Sep 03, 2022

Using the Handicap Index on Your Golf Scorecard

beginner golfers golf tips and tricks handicap index on the course

If you’ve started to play golf more regularly, you may have heard players ask “What’s your handicap?” on the course before. These players are referring to the Handicap Index, which is a rating system for all golfers. It can help you develop your golf game and enhance your skills. Here’s what you should know about how to use the Handicap Index on your scorecard during your next round.  

What Is a Handicap Index?

The Handicap Index is the measurement of a player’s demonstrated ability. The rating represents your potential scoring ability based on the number of strokes it would take you to adjust your score to par.

Golfers with lower skill levels require more strokes to finish the course and therefore have high handicaps. On the other hand, golfers with higher skill levels have lower handicaps because they’re able to finish the course in fewer strokes.

Why Use a Handicap Index Rating?

Many golfers see the Handicap Index as something tied to competition or consistent scoring. Beginners often think they need to get to a certain skill level to use it. This isn’t the case; this rating is for everyone. Here’s why:

  1. It establishes a baseline skill level
  2. It allows you to play in tournaments that require one
  3. It evens the playing field for golfers with different skill levels
  4. It helps you explore and enjoy different golf courses

How Do You Determine Your Handicap Index?

A Handicap Index is an average of your 8 best score differentials from your most recent 20 rounds. There are some safeguards in place that can impact this number. Learn more about how to find your Handicap Index in Understanding the Handicap Index: A Primer for Beginner Golfers.

The index measures a player’s demonstrated ability on their better days, so it doesn’t account for all the scores in your recent rounds. It can put inconsistent players at an advantage by skewing scores upward. If you are a more consistent player, then you will benefit from your handicap more often.

To find your Course Handicap, use the USGA website or GHIN mobile app. You can also look for a physical table, which is often found in the pro shop. The table will show index ranges and the Course Handicaps associated with them.

How Do Scorecards Include Handicaps?

The Handicap Index produces a Course Handicap that tells golfers how many strokes they get to take off their gross scores to get their net score. Using this system, golfers with different skill levels can play fair matches against one another.

On the right side of the scorecard, you will see each player’s full handicap written as a number. Throughout the scorecard, the handicap will be represented by dots on each hole. Each dot represents a stroke. For instance, if you score a 5 on a par 4 but you have a dot (or stroke) on the scorecard, then your score is a gross 5 and a net 4.

When you are playing a golf round, you always put your gross (or actual) score in the slot. At the bottom of the scorecard, you can recalculate the net scores accounting for the handicap.

FAQ: Handicap Index and Scorecards

  1.  Should I subtract my adjusted strokes from my final gross score, or should I do it hole-by-hole?

In a normal round of golf, your final net score is typically sufficient. That said, there may be instances when you’ll need to know which holes to apply extra strokes. For example, you may be using scoring systems like match play or Stableford, or you could just be playing for skins.

When playing in a tournament or event, you’re more likely to use the dots on different holes on your scorecard. As noted above, this represents how many extra strokes you’ll receive on that specific hole.

  1.  How do I apply the adjusted strokes?

It depends on the course. Each hole on a course is rated based on difficulties 1 through 18. For each hole with a number less than or equal to your Course Handicap, you’ll subtract a stroke from your net score for that hole.

  1.  What score do I post if I started a hole but did not complete it?

For handicap purposes, the score recorded is your most likely score equal to:

  • The number of strokes already taken on the hole, plus
  • Any penalty strokes incurred during the hole, plus
  • The number of strokes you most likely required to complete the hole

A “most likely score” is a reasonable assessment that you make based on the score you’re most likely to make from that spot more than half the time.

  1.  What is an exceptional score?

This is a score differential — the difference between a player’s adjusted gross score and the Course Rating — that is at least 7.0 strokes better than the player’s Handicap Index at the time the round was played.

If you post an exceptional score, your Handicap Index will be reduced by an additional stroke. If the score differential is 10.0 strokes better than your Handicap Index, then it will be reduced by an additional two strokes. This is called the Exceptional Score Reduction because handicap research has shown that a player who has shot an exceptional score is more likely to do so again in subsequent rounds.

  1.  What score do I post if I didn’t play a hole?

Not all holes are played on courses due to darkness or construction. If this is the case, then the score recorded for handicap purposes is net par (equal to par plus any handicap strokes you’re entitled to based on your Course Handicap). 

  1.  What is my maximum hole score for handicap posting purposes?

Once you have a Handicap Index, the maximum score for each hole played is a net double bogey (equal to double bogey plus any handicap strokes per the Course Handicap).

If you’re posting scores to establish a Handicap Index, the maximum hole score is limited to par +5.


Once you find your Handicap Index rating, you can begin to practice how to score with it. While it can be an initial adjustment, it can also expand your opportunities in golf. You can play with more people, enjoy additional courses, and participate in events that may have felt intimidating previously.

Visit Compete Confidence Golf for more information about golf practice programs, retreats, tournaments, and courses to improve your play.