If you are learning to golf or starting to take your rounds more seriously, understanding and tracking golf handicaps is a necessity.

What is a handicap?

A golf handicap is a number that represents a golfer’s ability based on their past golf scores.

A golf handicap is usually based on the average of a golfer’s best 8 of the last 20 score differentials.  

There are a lot of false assumptions about handicaps such as:

  1. A golf handicap is a measure of what a golfer will score on average.  

  2. Beginner golfers are not good enough to have handicaps.

  3. A golfer with a high handicap has a low chance of defeating a golfer with a low handicap in net competitions.

  4. 9-Hole Golfers cannot get a handicap.

All of these statements are false.

Many golfers mistakenly believe their handicap represents how many shots over par they should score on an average day. It actually reflects an average of how many strokes over par the golfer scored when they played well. Due to a player’s handicap being calculated on 8/20 of the golfer’s last rounds, the player will score equal or better than par plus their handicap stroke allowance only 25% of the time. A handicap is an indication of the golfer’s potential, not their average score.

Does a golfer need a handicap to play the game?

If a golfer is a beginner and taking lessons and using the driving range, the golfer doesn't need a handicap. If a golfer wants to play with friends and doesn’t care to keep score, they do not need a handicap. If a golfer picks up their ball on many holes when they are tired of hitting, they do not need a handicap.  

When does a golfer need a handicap?

The only time a golfer needs a handicap is when they want to fairly compete against other players’ net scores. Net score means the golfer’s total gross score minus their handicap. Many tournaments and competitive leagues will require an established official handicap to participate.

In competitive play, a handicap determines how many strokes above par will be given to a player based on their ability. If a strong player wants to play against a weaker player, it is likely that the stronger player will always have a lower gross total score. This is not a fun competition for either player. A handicap decides how many strokes the weaker player will be given to make the competition fair.  

For example, Mary, whose handicap is 7, wants to play against Ellen, whose handicap is 27. On a par 70 course, Mary scores 80, and Ellen scores 98. Mary’s gross score is 80 (total Score) - 7 (her handicap) = a net score of 73. Ellen’s gross score is 98 (total score) - 27 (her handicap) = 72 (net score). With handicap factored in, Ellen won the competition by one stroke.  

Having an accurate handicap helps the players to fairly compete together or against each other regardless of their differing skill levels. The player who plays to the best of their ability on that day should win the match.

The best time to establish a handicap is when a golfer is just beginning as it is motivating to track improvement. Beginners often improve rapidly in a single season. Having a handicap makes setting goals easier and provides a way to measure progress.

Another advantage to establishing a handicap is that it provides an answer to one of the most common golf questions, “What is your handicap?”

How does a player get a handicap?

A player may calculate their own handicap, but the process is onerous and will not produce an official handicap. And the calculation must be updated every time the golfer plays a round.

The easiest way to get a handicap is to use the free Golf Canada app. The Golf Canada App will calculate and track your handicap for you and allows you to enter scores in two formats: hole by hole, or net adjusted for the entire round. A handicap index is established after a golfer has entered a minimum of 54 holes. The player must then continue to enter their rounds to keep their handicap index current. The golf app calculates and updates the golfer’s handicap index daily.

It is not an official handicap for tournaments unless the golfer joins a golf course that is affiliated with Golf Canada or joins Golf Canada independently.

A handicap index is not your handicap.  It is a number that converts to a handicap for the golfer based on the course and a slope rating of the golf course.  

Each golf course has a course slope rating for each set of tees that denotes the difficulty of the course. For example, a player may have a 26 handicap from the forward tees on a golf course but may have a 28 handicap if they play the back tees on the same golf course.

A player may have a different course handicap at another golf course. A golfer will have a lower handicap on an easier course, and a higher handicap on a more difficult course. This prevents players who normally play at a difficult course from having an unfair handicap advantage when they play competition at a golf course where golfers usually score lower.   

The Golf Canada App will give the golfer a portable handicap to any golf course in the world that is registered in the world handicap system. 

Golf handicap calculations changed in 2019 affecting a variety of handicap calculating parameters such as:

Maximum Scoring

A player has a maximum score per hole that she can enter into the app.

The rules for posting scores for handicap purposes limit the number of strokes a player may count on a hole to a NET DOUBLE BOGEY.

This is so that one bad hole does not unduly raise a player’s handicap. One bad hole can raise a score significantly and may not be indicative of the golfer’s usual skill.

If a player enters her gross score for each hole on the app using the “hole by hole” option, the system will adjust her maximum allowable score for her.  It is recommended that all players enter their scores this way.

If she posts just her “total” score into the app, she must adjust her score on her own before entering the total score.  The maximum score she can post on any hole is a net double bogey. A net double bogey is 2 over par for the hole plus any of her handicap strokes applied to that hole.

The holes are ranked by difficulty on the scorecard from 1 to 18. The hole marked number one is considered the hardest hole and number 18 is considered the easiest. For women, this number is seen on the scorecard in the row labelled “ladies handicap.” A player gets their handicap strokes on the most difficult holes.  

For example, if a player had a two-handicap, she would get a handicap stroke on the hardest holes, ranked 1 and 2 for difficulty. The maximum score she can take on these two holes is Par plus 2 (double bogey) plus 1 (handicap stroke).  The player’s maximum score is 2 plus par or a double bogey for holes ranked 3-18 for difficulty.

If a player has a 16 handicap, they will get one stroke on the holes ranked 1-16 holes, but not the holes ranked 17 and 18. For example, on a par 4 ranked number 6, their maximum net double bogey would be par + double bogey + any handicap strokes that apply (4 + 2+ 1 = 7).

If a player doesn’t have a handicap yet or has a handicap above 54, the player takes a maximum of 5 strokes over par.

Note that in a tournament, a player must submit a scorecard with the actual gross score for each hole.  The maximum score adjustment is used only for handicap calculation.

If this is confusing, enter your scores on the app hole by hole, and let the app do the work! It will adjust your score to net double bogey for you.

Daily Scoring

Each round should be entered before midnight on the same day that it is played. The app will then adjust for the playability of that course that day. For example, if all golfers play poorly than normal under very poor weather conditions, the app will make adjustments for the difficulty of the course on that day.

In summary, not all players need a handicap, though if you want to track your improvement or play competitively, you should consider having one! 

The best way to lower your handicap is to focus on improving your short game. Check out these putting tips for improving your short game.