What is a Plus Handicap in Golf?

In the world of golf handicapping, there exists a rare and elite group of players who are better than scratch – they are the coveted “plus handicappers.” Having a negative number precede your handicap index is a mark of exceptional talent reserved only for those with the highest level of skill, consistency, and mental fortitude. From top professionals to the best amateurs, earning and maintaining plus handicap status requires a masterful command of the game that allows you to routinely score under par. In this guide, we’ll explore what defines a plus handicap, how it’s calculated, and the advantages, challenges, and accomplishments of the game’s premier players who make up this exclusive fraternity.

What is a Plus Handicap in Golf?

A plus handicap in golf is a numerical representation of a player’s skill level that indicates they are better than a “scratch” or zero handicap golfer. Unlike a regular handicap index, which is a positive number reflecting the number of strokes a player is expected to shoot over par, a plus handicap is a negative number representing the number of strokes below par that a player is expected to score.

To put it simply, a golfer with a plus handicap is so skilled that they are expected to shoot under par, or below the course rating, on a typical day of play. The lower the plus handicap number, the better the player’s ability. For example, a +2 handicap means the golfer is anticipated to shoot 2 under par on an average round.

Plus handicaps are rare and reserved only for elite amateur and professional golfers who display an exceptional level of consistency and ball-striking ability. Attaining a plus marker requires shooting multiple rounds at a significant deficit compared to the course rating. It’s a badge of honor that signifies world-class talent.

At the highest level, plus handicaps for top professionals on the PGA Tour can range from +5 to +7 or even lower. Amateur golfers aspiring to play at the collegiate or pro level typically need to achieve and maintain a plus handicap to be competitive against their peers. Having a plus number shows a player has the skill and mental toughness to score well even on difficult courses and conditions.

How is a Plus Handicap Calculated?

How is a Plus Handicap Calculated?

The calculation for determining a plus handicap follows the same general principles as a regular USGA handicap, but in reverse. It assesses a player’s potential scoring ability compared to scratch golfers over a sustained period.

The formula takes into account a player’s adjusted gross scores from their most recent 20 rounds and factors in the course rating and slope rating of each course played. An adjusted gross score is calculated by taking the actual total strokes for a round and subtracting the course rating, plus any handicap strokes the player would receive.

For example, if a player shoots 70 on a course with a 72 rating from the tees played, their adjusted gross score would be 70 – 72 = -2. This process accounts for difficulty differences between courses.

Those 20 adjusted gross scores are then averaged together after adjusting for abnormal conditions like extreme weather. Next, this average is multiplied by 0.96 to determine the player’s handicap differential.

If that handicap differential comes out as a negative number, like -2.4, the player qualifies for a plus handicap by dropping the decimal. So a -2.4 differential would earn a +2 handicap.

Maintaining an active plus handicap requires consistently outstanding play measured against courses of higher slope ratings. Difficult rounds can cause the differential to rise, lowering or eliminating the plus status until improved scores renew it.

What Are the Advantages of Having a Plus Handicap?

The primary advantage of carrying a plus handicap is the undeniable prestige and recognition it carries in the golf world. It is an exclusive accomplishment that separates elite-level players from the rest of the pack. Having a negative number preceding your handicap tells everyone you tee it up against that you are an exceptional talent.

Beyond the badge of honor, a plus handicap allows the player to compete from longer tee boxes and get rewarded for their length and skill during competitions. While regular handicappers have to play from shorter tee boxes to account for their higher handicaps, the plus player can maximize their advantage from the tips or championship tees.

This levels the playing field versus their similarly low-handicap competition. It gives the plus player the chance to take on the full length and challenge of the golf course as designed by the architect.

Moreover, plus handicappers enjoy other perks like preferential tee times, exemptions from qualifying rounds, and opportunities to played in highly-exclusive tournaments limited to low handicappers only. It opens doors to elite amateur championships and events.

From a psychological standpoint, knowing you are a “plus” player delivers an inherent confidence boost over the course of a round. The ability to hold such a handicap requires exceptional focus, consistency and mental toughness over hundreds of rounds. This self-belief can be a distinct advantage in high-pressure situations towards the end of a tournament.

Can a Plus Handicap Change Over Time?

Can a Plus Handicap Change Over Time?

While attaining a plus handicap is an impressive achievement, it is not a permanent designation. A golfer’s handicap is constantly fluctuating based on their most recent 20 scored rounds. Even the best players go through periods of inconsistent play that can cause their handicap to fluctuate up or down.

