Golf handicap explained – understanding handicaps for beginners

Golf handicap explained - a beginner's guide to the golf handicap system.Do you want the golf handicap system explained in as simple a manner as possible? Here’s our guide to understanding golf handicaps for beginners…

If you’re just starting off in the sport of golf, you’ll quickly come to understand that the game very rarely makes accommodations for the struggling newbie.

In baseball, you start off hitting from a tee, in basketball you play on shorter hoops and smaller courts, and even in bowling, you have bumpers. In golf, you’re more or less playing under the same conditions as the scratch player.

The one great equalizer in this otherwise unforgiving sport is the golf handicap system. The system allows beginners to competitively play against their more experienced friends, and still have a chance to come out on top.

The problem? It’s pretty confusing. So to help you out we’ve assembled this guide to understanding one of the few accommodations the sport of golf makes for its hackers.

Golf handicap explained

So, what is a golf handicap?

The golf handicap system, as developed by the USGA, is designed to allow struggling players to reduce strokes from their score on certain holes.

In other words, if a hole is rated as a par 5 but is known to be rather difficult, the hacker is no longer expected to put the ball in the hole in five shots. Par for the weaker player might be holing out after six or seven shots. This way, the struggling majority of players are not held to the same standards as the game’s elite.

If you’ve ever spent any time in a pro shop after a loop or have even just talked to another golfer for a few minutes, you’ve probably heard one of golf’s most common phrases at least once or twice. “What’s your handicap?”

The question is a golf equivalent of small talk, but it also helps other players to understand how good you are. The lower the handicap the better the player. When golfers have a handicap of 0 they’re considered scratch players.

While it can be a little embarrassing to rattle off a high number when this question comes up, keep in mind that at the end of the day, your handicap is your friend. It’s the thing that will allow you to beat the smirking elite player in a head to head match, so say yours with pride!

How many strokes should you be given?

To understand how many strokes you should be given throughout the course of a round, you must first attain an official handicap. Which begs the question of how to get a handicap…

How to get a golf handicap

You attain your handicap by registering a set of scores with a USGA approved calculating service. Generally, the requirement is a minimum of five rounds before an official score is given.

A very loose estimate of how many strokes your handicap will forgive can be attained simply by subtracting your handicap from your score. If you’re a 15 handicap and you card 100 one day, the adjusted total would come out to around 85.

That said, since golf is never known to be deliberately easy and the USGA itself is particularly prone to complicating things, there is also the course handicap to consider.

Alright, so what is a course handicap then?

To be fair I warned at the start of this that it was complicated. A course handicap factors in slope and course rating (difficult mathematical systems that essentially assign a numeric difficulty to a golf course) and compare that number to your handicap.

From that equation, you’ll come to understand exactly how many strokes you’re entitled to on specific holes. Fortunately, while this sounds like a math problem laying in wait, it’s actually no added work for you. For as complicated as the USGA likes to make things, they also provide a free to use course calculator on their website to simplify the process of figuring out your course handicap.

Here’s the link:

After all that extra work, the actual final difference it will make is minimal. The 15 handicap player may now find themselves being given 14.8 shots, or 15.6 but golf is a game of precision so every bit counts.

Let’s review what we’ve learned

It all sounds like a lot to take in, I know but let’s condense the information into a few simple steps so you can see that utilizing the handicap system is not quite as difficult as it at first seems.

Step 1: Get an official handicap

The first thing you’ll need to do is join a golf club (an association, not a country club) that is USGA approved and offers handicapping services. Finding one is as simple as asking the person behind the counter next time you are in a pro-shop or searching the USGA’s website where they have compiled many options.

For your convenience, here is a link to that page:

Once you join the club of your choosing and submit five scores, that’s it, youre in!

Step 2: Utilize the course handicap system

We’ve already talked about how figuring out your course handicap is easy and math free. If you don’t have the time to look it up online through the USGA page they’ll probably be able to help you in the pro-shop.

Either way, anytime you plan to play with an official handicap you’re going to need to take the time to figure out what it is for the specific course you’re at.

Step 3: Win

Even with a handicap system in play you’re going to need to bring your A-game. You’ve taken all this time establishing a handicap, now is your opportunity to make the most of it. You’re now in a position to confidently challenge the best golfer you know, and have the possibility to win!


Okay, that’s the golf handicap explained. Easy, huh? Actually, it is pretty straightforward once you get your head around it. It just takes a little time.

Note that establishing a golf handicap won’t fix your slice but it will minimize the consequences of your bad swings. It’s important to remember that the goal of the handicap system is not to give everyone the opportunity to shoot 72. It simply holds you to the standards of your own abilities, not someone else’s.

If this all seems like more work than it’s worth just remember that the steps are easier than they seem. If golf is something that you plan on taking seriously, you’re eventually going to need a handicap anyway, so you might as well get one while your game is still rough enough to benefit the most from it. You’ll be glad you did when your handicap helps you win the round on your weekend loop with your buddies.

Good luck on the course!