A Beginner’s Guide To Golf Handicaps - Clarkes Golf

A Beginner’s Guide To Golf Handicaps

Golfers enjoy friendly competition. But it helps to know what level of player we’re golfing with, so everyone can compete fairly.

It also helps to know what level a player is if he or she hopes to enter amateur or professional competitions.

This is why a golf handicap is so useful.

What is a golf handicap?

A golf handicap is a numbered score based on the strokes over par you can complete a round of golf in, on average.

While some sports rank their participants in leagues or tables, golfers all over the world can be easily ranked by their handicap, which can change as they progress.

This makes it much easier to rank players based on skill or allow less skilled players to play against more experienced players on a leveller playing field.

Golf handicaps are also a good indicator of how you’re improving – the better you get the lower your handicap goes (because the better you are the lower your handicap is).

For example, John could be playing off of a 12 handicap (12 shots over par on average). Pete, however, could be playing off of a 3 handicap (3 shots over par on average).

Pete has the lower score as he’s able to get around the course in fewer shots than John, meaning he has the “better” handicap.

How are handicaps worked out?

This differs from course to course. But, in recent years, many players and courses have adopted the handicap calculation rules laid out by the new World Handicap System (WHS).

Handicaps under the WHS are calculated based on the average of the best eight scores from a player’s previous 20 rounds.

But if you’re new to the game, you’ll need to have played at least 54 holes first, to calculate a working handicap number.

Once 20 rounds have been played, this can be altered to offer a more accurate handicap.

To earn an official handicap under the WHS, you need to be a member of a golf club following the golf handicap system presented by the WHS.

Alternatively, you could use the newer iGolf system - a scheme designed to help non-member golfers obtain a useable handicap. For more information on iGolf, visit the official iGolf website here.

What is a course handicap? (and is it different to a golf handicap?)

Course handicaps are specific to individual golf courses and aren’t entirely determined by someone's playing ability.

This is because some courses are easier or more difficult than others.

Think of it as an adjustment to your handicap dependent on how easy or difficult a course is to complete.

Players with a handicap number (or “index”) can use that figure to calculate their course handicap on a new course.

How do you figure out your course handicap?

A key piece of info you need to figure out your course handicap is the slope rating.

A slope rating is a measurement of course difficulty when comparing a scratch golfer (who plays off of a 0 handicap) to bogey golfers (players whose handicap falls between 20 and 24).

To calculate your course handicap, you can use the following method:

Handicap Index x Course Slope Rating ÷ 113 (a general number that’s considered a “neutral” slope rating)

For example, Simon’s handicap is 15 and he’s playing on a course with a slope rating of 130. So he makes a calculation:

15 x 130 (÷ 113) = 17.2 (You can round up or down to the nearest full number. In this case, 17.)

Therefore, based on the difficulty of the course he’s playing, Simon’s course handicap (17) is slightly higher than his handicap index (15), and he should use the course handicap when calculating his score.

Whether Simon’s handicap index is higher or lower than his course handicap, he should play from his course handicap if he wants his game to be a more accurate representation of his skill on the course in question.

Many courses have handy charts that help you figure out your course handicap without having to do the calculations yourself.

Handicap system

If you’re unsure, ask the course pro or a regular player and they should be able to help you.

Course handicap vs playing handicap

Your course handicap is the handicap you use based on the difficulty of the course in question.


But another term you’ll find is playing handicap - this is the actual number of strokes you give or receive during a round and is mostly used in competition play.


The course handicap and playing handicap numbers are usually the same, but they can differ depending on the specific rules of the type of game being played. For example, if players are competing from different tees with different difficulties, or if any handicap allowances have been given.

What’s considered a good golf handicap?

The average handicap for a male player is 16.

For a female golfer, the average handicap is 28.

If your handicap is lower than this, congratulations, you’re better than a lot of the players out there.

If your handicap is higher, then you have something to aim for.

One of the great things about golf, and sport in general, is you can always get better with the right practice and you can use the average handicap as a benchmark for where you want to get to.

You might have heard the term “scratch golfer” before. These are extremely talented players and can play to a course handicap of 0 on every rated golf course in the world.

And if you’re consistently playing under par, then you can have a negative handicap (but you’ll be one of the elite players if you’ve got this).

How can I improve my handicap?

Lowering your score is the aim of every keen golfer.

While it may seem like a huge undertaking, the answer is quite simple:

Play better golf.

If you’ve been playing golf for a while and your handicap seems to have stalled at a number you don’t like, you could try a few different things:

  • Play golf more often. The more you play, the more opportunity you’ll have to lower your score.
  • Seek the training of a pro. Golf lessons aren’t just for kids - you could book yourself in for some golf tuition in your spare time to sharpen your game.
  • Invest in new golf clubs - A poor tradesman always blames his tools, but in some cases, the tools really are the problem and new ones could make a huge difference.

Give yourself the time you need to improve at Clarkes Golf

If you’d rather improve your golf swing away from the course, at Clarkes Golf we’re home to a sensational 27-bay driving range. The perfect place to fix any nagging issues in your technique, so you can begin lowering your score the next time around.

We’re also home to a fantastic golf shop, packed full of all the latest clubs, gear and accessories from the most famous golf brands. Or check out our online store for some exceptional golf bargains you can’t afford to miss!

Come pay us a visit at Mill Lane, Rainford, Saint Helens WA11 8LN.

And best of luck with your handicap!