golf handicap tutorial 101

Golf Handicap Tutorial 101 & Where You Rank

Have you been wondering what a golf handicap is or where you stand versus the rest of the population by comparing yourself to the average golf handicap index?

No worries, today we will cover everything to know about golf handicaps. You’ll learn what it is, how to get into the system and start tracking your handicap index, and tips for lowering your handicap in golf.

Side Note: If you know your golf handicap, get started with one of these 3 practice plans that will help you improve greatly over 12 weeks. We made 3 separate plans for those at different handicaps trying to break 90, break 80, or break 70. Learn more about them here.

What is a Golf Handicap?

Golf handicap is a way for golfers to be compared to each other skill wise based on their scores. A handicap is “a numerical measure of a golfer’s potential playing ability based on tees played for a given course” according to wikipedia’s definition.

What this means in English is when you go to a golf course there are different tees you can play from that vary is yardages. In order to compare apples to apples we need a system that calculates everyone’s playing ability based on the course yardage, course difficulty, and their scores for 18 holes.

Then we can come up with a handicap number for each golfer to use in competitive rounds, thus allowing players of different proficiency to play against each other on pretty equal terms.

If one golfer is a 5 handicap and the other is a 9 handicap then the lower handicap golfer is considered to have a 4 shot advantage over the 9 handicap golfer. Therefore, the 9 handicap golfer gets 4 shots off their final score to put them on equal terms.

Holes are rated from 1 to 18 on a scorecard so the high handicap golfer would get a stroke subtracted on each of the 4 toughest holes.

If you are an 18 handicap and playing a scratch golfer then you would get 18 strokes off your final score so one per hole.

If you were a 19 handicap then you’d get one stroke off every hole except the hardest hole you would get 2 strokes off.

See how it works?

You subtract the difference between two players and then that’s how many strokes total you get but they must be spread out and used up on the holes based on hole difficulty. It wouldn’t make sense to use all your strokes on one hole and have a negative score for the hole.

Try out this practice plan with worksheets included and more

History of Golf Handicap

It is believed that the first iteration of the handicap system came to life in the late 1800s. It was originally developed to match the players’ skill levels so that less skilled players had a chance to win.

The course rating was very different back in the day when compared to the current course ratings. In fact, course rating was barely even considered at that time. The players would get their handicaps through a committee and its decisions used to final.

The concept was to average the three best scores of a specific year and subtract. the PAR score from that. It would give the player his/her handicap. As you can already imagine, this was not a fair method for less skilled players at all.

The next big wave of changes in the handicap system came in 1979. Dean Knuth, an innovator in golf, thought about including the difficulty factor of different golf courses into the calculation of the handicap.

Dean’s formula used a set of different tees for bogy golfers who would play on a particular course. The system was not perfected yet, but it was way better and more accurate than any previous handicap format.

How is a Golf Handicap Calculated?

The golf handicap system takes the 10 best rounds of your last 20 rounds and averages them to come up with your average score.

Before spitting out a number it also considers course yardage and rating in it’s calculation since golfers can shoot the same score but play from two completely different yardages. More emphasis is given to harder rated courses and longer courses.

A golf course rating is a number that represents what the typical scratch golfer (even par) should score for that course relative to par 72.

For example, if the course rating is below 72 then a scratch golfer is expected to shoot under par and the course is considered easier. Harder courses represent ratings above 72 and mean that a scratch golfer is expected to shoot above par if they played that course.

Course yardages can range from 4,000 to 7,500 but the average distance tees that most male golfers play from is around 6,300 yards and for females it’s about 5,000 yards.

World Handicap System

The world handicap system is the most recent iteration of handicaps. It was introduced in January 2020 and it has a much higher ceiling than all previous formants to include more players with different skill levels.

According to the R&A, this system has been designed to provide golfers with a unified system for the first time. It’s meant to be more inclusive as well. By inclusive, we mean players of all different skill levels.

The World Handicap System has been developed by the partnership of USGA and R&A.

The first step of the process is to create a handicap index for individual players. The best thing about this system is that the index will remain the same all over the world. The players are allowed to take it anywhere in the world where the final handicap will be changed based on the course ratings.

All of the tees at a course will have different course ratings and slope ratings. These are two factors that indicate the difficulty of the course. This calculation gives a maximum number of strokes you can play for the run. If you don’t have an existing handicap yet, it’s going to triple bogey for you on each hole.

Another variable is the format of the game. Depending on what format you choose to play, you’ll receive a handicap allowance. It might be 95% or 96%. This number will come into play when you’re calculating your final handicap.

Some formats, however, are not suitable for submitting handicap scores. If you’re ever in confusion about the procedure of submitting, feel free to reach out to your club. They will sort any issues for you.

Now, how is the handicap calculated for the World Handicap System?

The formula goes like {(AGS-CR)*113}/SR.

Here, the AGS stands for your adjusted gross score for the day. After you’re done with a  round, you need to calculate the total number of strokes you played and adjust the existing handicap.

CR stands for course rating. It’s going to vary from course to course but will be the same for all holes. You can find the information on the course’s scorecard.

The value 113 is known as the neutral slope rating. The actual slope rating of a tee can vary from 55 to 155. 113 is considered to be the neutral zone and a validator for the equation.

And finally, SR means the slope rating. You’ll also find this information on the scorecard.

After this calculation is done, you’ll get your handicap differential. Now, you need to multiply this number with the handicap allowance. If it’s 95%, you need to multiply .95 and so on.

