Skip to content

Everything You Need To Know About Golf Handicaps

In its simplest form, the handicap system allows golfers of different skill levels to compete against each other and set a benchmark of what to score on the golf course....

In its simplest form, the handicap system allows golfers of different skill levels to compete against each other and set a benchmark of what to score on the golf course.

A golf handicap can be aspirational if you are new to the game. It can give you bragging rights over other golfers, form the basis of your golf objectives, or be a source of frustration.

In this article, our focus is on all things related to golf handicaps, and to help you understand everything you need to know about golf handicaps, we'll look at:

  • History and Evolution of Golf Handicaps
  • How Golf Handicaps Work
  • Calculating and Improving Your Handicap
  • How a Golf Handicap Works For Different Competition Formats
  • Benefits of Having a Golf Handicap
  • Can Your Handicap Influence the Clubs in Your Bag?

Miura Golf Clubs

History and Evolution of Golf Handicaps

In the late 17th century, a student at Edinburgh University called Thomas Kincaid started to record the number of shots he took when he played golf. Kincaid was only doing this for his own record keeping, as there were no formal par ratings on golf courses of the time, and nobody else was recording their scores the same way Kincaid was; therefore, nothing came of it.

Moving on to the 19th century, golfers would employ a bartering system to receive a certain number of shots based on the difficulty of the course they were playing. Towards the end of the same century, a new system was formed by taking the average score of the three best rounds against par shot by a golfer over a year.

There were problems with this fledgling system. Portability was an issue because if golfers played different and potentially more challenging courses, the scores weren't accurately reflected in their handicaps. There was also a feeling that the three-score average system was biased towards better players, marginalising higher-handicap golfers in competitions. A weakness in the process also saw individual courses being able to rate their difficulty, leading to wildly fluctuating evaluations.

In 1926, the British Golf Unions Joint Advisory Committee introduced the Standard Scratch System, a uniform way of measuring a course's difficulty against its par rating.

How Golf Handicaps Work

Most handicaps around the world stem from two sources:

  • The USGA Handicap System
  • CONGU Handicap System (UK and Ireland)

The USGA Handicap System

The USGA handicap system sees a golfer's handicap allocated once they have submitted at least three scores. A more accurate handicap is applied once the golfer has submitted 20 scores with an updated handicap based on the average of the eight best scores. This system forms the basis of the World Handicap System, which we'll cover shortly.

CONGU Handicap System (UK and Ireland)

CONGU (Council of National Golf Unions) oversees each national golf union within the UK, providing the framework for golfers to obtain and maintain their handicap in line with the World Handicap System.

World Handicap System (WHS)

The WHS was introduced in 2020 to unify six different handicapping systems employed around the world and is governed by The R&A and the USGA. The new system was seen as a more progressive way for golfers to have a fairer handicap, more representative of their overall play than measured solely on their competitive performances.

It was also deemed a more portable system, allowing golfers to compete and record their scores towards their handicap from any course worldwide. A new feature of the WHS system was the option to post a General Play score. This meant you could submit a score from a non-competitive round if you registered at the outset via the WHS app or in the clubhouse before teeing off.

It's not just about what golfer scores that dictates their handicap. Consideration has to be given to the difficulty of the course they play and the tees they were playing from. The two measures currently employed to determine the difficulty of any given golf course are:

  • Slope Rating
  • Course Handicap

Slope Rating

The slope rating looks at the difficulty of a golf course through the eyes of a higher handicap golfer. The slope rating is calculated based on how quickly a typical 20 handicapper's score will accumulate compared to a scratch golfer for any given tees used on the course.

If the course is deemed harder, the "bogey" golfer's score will accumulate quicker than the lower handicap golfer. Slope rating ranges from 55 (easy golf course) to 155 for the most challenging golf courses. The average score is set at 113.

Course Handicap

The course handicap refers to the number of shots a golfer should receive based on their handicap. Each golf course will have a chart that the golfer can cross reference before they tee off to calculate precisely how many shots they should receive from whatever set of tees they'll be playing that day.

Golf Course

Calculating and Improving Your Handicap

A handicap can be obtained after submitting scores from a minimum of three rounds. Rounds can be from competition, or you can submit a score from a General Play round. But how do golfers start to get their handicaps reduced?

You can start to see your handicap reduced in several ways. The first is through consistently submitting scorecards; your handicap index is updated based on the average of your eight best scores on a rolling basis. If there is consistent improvement in those eight best scores, your handicap will reduce.

