The World Handicap System - All You Need to Know

By: | Thu 05 Dec 2019 | Comments


GUESS what? Golf is about to change the handicap system again by introducing something called the World Handicap System (WHS) which aims to provide us all with a unified and more inclusive system for the first time. Correct me if I am wrong, but haven’t we been here before? And why is it that the powers-that-be feel the need to keep tinkering with something that, by and large, works pretty well?

The new system is being introduced in several countries in January, but it will not be launched in the UK until around November next year. Hopefully, that will mean that any kinks will have been ironed out. So why are we having to wait? Well, changing to a handicap system that relies on USGA-style course ratings and slope requires new handicap computation software that is being built from scratch. Oh good! And the authorities in Britain want to wait until they are sure that it is fully tested before being implemented.

The authorities in countries such as the USA and Australia already use slope as part of their current handicap rules and are further down the line with it all - or at least they hope they are.

The R&A and USGA, who have developed the WHS, said significant progress has been made in preparing for the roll out of the new system. It aims to provide all golfers with a consistent measure of playing ability, with handicaps calculated in the same way wherever they are in the world.

The R&A says: "A key objective of the initiative was to develop a modern system, enabling as many golfers as possible to obtain and maintain a Handicap Index. Golfers will be able to transport their Handicap Index globally and compete or play a casual round with players from other regions on a fair basis. It will also indicate the score a golfer is reasonably capable of achieving the next time they go out to play."

Martin Slumbers, chief executive of the R&A said: “The game of golf is transforming to meet the needs of the modern-day golfer; modernising the rules this year was an important step forward in that regard and the World Handicap System will be another. Our hope is that the launch of the WHS will be a catalyst for change; signalling the start of a new era of golfer engagement, being inclusive by embracing all golfers, whatever their level of ability, and broadening its appeal to a much wider audience. Change also means opportunity and, managed appropriately, this can only be good for the game. It does mean there will be a period of adjustment, as we saw with the new Rules, but once it beds in golfers and golf clubs will benefit in many ways from the new system.” 

Slumbers seems to believe that the rules changes implemented on January 1 have been an unqualified success; many golfers around the world may have a somewhat different view. Never before have we seen so many rules infringements and violations in professional golf, and many club golfers are still struggling to come to terms with the changes. One of the main reasons for the raft of new rules was to speed up the game, but the jury is still out. Most club golfers still struggle with things like ready golf (something that players on the PGA and European Tours seem to have ignored completely), leaving the flagstick in the hole while putting and dropping the ball from knee-height. It all remains a work in progress.

The WHS has two main components – the Rules of Handicapping and the Course Rating System. The Rules of Handicapping are encompassed within seven rules to inform administrators and golfers on how an official handicap index is calculated and administered, with some flexibility given to national associations based on how the sport is played and enjoyed in their region. The course rating system, based on the USGA course rating system first adopted nearly 50 years ago and already adopted on nearly every continent, sets out a consistent method of determining a course’s difficulty. Together, these components become the foundational elements in determining a golfer’s handicap index. 

So what will the new handicap system mean, and how will it work? 

Here are the key elements:

The major difference is that there will now be a maximum handicap of 54, for both genders. It is designed to encourage more golfers to measure and track their performance to increase their enjoyment of the game. Traditionalists will hate this, but a huge number of men struggle to play to 28 and 36 remains a problem for many women. Why shouldn’t they be given the opportunity to have a handicap that they can actually play to?

There will also be more flexibility in formats of play, allowing competitive and recreational rounds to count for handicap purposes and ensuring that a handicap index reflects demonstrated ability; 

A minimal number of scores will be needed to obtain a new handicap; with the number of scores needed to obtain a new handicap being 54 holes from any combination of 18-hole and nine-hole rounds (with some discretion available for national or regional associations);

An average-based calculation of a handicap, taken from the best eight out of the last 20 scores and factoring in memory of demonstrated ability for better responsiveness/control;

A calculation that considers the impact that abnormal course and weather conditions might have on a player’s performance each day - no two courses are the same, and many of us visit courses that are far more difficult than our home clubs;

There will be timely handicap revisions - hopefully this will eliminate both bandits and revise handicaps that club golfers struggle to play to;

There will be a limit of net double bogey on the maximum hole score (for handicapping purposes only).

Mike Davis, chief executive of the USGA, is convinced the new system is a winner. “When the golf community works together, everyone benefits,” he said. “We have seen the benefit that handicapping has provided for decades, providing greater enjoyment for all who play. To have a single set of Rules of Handicapping for the game will connect golfers from country to country, and we are excited to bring the best of all worlds together through this initiative. It is one of the many ways we are investing in golf’s future, to strengthen and foster growth of the entire game for years to come.”

More than 3,000 golf courses have been rated for the first time and an extensive education program has been delivered. By the end of the year, more than 90 national associations will have attended an educational seminar. Rules of Handicapping books are being produced and will be translated and delivered through national associations. 

In addition, the USGA and The R&A have developed a series of golfer-focused materials, including videos, infographics and posters, which can be used by national associations and shared with golf clubs for the benefit of golfers.  

This hasn’t happened overnight. In fact, the idea of a WHS was first mooted in 2011 and it unites six existing handicapping systems into one. The existing six handicapping authorities, Golf Australia, the Council of National Golf Unions (CONGU) in Great Britain and Ireland, the European Golf Association (EGA), the South African Golf Association (SAGA), the Argentine Golf Association (AAG) and the USGA, represent approximately 15 million golfers in 80 countries who currently have a golf handicap.  

You can learn more about the WHS by visiting WHS.com - just  don’t expect to be able to fathom it all in five minutes.  


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