Do you need to know your handicap in order to enjoy the game of golf? No way. Does it spice things up and make gameplay more interesting? You bet. Especially if you love to better your skills through self-analysis, or if you tend to play at a different level than your usual partners, knowing your handicap (and how it changes over time) adds an extra element of interest to your game.
So what exactly is a golf handicap? Short answer: it’s a numerical score that predicts your future performance and ability, calculated using an algorithm that’s based on your past performances.
But what is it used for?
In addition to serving as a useful way for amateur golfers to track their performance progress, using handicaps allows golfers of different abilities to play together while keeping the competition interesting. Often referred to as “the great equalizer,” playing with handicaps means that a bogey golfer can play a truly competitive round with a scratch golfer, simply by subtracting 18 — the number of strokes above par a bogie player is likely to take.
Official vs. informational
If you want to know your “official” USGA handicap, you need to belong to a USGA golf club as a dues-paying member. You must have at least five official scores from officially rated courses on record. Only a USGA-linked club with a peer review process can give you an official handicap. Calculating one at home won’t be totally legitimate.
On the other hand, if you want to have it just for informational purposes, progress mapping or for informal play, you can either employ the USGA calculation system to get an unofficial estimate or use one of the comparable “handicap” estimators.
When it has to be official
For calculating an official handicap, your golf club will take your ten best performances out of the last twenty rounds you have played. They’ll also take official course ratings, slope and your chosen tee-off points into account. Using these figures, the club will assign you a number between zero (for a scratch golfer) and 36.4 for men or 40.4 for women, called your “handicap index.” The lower the score, the better.
If you have a handicap index of six, for instance, that means you have been averaging a final score of only six strokes over par, which is pretty darn good. And if you’ve been averaging more than 36 or 40 strokes over par, then it’s probably more helpful to focus on fundamental skills, rather than figuring out a handicap just yet.
The genuine USGA handicap calculation system is quite elaborate, with several adjustments. It also requires a peer review component, so only your club can compile it for you. There are also several online calculators that can add it up for you as an estimate, but only if you know your official numbers.
Doing the calculations for yourself, however, doesn’t require any particular skill beyond basic math. You just need a willingness to stick to it through the many steps of calculation. Here are the steps summed up:
- Know your adjusted gross scores, the course rating and the slope rating.
- Calculate the handicap differential for each round you’re using (must be between five and 20). HD = (score – course rating) x 113 / slope rating.
- Calculate your handicap index: HI= (sum of differentials / # of differentials) x 0.96.
These intricate calculations are designed not to tell you your average score (that would be rather simple). Instead, they tell you and others how well you are likely to perform on a course of average difficulty. But what if you’d like to know your predicted score on a specific course?
Once you know your USGA handicap index number, you can simply take the slope rating on a USGA officially rated course and calculate what your course handicap is for that particular 18 holes. Use this equation: Course Handicap = Index x (Slope Rating of Tee on Course / 113).
Your unofficial handicap
According to Golf Advisor, only about 20 percent of American golfers actually know their officially assigned handicap number. Pro golfers certainly don’t use the system in tournament play. But a much greater percentage of golfers are using online calculators intended for friendly competition and self-assessment purposes.
This method, available in calculator form through Golf Digest, is free. It was created by legend Dean Knuth, who developed the USGA course and slope rating system to begin with. You can also carefully compute the multi-equation USGA method listed above, if you prefer to see how the sausage is made. It just won’t be absolutely official.
— C. Pedroja