How to Allocate Handicap Strokes in Golf Match Play

Golf Handicap FAQ

Two golfers shake hands after a match
When two golfers are playing match play, the one with the lower handicap should play off scratch. Dougal Waters/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Two golfers want to play a match, head-to-head. Both golfers have handicaps. In a stroke play scenario, that means both of them would subtract handicap strokes from their scores throughout the round. But this is match play. How do two golfers playing a handicap match allocate those handicap strokes?

The proper way to allocate strokes in match play is to subtract the lower handicap from the higher, then assign the difference to the weaker player.

In other words, the better golfer (the one with the lower handicap) plays off scratch, while the weaker golfer is the only one of the two who uses handicap strokes in the match.

Examples of Handicap Match Strokes

Say Golfer A and Golfer B are going head-to-head in match play. Golfer A has a course handicap of 14 and Golfer B has a course handicap of 10. How many handicap strokes does each golfer get?

The answer is that Golfer B gets zero strokes and Golfer A gets four strokes. Remember: Subtract the better golfer's course handicap from the weaker golfer's. The higher handicapper gets the difference and the lower handicapper plays off scratch (zero).

A couple more examples:

  • Golfer A's course handicap is 6, Golfer B's is 22. Golfer A gets zero strokes and Golfer B gets 16 in their match.
  • Golfer A's course handicap is 12 and Golfer B's is 22. Golfer A gets zero strokes and Golfer B gets 10 strokes.
  • Golfer A's course handicap is 17 and Golfer B's is 0. In this case, one of our golfers already plays off scratch so no adjustments are needed. B gets zero strokes and A gets 17 strokes.

It's really pretty simple once you know the formula. Just keep in mind that two golfers who are playing from different tees, or a match involving one male golfer and one female golfer, require some extra adjustments to determine the correct course handicaps:

Why Not Just Let Both Golfers Use Their Full Course Handicaps?

Why is it done that way - the subtracting of one golfer's handicap from the other, then one golfer getting zero strokes? In our first example above, one golfer had a 14 course handicap and the other 10. Why not just let them both use that number of handicap strokes during the match?

The USGA directly answers this question in the decisions section of its Handicap System Manual. So we'll quote that answer:

"Handicap stroke holes are established to maximize the number of halved holes in a match by assigning strokes where player A most needs his four strokes in order to obtain a half on those holes. If both A and B receive strokes on those four holes, the better player (B) will have a greater chance of winning those holes."

So the gist of it is this: If the golfers both use their full course handicaps, then there will be holes on which they are both applying handicap strokes (reducing their scores by a stroke). And that doesn't help the weaker player - it keeps an advantage with the stronger player. So knocking the stronger golfer down to zero strokes ensures the weaker player of getting the advantage of using handicap strokes on holes where he or she most needs the help for an equitable match.

Which Holes Does the Golfer Who is Getting Strokes Use Them On?

Once you and your opponent have determined who plays off scratch and how many strokes the other golfer gets, how do you know which holes those strokes are used on?

In our original example, Golfer A is getting four handicap strokes. Golfer A applies those strokes (that is, reduces his or her score by one) on the four highest-rated handicap holes. Look at the "Handicap" or "HCP" row or column on the scorecard. It will show each hole numbered anywhere from one through 18. It is the ranking of the holes from most difficult to least difficult.

Since Golfer A gets four handicap strokes, Golfer A finds the four holes on the handicap row of the scorecard that are shown as 1, 2, 3 and 4. And those are the holes on which Golfer A applies his strokes in the match against Golfer B.

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