For an elite amateur or professional with a plus marker, one or two bad tournament performances can be enough to see their handicap differential rise above 0, stripping them of their coveted plus status. A slump in form, nagging injury, change of equipment or even just a bad stretch of putting can lead to higher scores that get factored into the handicap calculation.

However, the same volatility that can take away a plus handicap can also help a previously struggling player regain it. If they are able to put together an excellent run of great scoring rounds, it will quickly cycle out their previous poor scores and potentially restore their plus handicap marker once again.

This handicap fluctuation is all part of the inevitable peaks and valleys that every golfer experiences over the course of their career. Maintaining a plus handicap over many years requires an incredible sustained level of consistent, scratch-or-better scoring in tournament play. Only the world’s very best are able to hold that form indefinitely without any lapses.

So while the prestige of ever attaining a plus handicap persists, players have to continually re-earn it with their current performance. It ensures only those at the absolute peak of their game at any given moment can walk onto the course as an official “plus” player.

Who Are Some Renowned Golfers with Plus Handicaps?

At the professional level, Tiger Woods has consistently maintained one of the lowest handicaps in the world during his prime. At his peak, Woods held a handicap around +8, making him one of the biggest talents relative to scratch golf. Other modern PGA Tour stars like Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, and Jon Rahm have carried plus handicaps in the +5 to +7 range.

Going back further, golf legends like Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, and Tom Watson all possessed prolific plus handicaps that reflected their sustained dominance. Nicklaus was arguably the benchmark with a handicap that got as low as +8 during the peak of his career in the 1960s and 70s.

On the amateur side, elite collegians and top mid-amateur competitors make up the bulk of the plus handicap ranks today. NCAA champions and All-Americans from powerhouse teams routinely carry handicaps from +2 to +5. Longtime mid-amateur winners like Bobby Jones, Harvie Ward and Jay Sigel reached극high levels of plus 6 or better during their prime years.

Away from the competitive circuit, the barrier to a plus handicap is so high that only a tiny percentage of skilled players attain it. Having a handicap judiciary rigorously verify scores makes it an honest assessment of world-class ability. Some who made it to the elite plus level include former President George W. Bush (+3 handicap) and professional gambler Chip Reese (+5 handicap).

Regardless of background, any golfer who manages to earn and keep a plus handicap index is part of an exclusive fraternity representing the game’s finest shotmakers.

How Do Plus Handicappers Compete in Tournaments?

One of the biggest advantages for plus handicap golfers in tournaments is that they get to play from the most difficult tee boxes – typically the tips or championship tees. This allows them to take on the full length and challenge of the course as it was designed by the architect. They don’t have the “handicap” of severely shortened tee boxes that higher handicappers must play from.

However, this also means plus players have noházndícap strokes falling in their favor from the designated tournament tees. They must try to beat the course at its full length. This evens the playing field when competing against each other in scratch/plus tournaments and competitions.

In events that use handicaps and净troke play scoring, plus players will typically have to record net double bogeys as their maximum hole score rather than picking up. So a triple bogey or worse would be scaled down to a double on that hole. This helps minimize outliers from one poor swing distorting their tournament score too greatly.

Plus handicap golfers are also often forced to enter through qualifying rounds or sectional playoffs to earn spots in premiere amateur championships and events. While higher handicaps get a free path via handicap indexeś, top players must prove their current form to secure a spot in the main tournament bracket.

During the competition itself, plus golfers must manage their mental focus as effectively as their swings. With handicaps representing low shooting potential, any lapses are heavily penalized on the scorecard versus the field. Maintaining patience and confidence over 72 holes against the lowest handicap opposition requires exceptional mental toughness.

Overall, while they give up handicap strokes, plus handicappers get to test their talents against the purest and most demanding form of championship golf courses when in tournament play. It’s the ultimate challenge for the game’s most complete players.


While reaching a plus handicap is an immense achievement that puts a golfer among the elite, it’s also a dynamic pursuit requiring constant performance to maintain that rarefied air. The greatest players must continually re-earn their low markers through outstanding scoring and mental toughness over hundreds of pressure-packed rounds. It’s an obsessive chase for perfection that separates the world-beaters from the very good. Carrying that distinctive “+” in your official handicap index means you’ve cleared the highest bar in golf – the ability to routinely conquer the most difficult courses from the tips while beating regulation figures. For that reason, those rare plus handicappers will always command the utmost respect from their fellow competitors as true masters of the royal and ancient game.

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