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How do you calculate a handicap in golf and what is it for?

If you’re new to golf, you may often get asked about your handicap. Knowing how it’s calculated can help you understand its significance better.

Diego Forlán
José JácomeEFE

For years, I would simply bash my way around a course with my friends, similar to most young men who play golf casually. Firm believers in the “grip it and rip it” school of golf, we were out there to have fun and work up a thirst on our way towards the “nineteenth green.” Mulligans were part and parcel of the day.

Often, as we sat nursing a pint of beer, we would be engaged in conversation by the serious, competitive, I-could-have-been-a-pro-if-my-knee-didn’t-give-out-on-me type and challenged as to what our handicap was. My friend Tom would say something like “Fifteen” or some such number while I would take a drink. In all honesty, I had no idea what a handicap was, much less how to find out my own.

Several decades have passed beneath the keel since those days, and you will be happy to know that I have finally come to understand handicapping in golf. Had anyone taken the time to explain it in layman’s terms to me, I may have found it quite useful much earlier on.

What is a handicap?

Simply put, your handicap is a number assigned to you based on your level of play as a golfer. It is meant to be, in its simplest form, how many strokes over par a golfer will be expected to play a round in.

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that you have a favorite golf course where you play regularly, and you generally finish at around 86. Sometimes a few strokes lower, sometimes touching 90, but 86 is more or less where you are. In its most basic concept, your handicap would be 14.

Of course, this is only a rough guide to your true ability as a golfer, and, as any accountant will tell you, there is some fairly complicated mathematics that can be added to this equation to reach a better, truer handicap figure.

For those who are of that mindset, the formula for working out your handicap is:

Handicap Index X (Slope rating/113) + (Course Rating-Par)

What is the purpose of a handicap?

With par being defined as the number of strokes a relatively proficient golfer should be able to play a given hole in, there are differences, often quite significant differences, in the level of different players’ abilities. Some golfers were better than the par rating, others found it difficult to keep up with par. So handicapping was devised as a way to “level the field,” in a manner of speaking.

It is often misunderstood as a way to group golfers together, so 10-handicaps play together, 15-handicaps play together, etc., but this is not the case. It was designed to determine who played the better round.

In the case of my friend Tom and I, although he said “fifteen” when asked about handicaps in the pub, the truth was that he was a much better golfer than I was. We never did work out what our scores were, but I regularly shot 86 or thereabouts, and he was usually high seventies.

So let’s say, for the sake of argument, that I was a 14 and he was a 6. I could reasonably expect to get around in 86, and Tom would expect to be at 78.

If we went out one day and played a round of golf in which I played an 85, but Tom played an 80, we would have gone into the pub with me congratulating him on his five-stroke victory over me. Had we understood handicapping, though, the congratulations would have flown the other way since, with me being -1 and him being +2, I actually won the round.

If you are serious about your handicap, however, you should start off by keeping meticulous scorecards. You will need at least three rounds, but it is best calculated with 12. You must discard your best and worst hole on each round to ensure that you are not having your handicap skewed, either up or down.

Of course, there are several online handicap websites where you simply plug in the numbers, and it works it out for you. But talking to the local course pro will give you all the information you need to get underway. As for me and Tom? We’ll wait for you on the “nineteenth green.”


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