Handicap 101

For newcomers to the game, getting a handicap and understanding it can be one of the great mysteries of golf. But it doesn’t need to be. We will provide resources to help you understand what it is, how it’s calculated, how to establish one and how to make it work for you.

What is a handicap?

Not all golfers are created equal, but with the golf handicap system, they can all compete with one another on an equal basis. For example, Tom’s average score is 80 and Meaghan’s average score is 95. With the handicap system, Tom ‘gives’ Meaghan a calculated number of strokes to level the playing field such that either of them has the same chance to win.

To put it simply, handicaps are equalizers.

What does the handicap index number mean, and what is a GHIN?

A golf handicap index is a numerical measure of a golfer’s potential ability and is expressed as a number with one decimal point (e.g. 21.4).

The Golf Handicap Information Network (GHIN) is the database application that you enter your golf scores into and that re-calculates your handicap twice a month. When you join a NCGA member golf club, you will get an official USGA GHIN # (typically 6-8 digits). This is your unique system identifier for use when you enter or lookup scores.

The United States Golf Association (USGA) is the authoritative source of handicap index calculation methodology in the U.S. Starting in 2020, there will be a new, unified World Handicap System with several new changes.

The USGA handicap is calculated with a specific arithmetic formula that approximates how many strokes above or below the course rating a player might be able to play, based on the ten best scores of their last twenty rounds. Want to know what the formula is? Check it out when you are ready for Handicap 201.

Why would I need or want a handicap?

There are several good reasons to establish your handicap. A golf handicap makes it possible for fair competition between players of different ability whether it’s in competitive events, a friendly wager between friends, or golf games with money on the line.

  • If you get invited to play in a member-guest, company or charity golf tournament, they will want to know your handicap in order to put you in the right group and make the event fair for everyone. Don’t wait – get it now so you are ready when the invitation comes.
  • Playing with friends or family usually involves a wager of some kind. By knowing what your actual handicap is, you can be confident that you are competing fairly and not losing wagers that you could be winning.
  • Many golf groups or leagues or meet-ups have games with prizes; these too rely on players having up-to-date handicaps – get in on the fun of winning
  • Not ready to play in golf tournaments or don’t want to play betting games or get prizes? Maybe you are just learning to play or practicing to get better. Keeping a handicap is a great way to track your improvement. As you improve, you can expect to see your handicap gradually go down.
  • If you play on different courses, it is good to know what your handicap is so you can pick the right tees and gauge your relative success on one course vs. another.
  • It is also a good reminder for beginners not to get frustrated. Say your handicap is 30 and you shoot a 105. Rather than feeling frustrated or unsuccessful, realize your score is only a few strokes over your net par, good job!

How do I get a handicap?

In the U.S., each state has one or more Allied Golf Associations (AGA’s) which are the authorized organizations for issuing and maintaining official USGA Handicaps. In Northern California, this is the NCGA.  To join the NCGA and get a handicap index, you must join a club. There are 3 main types of clubs – regular, associate and eClub. Find this information on our Join Us page.

Then what? Once you join a club and get your GHIN #, post five 18-hole scores or ten 9-hole scores in the GHIN system and your handicap index will be calculated. After that, you will receive updates on the 1st and 15th of every month via email.

Until your handicap index is calculated, you will see it listed as ‘NH’ which stands for No Handicap.

How do I post my scores?

There are several ways to post your scores:

  1. Download the free NCGA mobile app from the Apple App Store or Google Play
  2. Visit our website NCGA.org. There is blue button on the top right of the home page or go to Post-A-Score
  3. Browse directly to the online site GHIN.com
  4. Use the NCGA score posting kiosks in the golf course facility

When I look at a golf scorecard, they have #’s for course rating and slope, what do they mean?

These numbers are generated for each set of tees on each golf course to indicate the relative scoring difficulty (with normal weather conditions). The ‘course rating’ is what a ‘scratch golfer’ (someone who typically scores par) is likely to score. Course raters also calculate a ‘bogey rating’. The slope, then, is a measurement of the difference between the bogey rating and course rating. Slope values range from 55 (easy) to 155 (extremely difficult).

Golfers use these as guides to select the set of tees to play from. Low handicap golfers look to the course rating, while beginning-to-intermediate golfers are more likely to look at the total yardage of the tees, as well as the slope, in order to gauge the relative difficulty.

Also on the scorecard, why are holes ranked 1-18?

This is a ranking of the holes based on difficulty, the 1st handicap hole is the hardest one to score par on and the 18th is the easiest.

What is a course handicap and how is it different than my handicap?

This is the number of strokes needed to play to the level of a par golfer on a particular course/set of tees. Unlike your personal handicap index, your course handicap index is a whole number. It basically adjusts your personal handicap index to the course and tees you are playing.

The NCGA mobile app has a course handicap calculator – enter your handicap index and the slope rating of the tees you plan to play and it will give you the resultant course handicap. Example: your handicap index is 21.4 and the slope rating of the course tees you are playing is 120, the calculator will tell you that your course handicap is 23. This means if the course is a par-72 course, add 72+23 = 95, then 95 is your par-equivalent score.

The USGA also has an online calculator.

What is a Net Score?

When you play a round of golf, the total number of strokes you take is your ‘gross score’. The ‘net score’ is determined by subtracting the course handicap from the gross score. Following the above example: you play a round and your gross score is 95, subtract your course handicap 23, your net score is 72. That is a net par!

What is ESC?

ESC stands for equitable stroke control, which is a very helpful tool. It basically sets a limit on how many strokes you would count on a hole when you go to add up and post your score. Ever had a bad hole, like getting a 10 on a par 4? If your handicap is in the 21-30 range, the ESC limit would be 8, so when you add up your score for posting, you would adjust that hole to an 8 vs. 10 (whew!) For more on ESC, click here.  (Note: the 2020 handicap system will have a slightly different approach for this concept).

How do players with different handicaps ‘give and get strokes’?

This is the true beauty of the handicap system. If your buddy or competitor has a course handicap of 14, and you have a course handicap of 21, they have to ‘give’ you 7 strokes, sometimes called ‘pops’. If they beat you by 7 strokes, you tie; if they beat you by only 6 strokes, you win! This is the handicap at work –

What does ‘popping the scorecard’ mean?

If you play in an event and give them your handicap, you may have seen little dots on the scorecard for each hole next to your name. This is for games when the net score for the hole is needed, or when you are playing match play or skins games.

The dots represent the number of strokes or pops that you are getting. If your handicap is 14, you get 14 pops, 1 for each of the 14 toughest holes. If your handicap is 21, you get 1 pop for all 18 holes, then your last 3 pops get added as one more each for the 3 hardest holes.

How do Net Tournaments work and what do the flights mean?

Once you know the rules and have your handicap, you are ready to try out some ‘Net Tournaments’. All the scores are adjusted to net scores, so you are just trying to play as well as you can vs. your handicap level. In the example above, you have a 30 handicap and you score 105. If the course is a par-72 course, your net score is 105-30=75, not bad. That’s just 3 strokes over par and could get you prizes.

Flights are your friend! Flights are set up by handicap, so you will normally compete against players with a similar handicap. Since you are all on a similar footing, it can be an enjoyable experience. Many people meet new golf friends in this way.

Again, the magic of the handicap system. Golfers at every handicap level can enjoy playing in tournaments.