Let’s look at an example of how this will work out in a real-life scenario.

Let’s take Chambers Bay at Washington. It has a course rating of 78.1 at the time of writing and a slope rating of 146.

If you hit 85 shots on a round, here’s how your handicap will be calculated.

{(85-78.1)*113}/146 = 5.3. There will be more decimal places after this but the regulations say that you can only up to one decimal place.

Now, you need to multiply your differential of 5.3 with .96, which is the handicap allowance at Chambers Bay. You get 5.0.

This value is for one round only. The ideal scenario is where you submit 20 of your latest scores and take the average of your best 8 scores. Handling 20 scores at once gives you a more accurate insight into your skill levels.

If you’re just starting out, submitting as little as 5 scores would work.

So, what do all of these numbers mean for you? On the simplest level, if you look at your differential of 5.3, it means you’re most likely to hit 5 shots over PAR. It’s a very good handicap if you ask us!

Another great thing is that you don’t have to do any of the calculations by yourself! The USGA website will do it for you. It’s one of the main reasons why players from around the world don’t know very much about the handicapping system. Because you don’t need to know any of it except for your adjusted gross score.

However, if you’re on the curious side of the spectrum and have a soft corner to understanding everything you come across, learning about the handicap math must’ve been amazing for you.

The USGA Handicap System

This was probably the most popular handicap system before the World Handicap System was introduced. It was mostly done by Leighton Calkins. The USGA handicap system was primarily based on the three scores average system widely used by the British.

It’s the one we’ve talked about in the history section. The course would take the best three scores by the player from the previous year and average it out. And then it was compared to the PAR score of the courses. It was known as the PAR rating which was later renamed to the course rating.

In the beginning, the courses under different golf clubs were allowed to set their own course rating/PAR rating. But it was creating huge confusion between players and the authorities. So, the USGA decided to assign course ratings centrally.

Up until 1967, course ratings were whole integers, mostly rounded up from the nearest fraction value. After 1967, the course ratings were given up to one decimal place.

EGA Handicap System

European Golf Association (EGA) came up with the handicapping system in 2000. This handicap works based on the Stableford scoring system. The EGA system shares characteristics with both the USGA system and the CONGU system. We’ll proceed to the CONGU system very shortly.

In this system, the maximum initial handicap given for a 9 or 18 hole is 54.

So, the equation goes like this, Initial Handicap = 54 – (Stableford points – 36).

And the Playing Handicap = {(handicap index – slope rating)/113} + (Course Rating – PAR).

CONGU Unified Handicap System

A meeting was arranged by the R&A (The Royal And Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews) back in 1924, the then British Golf Unions Joints Advisory Committee was formed. The Standard Scratch Score and Handicapping Scheme were developed during that time as well.

Way later in 2004, the Unified Handicapping System (UHS) came to life. It’s used to calculate and maintain handicaps for both men and women based in the United Kingdom and Ireland. It’s centrally published by the Council of National Golf Unions (CONGU) and administered by individual unions.

The initial handicaps are given based on the scores from 54 holes or 3 standard 18 hole rounds.

The equation goes like this, Initial Handicap = [{(Lowest AGD + (Lowest AGD x 0.13)}/1.237.

Different adjustments are made based on whether the player is male or female.

Who Can Have a Golf Handicap & How to Get One?

A USGA Handicap Index is issued through licensed golf clubs. Therefore, it’s expected that you are a member of a licensed golf club/course in order to get an official handicap index.

If you’re currently a member at a golf course you can go to the head pro there or talk to the pro shop about setting up a handicap. You’ll need to record 20 rounds of golf as mentioned because the handicap system takes your 10 best scores and throws out the 10 worst.

You can turn in 9 hole scores and once you have two turned in it will match them to create an 18 hole score for you.


How Do You Rank Against the Population?

Take a look at the following chart. The index is to the left so find your handicap. Then use the cumulative total to the far right to see what percentile you rank for and what percent of the population is ahead of you. Golf Professionals don’t have handicaps so this chart represents Amateurs.

golf handicap index

So how did you compare? Here are some quick takeaways to take note of in general:

  • The Top 1% in the world have a negative handicap meaning they shoot one under par or better. For this reason, they have to add strokes to their score to make it fair when playing other opponents at the golf course.
  • The Top 3% shoot around a 73 or better
  • The Top 5% shoot around a 74 or better
  • The Top 10% shoot between 76 and 77 or better
  • The Top 20% shoot 79 or better
  • The top 30% shoot 81 or better
  • The top 40% shoot 82.5 or better
  • The top 50% shoot 85 or better
  • Only 77% of golfers break 90 consistently and therefore have handicaps at 18 or below.

So as you can see the median range for handicaps falls around an 85 and between 79 to 85 is a difference of 30% of golfers. So if you can cut your score just a stroke on average you’ll jump 5-10% of the population.

Golf Practice System for Lower Scores

Learn the exact golf practice routines thousands of students at Foy Golf Academy are using to lower their golf scores.

Follow these step by step practice plans and watch video lessons to learn how to improve your golf swing, chipping, and putting fundamentals.

Get access to hundreds of golf drills to practice as well as content on the mental side of golf, fitness plans, worksheets, and many more resources. This is a complete golf practice system.

Start Following These Practices —> Nick Foy Golf Practice System

Work hard,

Nick Foy, Instructor

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