What your handicap index *really* means, explained

Do you know what a handicap index is? More specifically, do you know what this number means? Let’s clear up some common misconceptions.

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Welcome to Stuff Golfers Should Know, a GOLF.com series where we uncover all sorts of useful golf (and life!) wisdom that is sure to make you the smartest, most accomplished, and most prepared player in your foursome.

Spring is with us. Another fresh start. Also the start of a new golf season. Soon someone will ask – it could be a friend or a bitter rival or a combination of both – “What are you playing for?”

By that they mean, “What is your handicap index?” Although they may simply call it “What’s your index?” or “What is your handicap?”

Regardless of the wording, this is a standard question, especially when you’re playing a match.

Do you know the answer? More specifically, do you know what this number means? There are some common misconceptions about this question. So let’s clean up in the spirit of spring cleaning.

And if you don’t have a handicap yet, what are you waiting for? Register here for your own handicap index.

It’s not your scoring average

A handicap index is a measure of your demonstrated ability to play. It’s not what you’re supposed to shoot. The number is based on your scores on the course and tees played during those rounds. “Actually, you’re expected to shoot two, four, five shots over your number every round,” says Lee Rainwater, the USGA’s director of handicap education and public relations. You could shoot even higher if you’re having a bad day. As you may have noticed, not all golfers are the same. Some are more consistent than others. But in general, Rainwater says, you can expect to play for your handicap once every four to five rounds.

Golfer jumps with excitement

How This Golfer Dropped His Handicap Index By Almost 6 Shots In 10 Weeks


Zephyr Melton

It doesn’t require sophisticated math

OK, there’s some math involved. But you don’t have to do it, apart from adding up your points. The system does the other calculations for you. When you post a score online, it is automatically converted into a score difference (or USGA score difference) that accounts for the course and incline rating. A handicap index is calculated by averaging your eight best score differences from your last 20 scores.

But you don’t have to play 20 times to create a handicap index

Golf is hard. Creating a handicap index is not. Fifty-four holes. That’s all you need to play. The equivalent of three rounds of 18 holes. And you don’t even have to play 18 every time. The results you post to obtain a handicap index can be any combination of 9 or 18 holes. Once those rounds are in the books and you’ve posted them, you’ll get your number. The next time you post a result, your handicap index will be updated at midnight local time the next day.

You don’t have to belong to a fancy club to create a handicap index

Here you can register for your own handicap index. Signing up also gives you membership to your local Allied Golf Association, which offers a range of benefits including the ability to attend disabled events.


Josh Sens

Golf.com Contributor

A golf, food and travel writer, Josh Sens has been a contributor to GOLF magazine since 2004 and now contributes to all of GOLF’s platforms. His work has been anthologized in The Best American Sportswriting. He is a co-author with Sammy Hagar of Are We Having Any Fun Yet: the Cooking and Partying Handbook.

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