Are 'Handicap' and 'Handicap Index' the Same?

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Golfers often hear the terms "handicap" and "handicap index." The two terms are often used interchangeably (even here), but "handicap index" technically refers only to those handicaps established through the auspices of the USGA (or other governing body) Handicap System.

Anyone can claim a "handicap." "What's your handicap?" "Fourteen." (This type of usage means that the golfer's final score is typically 14 strokes over par.) Self-serve handicaps can be kept by golfers who can't, or just don't want to, join a golf club and get an official handicap index.

Such unofficial handicaps cannot be used in official competitions, however, and are not sanctioned by the USGA or other governing body.

So to break down the difference more simply:

  • Handicap is a general term for a golfer's average score in relation to par (e.g., 14-over means 14 handicap);
  • Handicap index is a term specific to an official handicapping system and refers to a rating of the golfer's game produced as part of that system.

The USGA Handicap System - and the use of the term "handicap" by the USGA - originated in the early 20th Century. The USGA began using "handicap index" in the early 1980s when it added slope rating to the equation.

So that's the real difference: A "handicap index" is an official rating of a golfer's handicap, kept through and calculated by the official handicap system in use where the golfer lives. (For example, in the United States that would be the USGA Handicap System; in the U.K, the CONGU system.) "Handicap," however, is just a generic term for a golfer's average score in relation to par.

A handicap index is not a representation of your average score (although close to it) and, if you're doing it right, it's not what you'll use to give yourself (or playing partners) strokes. The handicap index is a number that is compared to course rating and then converted into a course handicap. Course handicap is then used to figure strokes given or received.