What your Handicap Index *really* means, explained

golfers writing down their scores

Do you know what a Handicap Index is? More to the point, do you know what that number means? Let's clear up some common misconceptions.

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

Spring is upon us. Another new beginning. The start of another golf season, too. Soon enough, someone will ask — it might be a friend, or a fierce rival, or some combination of the two — “What do you play to?”

By which they’ll mean, “What’s your Handicap Index?” Though they might simply phrase it as “What’s your index?” or “What’s your handicap?”

No matter the wording, it’s a standard question, especially if you’re going to play a match.

Do you know the answer? More to the point, do you know what that number means? On that question, there are some common misconceptions. So in the spirit of spring cleaning, let’s clear them up.

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

It’s not your scoring average

A handicap index is a measure of your demonstrated playing ability. It is not what you are expected to shoot. The number is based on your scores relative to the course and tees played during those rounds. “It is actually expected that in any given round, you’re going to shoot two, four, five strokes higher than your number,” says Lee Rainwater, the USGA’s director of handicap education and outreach. You might shoot even higher than that if you’re having a bad day. As you might have noticed, not all golfers are created equal. Some are more consistent than others. But generally, Rainwater says, you can expect to play to your handicap once in every four to five rounds.

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It does not require sophisticated math

OK, there is some math involved. But you don’t have to do it, aside from tallying up your scores. The system does the other calculations for you. When you post a score online, it gets converted automatically into a score differential (or, Score Differential, per the USGA), which takes the Course and Slope Rating into account. A handicap index is calculated by averaging your eight best score differentials from your most recent 20 scores. 

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

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

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

You can register for your own Handicap Index here. By signing up, you also get a membership to your local Allied Golf Association, which comes with a range of benefits, including the ability to play in handicapped events.

Josh Sens

Golf.com Editor

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