The second way is what's known as the exceptional score. Here, if you shoot a score seven strokes better than your handicap index on the day you submit the score, your index will reduce by one full shot. If you have your best day on the course and shoot ten shots better than your handicap index, you will have two full shots taken off.

Handicap indexes are updated within 24 hours of submission, so if you are playing a tournament throughout the weekend, your handicap index will be updated for Sunday's play after you submit your Saturday score.

Handicap reductions happen more consistently if you are working on your game. Working with a qualified professional, you can start to work on different areas of your game that require the most attention.

Lessons also need to be supported with consistent practice, so allocating time to the driving range or practice ground goes a long way to cementing the improvements pinpointed in your lessons.

Another way your handicap can be reduced is by optimising your golf equipment for your playing characteristics, which we'll return to shortly.

TaylorMade Golf Wedge

How a Golf Handicap Works For Different Competition Formats

It's worth consistently checking the course you are playing to see if there are any local rules in force for applying handicap allowances in competition.

There are two main competition formats in golf:

  • Strokeplay
  • Matchplay


Based on the best score you can put together, your full handicap is reduced from your final score. The WHS introduced a new worst score of net bogey to prevent golfers who would "not return" a score if they had an exceptionally bad hole.

In practice, if you played a par four hole and made an eight, this would be knocked down to a six. If you received a shot on the hole, this would be added, taking the score to seven, which would be recorded on the scorecard.

If you play in something like a Stableford competition, you receive a full handicap reduction in singles competition. If you play in a team Stableford, each player receives three-quarters of their handicaps.


Matchplay is player against player, so the format is different. If a player has a handicap of two and their opponent plays off ten, then the two-handicapper has to give eight shots to their opponent. Those eight shots are given on the eight most challenging holes on the course.

If it is a foursomes match, each pair adds up their respective handicaps to work out the difference. The difference is divided by two, which becomes the number of shots allocated to the higher handicap pair.

In four-ball, better-ball, the lowest handicap player gives a 90% allowance to each other player based on their handicaps.

Srixon ZX5 Golf Driver

Benefits of Having a Golf Handicap

The key benefit of having a handicap is it allows players of all skill levels to compete on the same day on the same golf course. This level playing field creates an interest for all golfers to compete.

Having a handicap forms a benchmark to work from. Many golfers want to reduce their handicaps, and they can achieve this by improving the technical aspects of their games via professional lessons.

Playing in competition is another way to get your handicap down, whether at your home course or in open competitions held at other golf courses.

Getting the opportunity to play courses you haven't played before is an additional benefit of having a handicap since some courses may ask you to prove you have a handicap before allowing you to play.

Can Your Handicap Influence the Clubs in Your Bag?

A player with a higher handicap will have different needs from their equipment compared to an elite amateur golfer.

Higher handicapper golfers tend to need help with striking the ball consistently and accurately in their shots. Golf clubs that offer more forgiveness on off-centre hits and with strategic weighting can help deliver more power, and stable club faces through impact. Fitting the correct shaft can help higher-handicap golfers generate better spin numbers and tighten shot dispersion.

Lower handicap golfers have solid ball striking capabilities, so they seek golf clubs that can assist with shot-making and feedback. Better players also generate higher club head speeds, which can lead to unwanted high levels of spin. Bringing spin numbers to manageable levels can be achieved through correct shaft selection and a low spin head in the case of the driver.

Both low and high-handicap golfers can benefit from having custom golf clubs tailored to their games via custom-fitting. Custom fitting can also build contingency for players who are working on improving their game so they don't have to change their equipment as their handicap drops.

Nine by Nine Golf Trackman Custom Fitting Studio

Final Thoughts

The golf handicapping system is the fairest way for players of all abilities to compete against each other. The handicapping system is flexible enough to be used in different competition formats and can be used to access other courses worldwide.

Our handicap can form the backbone of our golfing objectives. How our handicaps are reduced is a good measure of how we develop our game through improving swing technique via lessons and being fitted correctly for clubs that will help our games.

When coming in for a fitting session at Nine by Nine Golf, we can incorporate where your current handicap is and what you are looking to achieve as part of our recommendations. We have helped golfers of all handicap abilities achieve more from their custom equipment, so if you want to change your golf clubs, contact us to organise a fitting. We also have extensive fitting options available on our website if you have a clear idea of what you need for your game.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published..


Your cart is currently empty.

Start Shopping

Select options