USGA Course Handicap, usually shortened to just “course handicap,” is a number that indicates how many handicap strokes a golfer receives at the specific golf course (and specific set of tees) being played.
What Is a Course Handicap in Golf?
You can think of course handicap as an adjustment to a golfer’s handicap index to take into account how easy or difficult the golf course being played is. Golfers who are part of the USGA Handicap System convert their handicap index into a course handicap, and the course handicap number is what determines handicap strokes.
Not all golf courses are created equal; some are easy, some are tough, and some are in the middle. What happens if your handicap index was earned playing a very easy course, but now you’re about to play a very tough course? Handicap index alone doesn’t account for that, so a second calculation is needed. That second calculation is course handicap, which adjusts your handicap index up or down depending on the degree of difficulty of the specific course you’re about to play.
The Course Handicap Calculation
If you’re a golfer who has a USGA Handicap Index, how do you convert that into a course handicap? Course handicap is a result of the addition of “slope rating” to “course rating” as factors in the USGA Handicapping System in the early 1980s, which created a way to adjust one’s handicap up or down depending on the specific golf course.
One way to get your handicap is to do the math yourself. Note: Not required! But for the curious, we’ll give you the simple course handicap formula here. You’ll need your handicap index and the slope rating of the golf course you’re planning to play. A slope rating of 113 is considered average by the USGA, and 113 is used in the equation as a control.
The course handicap formula is this:
Your Handicap Index multiplied by Slope Rating of Tees Played divided by 113
For example: Player A’s handicap index is 14.6 and he’s playing a course with a slope of 127. The formula is: 14.6 x 127 / 113. The answer to this example is 16.4. Player A’s course handicap is therefore 16 (round up or down).
Did you catch the adjustment made? Because the slope of the course in this example is higher than the average slope of 113 (meaning this course is more difficult than the average course), Player A gets extra strokes. Player A’s handicap index of 14.6 was increased to a course handicap of 16.
The Easier Way to Determine Your Course Handicap
Nobody wants to do the math! Thankfully, nobody has to. The easiest way to determine course handicap is to use the calculator on usga.org, or one of the other calculators one can find on the Web.
Also, every golf course that is part of the USGA Handicap System should have available charts showing course handicaps for players based on their handicap index and the slope rating of the tees played. For example, the chart may show that a 14.5 handicapper playing tees with a slope of 108 has a course handicap of 13; or playing tees with a slope of 138 has a course handicap of 16.
For more info, plus links to the USGA’s calculator and also to .pdf versions of those charts, see:
Using Course Handicap During Play
Once you have your course handicap, what do you do with it? Course handicap tells you the number of handicap strokes you receive during your round at this course and from these tees. You use those handicap strokes during the round to convert your gross score into a net score.
In match play, that means applying those handicap strokes on the appropriate holes. If your course handicap is 4, you get one handicap stroke on each of the four highest-rated handicap holes.
In stroke play, you can wait until the end of the round and subtract your course handicap from your gross score. If your course handicap is 4 and you shoot 75, then your net score is 71.
To sum up: If you’re part of the USGA Handicap System, take your handicap index, get the slope rating of the golf course you’re going to play, and convert that handicap index into a course handicap. Course handicap is what tells you how many handicap strokes you get.
History of the USGA system
The USGA has often resorted to the courts to protect the integrity of its handicap system. In one such case, the California Court of Appeal (First District) summarized the system’s history:
The USGA was founded in 1894. One of its chief contributions to the game of golf in the United States has been its development and maintenance since 1911 of the USGA handicap system … designed to enable individual golf players of different abilities to compete fairly with one another. Because permitting individual golfers to issue their handicaps to themselves would inevitably lead to inequities and abuse, the peer review provided by authorized golf clubs and associations has always been an essential part of the [system]. Therefore, to protect the integrity and credibility of its [handicap system], the USGA has consistently followed a policy of only permitting authorized golf associations and clubs to issue USGA handicaps … In 1979, USGA assembled a handicap research team to investigate widespread criticisms of USGA’s then-existing handicap formula. The research team invested approximately a decade and up to $2 million conducting intensive analysis and evaluation of the various factors involved in developing a more accurate and satisfactory [system]. As a result, the research team developed new handicap formulas … designed to measure the overall difficulty of golf courses, compare individual golfers with other golfers of all abilities, take account of differences between tournament and casual play, and adjust aberrant scores on individual holes. USGA subsequently adopted and implemented these new [f]ormulas between 1987 and 1993.