If you've ever heard the phrase "par for the course", then you probably already know that it means the subject being referenced is normal or to be expected. You're also most undoubtedly aware of how misleading that statement can be as it relates to an actual round of golf. The truth is that shooting par for the course would be shooting a score that's considered average for a professional golfer - not a score that's to be expected from an intermediate player in the least.
Luckily, there exists a numerical system that adjusts for the scoring differences between beginners, intermediate players, and those that may or may not be carrying a PGA Tour card in their golf bags: the handicap score.
What Is a Golf Handicap?
A golf handicap score is usually in reference to the USGA's Handicap Index, which is a numerical system that allows average and intermediate players to compete with more experience golfers through a scoring system that was designed to level the playing field.
The benefit of determining one's golf handicap is that it allows the athlete to place a number on his or her performance that will help derive a score that is competitive with the scores of more experienced golfers.
According to the USGA's website, golf handicap numbers range from +9.9 to 36.4 for men, and +9.9 to 40.4 for women.
For example, if a golfer has a 10 handicap, it means that he or she can be expected to shoot about 10 strokes over par on a normal day.
To find out what your official USGA Handicap Index is, you'll probably need to be associated with a golf club or golf association that issues the authoritative numbers. However, you can also find out your golf handicap index at home by using a golf handicap formula.
What's My Golf Handicap?
If you're not a member at your local country club or golf course, don't worry. Determining your golf handicap doesn't take a membership, just a mathematical formula that can be applied after you've gathered data from a few rounds of golf.
First, you'll need some information regarding your last five rounds of golf. Three data points are necessary to determine your golf handicap, all of which should be shown on your course's scorecard.
Your Adjusted Gross Score
You're already used to keeping score during your rounds, but marking down those 9's and 10's on your least-favorite par 5's won't be necessary. That's because your adjusted gross score - the total score after each hole's maximum score is considered - is the final score that you'll be using to find your handicap.
The USGA Course Rating
This rating is derived from data taken from the round averages of the given course's scratch golfers (scratch golfers play at a zero handicap, or around par). A course rating of 75 means that a scratch golfer playing a par-72 course can expect to hit a 75 or higher.
The USGA Slope Rating
This number lies between 55 and 155 and is used to show how difficult a course should be for a bogey golfer (bogey golfers are players that average one stroke over the perceived average per hole). 113 is a standard slope rating, with 55 being very easy and 155 representing a very difficult course for golfers hitting in the 90's.
Calculating Your Golf Handicap
Now that you've got your three data points, it's time to do a little math. Check out the golf handicap formula below:
(Score - Course Rating) X 113/Slope Rating
Using the formula above, let's determine a handicap differential for a round shot at 88 with a Course Rating of 74.5 and a Slope Rating of 135.
(88 - 74.5) X 113/135 = 13.5 X 0.84 = 11.34
Since we're only using five rounds for our example, only the lowest differential will be used to determine the handicap index. Notice that the following is not an average score. Instead, it is based on 96% multiplied by the lowest differential of the five rounds per USGA guidelines. Assuming our example results in the lowermost differential, you can then apply the following to further determine your handicap:
11.34 X 0.96 = 10.8 Handicap Index
The extended result of the above equation is actually 10.88, but for handicap index purposes the numbers after the 10th place are dropped off and never rounded.
If you've made it this far, then you should have a pretty good understanding of what a golf handicap is, how the handicap index is derived, and how it can be applied to your game to determine your personal handicap.
The course and slope ratings for your favorite golf venues can be obtained fairly easily, which leaves the third data point - the score - completely up to you, so what are you waiting for? Grab your golf clubs and get out there to play some golf!