The term "handicap" is so often thrown around golf circles. However, for many novice golfers, the term is a foreign one. Fortunately, there is a hard-and-fast definition for handicap, as well as easy ways to go about calculating one. From there, it's on to improving said handicap.
The United States Golf Teachers Federation USGTF defines handicap as "a measure of his current ability over an entire round of golf, signified by a number. The lower the number, the better the golfer is." A handicap essentially signifies how many strokes above or below par a golfer should be able to play.
According to the USGTF, handicaps are based on a pre-determined difficulty rating on the golf courses on which a golfer has played. The maximum handicap for a male golfer is 36. For female golfers, this number increases to 40. Handicaps are based on recent play and can change over time as a golfer plays more rounds.
According to the USGTF, handicaps allow golfers of varying abilities to compete against one another in a fair match, based upon the discrepancies in their respective handicaps. For instance, a 10-handicapper must offer a 15-handicapper five strokes before the round even commences (think of it as a head start of sorts, to use a racing analogy). In stroke play, the golfer who shoots the lowest net score (total strokes minus handicap) wins the round.
The handicap numbers on a scorecard detail what the lower-handicapped golfer must offer the higher-handicapped golfer in terms of strokes when playing "match play" rules. For instance, if a 6-handicap golfer is facing a 12-handicap golfer and each hole is given a handicap number between 1 and 18, the 6-handicap golfer gives the 12-handicap golfer one stroke on six holes--the holes where the handicap is defined as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.