How to Calculate Golf Handicap - The Basics


Golf handicaps began in the USA in 1911. The USGA has been defining how to calculate a golf handicap and modifying and improving the handicap system ever since. In fact we have new changes in 2020 that will affect your handicap index. The USGA is the authority on official handicaps, even winning court cases against those trying to challenge that authority.

If you want to compete in official USGA sanctioned golf events, you will have to have a Handicap Index®. This is not optional. And even if the event is not an official USGA tournament, there are numerous amateur golf tournaments that will require an official USGA handicap for you to participate. You can find any player's official handicap using our handicap lookup tool.

Before we explain the basics on how golf handicaps are calculated, let's understand the goal of handicapping. The official wording from the USGA states: "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."

So what the USGA is trying to do is ensure that players can compete on a level playing field. With a golf handicap, the theory goes, players can have a fair contest, adjusted for their abilities.

There are a few things to keep in mind regarding your golf handicap and how it's calculated. Try our online calculator (updated for 2020) if you'd like to estimate your handicap.

How to Calculate Golf Handicap - The Factors

  1. You: Your Handicap Index is calculated based on your play at one or many courses. But it's important to note that your handicap may (it likely will in 2020) change from course to course. So you will have both a personal handicap and in effect a course handicap.
  2. Ability: Remember that your golf handicap is based on your "potential" ability, and not every score you've ever shot. The goal is to calculate your handicap over a representative number of rounds, eliminating your worst rounds and even your worst holes as there is now a limit to the score you can record for a hole, which will be limited to a net double bogey. Generally this means your best 8 scores (prior to the 2020 WHS system, it was the average of your best 10 scores multiplied by .96) out of your last 20 rounds will be averaged to calculate your official handicap. But if you don't have 8 scores, your handicap can now be calculated with just 54 holes of scoring.
  3. Slope Rating®: this allows adjustments to your golf handicap based on the difficulty of the course. Obviously scores will be much lower on an easy course, so this is taken into account.
  4. Course & Tees Played: Slope ratings will change, even on the same course, based on the tees you play. So the 7,200 yard back tees will have one Slope Rating and the 6,500 white tees will have a different Slope rating, which means your handicap is different based on the tees you play on a given day. Starting in 2020 you will have a Course Handicap for each course you play.

What to Know about Your Golf Handicap

The net is it's not very simple to calculate your handicap, but if you are one to dive into the details, you can learn the entire process from the USGA website.

So what should you do about calculating your handicap? It depends, but you have a couple of options:

  1. If you plan to play in official amateur golf tournaments, you need an official USGA Handicap Index. Local golf courses often have this service available as long as you live within 50 miles of the course. You may want to start by contacting your local state golf association - the list can be found here.
  2. If you just want to get a general idea of what your unofficial handicap may be, use our FREE online tool to calculate your golf handicap.

2020 World Handicap System Changes

In 2020 the WHS will modify how to calculate a golf handicap.