How Is Handicap Caculated?
By KorryFranke on 6/5/07
Question: What are the actual 'on the books' requirements for establishing a USGA handicap?

It's a 3-foot putt on the 18th hole. You analyze the green, determined to sink this putt. You address the ball before smoothly, firmly, and solidly striking the ball. You watch with great interest as the ball creeps over the cup's rim, making that all too familiar sound as it hits the bottom. You look to your friends, smile, and then confidently say, "72!! Even par!!"

Dazed and bewildered, your friends waste no time lambasting your claim for an even par round. "What are you talking about?? At best that was a 94!" they scream. Again you smile and say, "It sure was a 72... if you include my handicap of 22!"

Ok, so this would pretty much never happen. Honestly, if you ever tried something like that you'd probably end up pummeled by pitching wedges! Most of us (hopefully) would never claim to shoot a round of 72 when we really shot a 94. Most of us realize that, yes, a handicap is, in basic terms, a way for you to average your game to that of a "scratch" golfer, someone who consistently shoots even par. But it doesn't really change your score. A handicap really is more of a way for you to track your game's progress and compare your skill level to that of other golfers. But since an official handicap takes into account courses of varying difficulty, it's not just a simple average of your golf scores versus the par score for the courses you play. An official handicap is a rating of your score versus par adjusted for course difficulty.

"So, Korry," asks Josh Ives, "what are the actual 'on the books' requirements for establishing a USGA handicap?" Well, Josh, the answer is quite complicated, but I'll try to give you the most concise answer I can.

Three things are considered in creating a handicap: your score, the USGA Course Rating, and the Slope. The Course Rating and Slope are the numbers you've probably noticed next to each tee on your course's scorecard and look something like this: 73.1/135. The first number, 73.1, is the USGA Course Rating that represents an evaluation of what a scratch golfer might score on this particular course, from a specified tee (black, white, etc), under normal course and weather conditions. In other words, if Par were 72, a scratch golfer would probably score 73.1 on these tees at this course. The second number, 135, is the course's slope. Many things go into a slope calculation but it basically is an evaluation of the course's difficulty level from a specified tee. Water hazards, trees, rough length, etc are all some of the things that go into determining slope. While there is a real calculation, it's irrelevant for our purposes. Just know that 113 is the standard (why? I have no idea. It is. Just accept it). In other words, the higher above 113 a course's slope is, the harder it should play, and the lower the slope, the easier the course should play.

The next step is to play a lot of golf and keep track of your scores. After each round, calculate your handicap differential which is basically your real handicap for a particular day, adjusted for course difficulty. Using the previous example, let's assume John Smith shot a 94 with the course rating/slope of 73.1/135. Subtracting the course rating from the actual score gives us his handicap for this course (94-73.1=20.9). Then, we multiply John's handicap (20.9) by the average slope index (113) and divide by the actual course slope (135). It's really just adjusting the handicap (20.9) proportionally to the difficulty of the course (113/135). (Remember those fun proportional problems on the SAT?) We're trying to find our AVERAGE handicap while taking into consideration the specific course's difficulty level. The handicap differential in this situation would be 17. In other words, John's skill is slightly better (17) than what he may think (20) because the course was more difficult than average. (Note, do not round the handicap differential. Just use the whole number in front of the decimal.)

After playing many rounds and calculating the handicap differential for each specific round, we can then find an accurate handicap of a golfer's overall skill level. Ideally, 20 scores are needed since the USGA uses the best 10 scores of the last 20 rounds played (very generous of them to let us truly forget about that one awful round... or 10 of them!); however, if fewer than 20 scores exist, that's ok... just use the best 50% of your scores. It's more complicated, but that's a good ballpark.

Finding the real handicap index becomes a simple three-step process:
1. Average your handicap differentials (i.e. add your best ten together and divide by the total number of rounds in your average... ideally 10)
2. Multiply the average handicap differential by .96 (this is the USGA's way of forcing us to always strive to improve our game).
3. Round to the nearest tenth (i.e. 17.1... not 17.13)

The result is your handicap index. This is the number you tell your friends when they ask, "What's your handicap?" This is the number that is adjusted for course difficulty. And, when you're out at a new course, if you multiply the handicap index by the course's actual slope and divide by the average slope (113), you'll get your Course Handicap. If you play your round, subtract your Course Handicap from your score, and find that your Net Score equals Par, well, Congratulations... you've just played the round to your handicap!

This all sounds very complicated and it is. But the great thing for oobgolfers is that when you enter your scores, oobgolf does the calculations for you automatically! You can even see your Course Handicap for each round you enter along with your Net Scores. If you really want to dig deeper into USGA handicaps, check out the USGA's Handicap Manual found here.

Thanks again for the great question, Josh.

Email Korry your questions at

Korry Franke is a Boeing 757 and 767 pilot for Continental Airlines where he flies out of Newark, NJ to destinations across the US and around the globe. He lives in Bethlehem, PA where he spends most of his time on days off at the driving range or out on the golf course giving his game the practice it so desperately needs.

[ comments ]
volleyhart says:
I'll keep using oobgolf for this, if you don't mind. The math here gave me a headache.
la24236 says:
Now that I know how the handicap index is calculated, where can I find it so that I can use it to determine my handicap on a new course I have not played before?
D.Kruger says:
I have an average handicap calculated on my phone but not on the website, why is that? Even if it is not official, it would be great to know if my handicap is improving or not
danieljorden says:
The explanation why course mark and do my assignment for me gradient have a chief role with the handicap discrepancy computation is because both statistics designate course complexity.
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