What Is A Golf Handicap?

what is a golf handicap

Last Updated: August 20, 2020

Whilst it is a common term among golfers, the handicap system is actually far more complicated than one might initially think.

We constantly get beginners asking us to explain the handicap rule and, because of this, decided to put together a short guide on handicaps.

To see our complete beginners guide to golf, click here.

What is a Golf Handicap?

To put it simply, a golf handicap is the numerical rating given to a player in order to gauge his or hers approximate ability. The idea behind the handicap is that players of differing ability levels can play together on an even playing field. This means that beginners and weaker players can deduct strokes from their overall score whilst a good level player cannot.

Whilst this does not determine who is the best golfer, it does determine who played to a better standard on the day compared to their individual skill level.

I could, for instance, potentially beat Tiger woods using the handicap system.

Nice thought!

On top of this, the handicap is crucial to players in tracking their overall progress. Without a handicap system you would simply be wandering a course with no real pursuit of improving.

Whilst there are numerous ways across the world of calculating a handicap, the widely accepted way is by taking your latest rounds as markers. This way your handicap is always up to date.

In America and Australia the handicap system is calculated using numerous variables including scorecards, course rating and slopes (more info below). This then generates a ‘handicap differential’ which is then used to calculate an official handicap.

Scratch Golfers

Anyone with a handicap of 0 is called a scratch golfer. This of course includes all pros.

People with a handicap of +18 or over are called bogey golfers.

Although rare, it is also possible to have players with minus handicaps which are known as ‘plus handicaps’. Whilst professionals would of course be good enough for this, all pros simply play off scratch according to competition rules.

Plus handicap players must add on their plus number to their final score. For example, if a +1 handicap player shout 69, his handicap score would be 70.

This article has other important golf terms.

The American System

The American handicap system was changed completely in the 1980s and has since become far more complex than it’s European counterpart.

While the exact formula is excessively complicated and not required to be understood by players, it is helpful to understand the course and slope rating system discussed below.

The course rating is calculated by how many strokes it would take a scratch golfer to play the course.

For instance, if a club has a course rating of 72, then the average score by scratch golfers around that course should be 72. Generally the higher the number the tougher the course.

The slope rating of a course is a number given to represent how difficult a course is for a bogey player. The slope rating can range anywhere from 55 to 155 with the higher number being more difficult.

Here’s a super helpful video from the USGA explaining the American handicap system.

Equitable Stroke Control

The Equitable Stroke Control or ESC was designed to help out amateur golfers when they have a terrible hole. Essentially, an ESC is a number given to golfers in the U.S. which provides them with a certain amount of shots to take off on a single hole. This number obviously changes depending on how high your handicap is.

On American golf courses you will usually find a chart at the clubhouse which tells golfers what there ESC is.

An example of the ESC being used would be if you were a bogey golfer (18+ handicap) and you got a bogey on each hole except one where you scored 9 shots. The ESC would allow you to take shots off that hole to limit the damage to your overall score.

Therefore, your handicap will also not be damaged.

How to get a Handicap

In the U.S. it is possible to receive an official handicap after just 5 rounds if done correctly at a qualified club.

However, a true handicap can only be taken from a golfer’s best 10 rounds in 20. Whilst the exact formula for deriving a handicap is complex, the good news is you don’t have to do the calculating.

To get a handicap you simply need to sign up with a club and start entering your score cards with them after all your rounds.

You can then apply for a handicap and hey presto!

Most clubs are qualified to issue handicaps, however, if the course fees are to expensive to join then you can always use a national service such as NetHandicap who provide you with an official handicap without having to actually join any expensive club.

If you’re feeling very entrepreneurial, you could always set up your own golf course! It may sound wacky, but to do this you only need 10 members and no real estate.

Once you have your handicap, you can then calculate what your course handicap is.

To help you do this most courses will have a chart detailing the course rating and slope rating of that particular course. However, if that sounds too much like hard work or you wish to know prior to arriving on site, then there are literally tons of handicap calculator apps available for free that will do the work for you.

You may also like: Guide to golf dress codes

The British System

Britain has a far less complex system for calculating handicaps than its American counterpart. In Britain the handicap system is known as the Council of National Golf Unions (CONGU).

To get your first handicap you must be a member with a club that is affiliated with one of the ‘home unions’ (most recognised clubs are). You then simply need to play 54 holes of golf with another player marking your scorecard.

This player is generally recommended by the club and knows the game of golf, its history and all of its rules.

Once you have completed 54 holes, the club committee will analyse your score card. The committee also take into account other factors such as previous experience and other sporting achievements before allotting you an official handicap.

Now, every time you take part in a qualifying competition your handicap may be adjusted up or down. Don’t panic though, it is only adjusted in decimal points. You would have to have a number of very bad rounds for your handicap to increase significantly.

Fun video of golf vlogger and coach Mark Crossfield explaining the British Handicap system to his kids.

Buffer Zone

British handicaps are divided into categories with each category having a different buffer zone. Buffer zones are essentially the amount of leeway each player has on their scorecard before their handicap is increased.

The better your handicap is, the less buffer zone you have.

For instance, a player with a handicap of 25 would be in category 4 and have a buffer of 4 shots or 0.4 decimal places. A player with a handicap of 4 would be in category 1 and have a buffer of 1 shot or 0.1 decimals on the handicap rating.

Standard Scratch Score (SSS) v Competition Scratch Score (CSS)
Like America, each course in Britain has a Standard Scratch Score (SSS) which essentially tells you what score a scratch golfer would go around the course in. This figure will be found printed somewhere in the clubhouse or pro shop and will differ for men and woman.

However, unlike America, Britain also has a Competition Scratch Score (CSS) which also takes into account how difficult the course was on any given day.

For example, a course may have a Standard Scratch Score (SSS) of 72, however, on the day of competition there is heavy rain and fierce winds which makes the course far more difficult to play. This means that no one is going to score anywhere near their true handicap, therefore, the Competition Scratch Score (CSS) is used. This means players wont see their handicap decrease because of bad weather or waterlogged fairways.


Sandbaggers are essentially con artists when it comes to the handicap rule. Sandbaggers will inflate their handicap by playing badly when it is being recorded. However, they then make on-course bets with other players of a similar handicap and beat them.

For example, John might have a handicap of 13, but when he makes a bet with a fellow player, he plays 4 over par.

This is of course really bad golf etiquette.

We hope you have enjoyed this quick guide on golf handicaps. If you have any further questions or queries then please just contact us.

About the author  Paul Bradshaw

Paul hit his first golf shot at the age of 5, and from that point on was immediately hooked. He went on to become one of the leading amateurs in South Africa, securing a full golf scholarship with the University of Arkansas Razorbacks. Turning professional in 2004, Paul played extensively on the Sunshine Tour and co-sanctioned European Tour events. Paul is our lead editor at Golf Assessor.

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