Golf Handicap: Which Holes to Play

Woman with prosthetic leg at golf putting green.
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Golfers who carry handicaps need to apply those handicaps on the golf course, which means that on certain holes, these golfers will be able to "take a stroke" or "apply a stroke" to reduce their score on a given hole. Say a golfer played six strokes to get the ball into the hole on Number 12, but that person's handicap allows him or her to take a stroke on Number 12 — that player's net score  would a 5 for Numer 12.

But how do you know which holes you get to do that? How do you determine on which holes to apply those handicap strokes? Simple: Figure your course handicap, then compare your course handicap to the "handicap" line on the scorecard.

There should be a row (usually two rows, actually, one for men and one for women) on the scorecard labeled "Handicap" (or abbreviated "HCP"), and the numbers on that row represent the ranking of the holes for handicap purposes.

How to Determine Handicaps from Scorecards

The best way to learn how to determine which holes get handicaps is to look an example. In the following example, imagine a player whose course handicap is "1," that player would get a stroke only on the Number 1 handicap hole. If, on the other hand, the player's course handicap is "2," then that player gets strokes on handicap holes Numbers 1 and 2, and so on.

So if your course handicap is 18, you get a stroke on every hole. If it's 9, you get a stroke on the top 9 handicap holes, but not on the bottom nine. If it's 27, you get one stroke on every hole, plus a second stroke on each of the top nine handicap holes.

If this still doesn't quite make sense, read on to learn more about how the handicap or HCP score on a player's scorecard can help determine which number of strokes to take, or read our in-depth analysis of handicap numbers here.

The Handicap Line

Each golf course has a different parameter and difficulty level for each of its 18 holes, so each golf club's scorecard carries with it different rules for how to apply the handicap score to a golfer's total, presented as a line on the card known as the Handicap Line.

The purpose of this system is to allow for play between both experts and beginners alike, leveling the playing field by accounting for the skill of each individual. Take for instance a golf pro who needs no handicap on a professional course playing against an amateur who's index is a handicap of 10 — if they ranked the competition according to their gross (actual) scores, the amateur wouldn't stand a chance of catching up to the pro.

Each hole is identified by a number, where the hole identified as 1 is rated according to the most likely a golfer will need an extra stroke against a more seasoned competitor, and a hole ranked 2 designates holes that are second-most likely to need this stroke, and so on.