Golf Handicap, Explained

You may be wondering, what does handicap mean in golf? Well, a golf handicap is a measure of an amateur player’s ability to play golf. It allows players of all abilities to compete against each other equally. It might sound straightforward, but it’s not quite as easy as it sounds. In this post, we aim to explain exactly what golf handicap is, and to answer all your burning questions regarding how to calculate and what is the average.

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How do I get a handicap?

Golf handicaps can only be issued by a golf club that is affiliated with a Golf Union. A player must play a minimum of three 18-hole rounds of golf and submit these to be calculated by the golf club.

But, how do you calculate golf handicap? Read on in this post to find out.

How to calculate your golf handicap?

Different countries have different rules for calculating a player’s golf handicap. For instance, in the USA, a golf handicap is calculated based upon a course ‘Slope Rating’ and ‘Bogey Rating’. However, here in the UK, we follow the Council of National Golf Unions (CONGU) rules for calculating golf handicaps.

Golfers would know that no two golf courses are the same, so to account for this, each course is given a Standard Scratch Score (SSS). This enables a golf handicap to be calculated to make allowances for golf courses that may play easier or harder than “par”.

When looking for a golf course to play at, bear in mind the following:

  • A matching SSS and par means the course may be difficult to play at, depending on your golfing ability
  • An SSS lower than par means the majority of golfers find the course to be slightly easier
  • An SSS higher than par means that most golfers find the golf course to be slightly harder

However, it is worth bearing in mind that the SSS of a golf course does not take into consideration how hard the golf course may be on the day of a golf competition. In order for a golf handicap to be calculated in the UK, the golfer must take into account the difficulty of a course on a particular day using the Competition Scratch Score (CSS).

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How often should you calculate golf handicap?

Handicaps reflect a golfer’s ability on the golf course, so it’s crucial that you review these frequently to ensure they are accurate. There are three types of review under the CONGU in Great Britain and Ireland, which include the:

  1. Annual review – once a year between October and March
  2. Continuous handicap review (CHR) – identifies players who are struggling to play to their handicap
  3. General play review/adjustment (GPA) – when the handicap committee makes an adjustment to a player’s handicap during the playing season

Golf handicap categories

Golf handicaps fall into 5 categories. See the table below for reference:

CategoryHandicap RangeReductionIncreaseBuffer Zone
1 5 or less – 0.1 + 0.1 1 shot above CSS
2 6 – 12 – 0.2 + 0.1 2 shots above CSS
3 13 – 20 – 0.3 + 0.1 3 shots above CSS
4 21 – 28 – 0.4 + 0.1 4 shots above CSS
5 29 or more – 0.5 + 0.1 5 shots above CSS
Club handicap 29/37 – 54 – 0.5 or – 1.0 X 5 shots above CSS


What is the maximum handicap a player can have?

The maximum handicap a player can be assigned is as follows:

  • For men, the maximum is allowed is 28.
  • For women, the maximum is 36.
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What is the average golf handicap?

According to a study by Golf Care, the average golfer has a handicap between 16 and 20 in the UK. But remember, this isn’t the case for every golfer so if you fall above or below these numbers, don’t fret.  

However, if you are new to the sport, you may be thinking what is a typical golf handicap for a beginner? According to the Golf Monthly Forum, it is believed that a 108 is considered to be a respectable score for a beginner golfer, which equates to double bogey on each hole of a par 72 course.

How does a handicap increase or decrease?

During competitions, if a player betters their handicap they will most likely get a reduction, or a ‘cut’ as it is more commonly known. Several factors can affect this, such as Competition Scratch Scores (CSS), but put quite simply, if a player improves his handicap by two shots, his handicap will be reduced by 2 x the handicap category he is in.

For example:

If a player’s handicap is 20 and he completes a competition round in 15 over par, this means he is 5 shots better than his handicap. Referring to the handicap categories, a handicap of 20 is in category 3, so the player will be cut 0.3 for every shot he bettered than his handicap.

If he hits 5 shots better x 0.3 = 1.5 shots, so the player’s new handicap would be 18.5. When players complete competition rounds with a score worse than their current handicap, the maximum their handicap can be increased by is 0.1, and this is the same for every handicap category.

The brand-new world handicap system

At the beginning of 2019, the R&A introduced a brand-new handicap system for all golfers around the world, known as the “World Handicap System” (WHS). This system, which is to be implemented in 2020, has been designed to encourage more golfers to obtain a handicap, enabling golfers to play with – or against – each other anywhere around the world.

The new World Handicap System, to be implemented in 2020, follows an extensive review of systems administered by six existing handicapping authorities:

  • Golf Australia
  • the Council of National Golf Unions (CONGU) in Great Britain and Ireland
  • the European Golf Association (EGA)
  • the South African Golf Association (SAGA)
  • the Argentine Golf Association (AAG)
  • the USGA

Here’s a video from the R&A about what the World Handicap System entails:



Feature image credit: Gina Smith / Shutterstock

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