Course Rating™ of a particular set of tees,” states the USGA. “A Course Handicap is expressed as a whole number (e.g. 12).”

Golfers can determine their course handicap by referring to charts at the golf course they’re playing. They also can use the USGA Course Handicap™ Calculator.

Yes, there’s math involved with calculating handicap index and converting it to a course handicap, but golfers need not worry. No computations required. Just post scores and the USGA, with the assistance of golf courses and golf associations, does the rest.




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Neil Sagebiel

Neil Sagebiel is a golf writer and author of two golf books published by St. Martin's Press, THE LONGEST SHOT and DRAW IN THE DUNES. He lives in Floyd, Virginia.
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