What is a Golf Handicap for a Beginner? (Guide)

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You’ve just taken up golf and spent several hours on the range practicing. You decide that it’s time to play a real round of golf. But what’s this about a handicap? What is a golf handicap for a beginner? Do I need a handicap to play golf on my local course?

Well, I’m here to try and help you navigate your way through the handicap system, how you can calculate it and how you go about getting one even if you’re not a club member.

What is a Handicap?

I’ll cut to the chase and try and answer this question head-on. A handicap is a number that shows a player’s ability and it’s a way of leveling the playing field in competitions of those with varying abilities. It acts as a number that you can subtract from your score to give you a net score. So it follows the lower the handicap the better the ability of the player. It also referred to as the golfer’s potential ability not necessarily his or her current ability.

You also may have heard the term scratch golfer. This means someone who plays off zero, but is there a maximum handicap in golf? Keep reading on and I’ll explain.

Set by the United States Golf Association (USGA) the maximum ranges are as follows:

  • Men 36.4
  • Women 40.4

So men if you shoot 38 over par consistently your handicap would be 36 and not 38 because you would be scoring above the maximum allowed. Similarly for women shooting 41 strokes over par will still mean you have a handicap of 40.

Think of this another way if you score two over par for each hole you play on an 18 hole course then your handicap would be 36. If you score one over par on each hole then you would be an 18 handicapper commonly known as bogey golf.

How Do You Work Out What Your Handicap is?

Figuring out your handicap isn’t that simple. There is a calculation required and you need to submit a minimum of five scorecards to your club. They will then calculate a handicap after taking into account your adjusted gross score (AGS), the difficulty and the slope rating of the course. This all sounds a bit complex and I bet most seasoned golfers out there wouldn’t be able to figure this out. Fortunately, there are handicap calculators that can do the job for you (see my recommendation below). But if you really want to impress your playing partners then this is how you go about doing it.

This is the calculation needed:

Adjusted Gross Score (minus) course rating (multiply by) 113

(divided by) course slope rating

What is Adjusted Gross Score (AGS)

The AGS is the maximum strokes allowed per hole. Yes, there is a maximum for handicap purposes. To get the AGS first gather the five rounds played. Then you need to adjust the score (AGS) for each round. To figure this out you will need the Equitable Stroke Control (ESC), for your course, which is the maximum number of strokes, allowed per hole. This might be published on the clubs website or on a notice board in the club.

For example and simplicity lets say you shoot 98 and on the 10th hole you score an 8 but the maximum number of strokes allowed is 7. Therefore the score on that hole is recorded as a 7 and the overall gross score of the round is then reduced by one stroke to 97 this is referred to as the AGS for that round. You would do this for every hole and each of the five rounds reducing any score over the ESC.

What is the Course Rating?

The course rating is a number that a scratch golfer would be expected to score on a particular set of tees on the course. Playing off the back tees compared to the standard men’s tees is likely to be harder, therefore each tee has a different course rating. This is usually set between 67 and 77.

What is a Slope Rating?

This is a figure that indicates the difficulty of the course that a typical bogey golfer would score and this is usually set between 55 being easy and 155 being very difficult. The numerical value is the difference between matching a scratch golfer to a bogey golfer.

What is Handicap Differential?

To calculate the handicap differential you will need the course and slope rating and perform the following calculation:

AGS – (Course Rating) x 113 / Slope Rating

113 used in the above calculation is the slope rating of average difficulty.

For argument sake lets say you scored the following AGS for five rounds and the handicap differential was calculated as below:

  • Round 1 – 99

99 (AGS) – 68.1 (course rating) x 113 / 109 (course slope rating)

= 32.0 (handicap differential)

  • Round 2 – 98   = 30.9
  • Round 3 – 95   = 27.8
  • Round 4 – 102 = 35.1
  • Round 5 – 101 = 34.1

How to Calculate a Golf Handicap?

Now use the lowest handicap differential and multiply this by 0.96

Round 3 was our lowest in the above example, therefore, we get the following

27.8 x 0.96 = 26.6 rounded up to 27 …… and there you have it a handicap of 27

Maybe not as straightforward as you might have thought? Fortunately, you don’t have to do this yourself, once you have submitted your five rounds the club will take care of the rest work out your handicap for you.

Do I Need a Handicap to Play on a Course?

The short answer here is it depends. There are some courses that do require you to provide evidence of an official handicap but not all. My advice is to check with the course you are planning on playing before booking and turning up. You don’t want to be turned away. In my experience, most won’t require it but if you’re planning on playing a Championship course then it’s possible that you will be required to provide a handicap certificate.

How to Get a Handicap if You’re Not a Club Member?

Right well, you can still hold an official handicap index approved by the USGA through various websites. You can submit scorecards online and they do the rest. The advantage here is that you may need to prove an official handicap where a course requires it. One of my recommendations is myscorecard which is a well-established site offering a handicap service for those who are not members of a club. They can even provide you with a printed hardcopy of your handicap if required. Additionally, they have an app for those of you wishing to track your handicap on a smartphone.

Watch out for 2020: World Handicap System Begins

In 2020 the handicap system is changing to a world handicap system. Meaning that all the different global handicap systems will fall into one system of calculating a handicap. The good thing about this is that your handicap becomes far easier to transport to playing in different countries. However one of the biggest changes here is that you will be able to get a handicap once you have submitted 54 holes of golf or 3 rounds of 18 holes. Additionally, the highest handicap will be set at 54 regardless of the player’s gender.

It also looks like the course and slope rating currently operated by the USGA will also be adopted into this new global system. From what I have seen so far it looks like if you already have a handicap under the USGA system then it is unlikely to change under the new system given its similarities.

What is a Good Golf Score for Beginners?

As a beginner, you may well be wondering what a good score is for you. Now that does depend on a lot of variables including your age. Age is a really important factor when looking at a beginner’s ability. If it’s your first time playing golf then don’t expect miracles.


Adults who take up the game are generally able to swing the club and able to develop some sort of rhythm to their game. If you can master striking the ball consistently your half way to putting in a decent score. As a beginner, I’d say anything under 110 for a first round is good. With practice and getting to know your local course by regular play then you will likely see rapid improvements in your scores and break the 100 barrier.

Juniors & Seniors

I myself started as an 11-year-old and whilst after some practice, I could hit the ball consistently, I couldn’t match older players or adults for distance. For me, this is the biggest disadvantage a junior player will have when trying to match older players. Conversely, as you get older and your range of movement becomes more limited you can also lose power and this will affect your distance.

Therefore this will add shots to a round. For example, a junior may need three or four shots to reach the green on a par 4 instead of the standard two. You can play the game to a high level in terms of accuracy but if you struggle to hit the ball a decent distance then this will surely affect scores. When I first played on a golf course at the age of 11 I scored a 112 which was on a par 71… so 41 over par. Not bad for a youngster?

If you’re interested in improving your game there are many gadgets available that can give an extra edge and help you improve and save shots on the course. See my reviews of rangefinders and GPS devices.

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