Breaking down the new handicap rules announced by the USGA

You may have heard that there will be a few changes to the Rules of Golf starting on Jan. 1. One of the most significant, of course, is the rule that prohibits anchoring while making a putting stroke, essentially taking the advantage of the long putter out of the game for many players.

But in addition to the new rules, the United States Golf Association has also announced changes to the USGA Handicap System, which will also go into effect Jan. 1, and anchoring the putter is a no-no among those who are turning in scores for their handicap as well.

The USGA Handicap System is designed to even the playing field between players of different abilities. A handicap index (such as 10.4, for example) is a reflection of player's potential and can be adjusted as the player's game changes. It is also adjusted according to the course rating and slope. (For more on handicapping, see "Golf's handicap system: A beginner's guide.")

"The USGA Handicap System is constantly evolving to ensure that the system works for the game today and tomorrow," said Steven Edmondson, the USGA's managing director of Handicapping & Course Rating. "As we examine the game domestically and globally, these revisions support the integrity and reliability that millions of players around the world expect of this system. We continue to explore substantive changes as we work toward a World Handicap System in the years ahead."

Solo golf is fine for casual play, but not your handicap

According to the USGA, there are six significant changes that will impact around 10 million golfers who hold a Handicap Index issued throughout the United States and 32 licensed associations, federations and unions around the world. I found two of the changes particularly significant.

The first is are that golfers can no longer post scores from rounds in which they have played alone.

In the old days, golfers had to get someone to attest to their scores, and they certainly weren't self-reporting their scores for handicapping purposes like they do now over the Internet. Sure, they could forge a scorecard back then, but it took some effort. Players had to at least turn in a card that was filled out and signed to their handicap committee and pro.

Over the past few years, golfers have been free to self-report their scores. This new rule banning rounds played alone basically questions human integrity, and I have no problem with that. It's long overdue.

When a golfer plays alone, the odds are pretty good that second balls are dropped, the ball isn't putted out on every green, and the player uses preferred lies. Beyond that, though, we all know folks who just don't keep score accurately (often intentionally), especially with nobody watching, and report scores that either give them a vanity handicap or help them sandbag in their scrambles. I think you should still have to get signatures on your scorecard, to be honest.

The other big change addresses golfers who anchor the putter, particularly long putters. Sure, golfers who don't play in individual tournaments are probably thinking, "what's the difference," but if your handicap is reflecting your golf potential as defined by the Rules of Golf, the USGA is saying that there is no such thing as an accurate round if you don’t apply the Rules of golf. In other words, if an illegal putting stroke results in rounds that are two or three strokes better than without one, then your handicap index really isn't accurate. The same, of course, can be said for a litany of other rules that golfers routinely violate, most notably out of bounds (where they play them as lateral hazards), liberal drops around hazards, bumping the ball and the often played Mulligan. I wonder how many golfers have turned in rounds for handicapping purposes after they hit two off first tee. (Answer: the majority).

That's not to say this rule against anchoring for handicapping purposes shouldn't be in place. It absolutely should. It'll just be interesting to see how many golfers who have a USGA handicap index and have long putters will change their technique during rounds that count toward their handicaps.

As for the rest of the changes and the detailed explanation of all of them by the USGA, read on:

Definition of a tournament score

Additional guidance is provided to Committees conducting competitions regarding the definition of a tournament score, placing greater emphasis on "significant events." The definition excludes fundraising events and regular league play, in favor of designated competitions such as a member/guest or club championship, local amateur tournament or national qualifying and competition. (Section 2: Definitions)

Adjusting hole scores

A revised decision provides clarity for acceptable scores in limited situations where the player has not played a hole(s) under the Rules of Golf, but his or her score would be sufficiently accurate for handicap posting purposes. Three areas covered under the examples include: 1) where the Local Rule is not in effect, but a player chooses to use a Distance Measuring Device or preferred lies; 2) where a player does not wish to cause undue delay; or 3) where the situation is outside of the player's control, such as an incorrectly marked golf course. (Section 4: Adjusting Hole Scores)

Posting scores when a player is disqualified

To improve alignment with the Rules of Golf, the revised Handicap System is clearer about what scores are acceptable when a player is disqualified. In general, a score is acceptable for handicap purposes even when a player fails to hole out, or apply a Rule that affects the rights of another player. If the disqualification breach is determined to provide an advantage for the player, the score is deemed unacceptable for handicap purposes. (Section 5-1: Acceptability of Scores)

Anchoring and posting

A new reference concerns a player who anchors the club while making a stroke during a round and fails to apply the appropriate penalty or an adjusted hole score (Section 4-2). Since the score would not be reflected as playing under the Rules of Golf, it would be unacceptable for handicap purposes. (Section 5-1: Acceptability of Scores)

Playing alone and necessary peer review

To further support the key System premise of peer review, scores made while playing alone will no longer be acceptable for handicap purposes. This change underscores the importance of providing full and accurate information regarding a player's potential scoring ability, and the ability of other players to form a reasonable basis for supporting or disputing a posted score. (Section 5-1: Acceptability of Scores)

Committee responsibilities

In an effort to assist the Handicap Committee with its responsibilities, this revision addresses a player with a temporary disability or permanent disability who has a Handicap Index that is no longer reflective of his/her current potential ability. In the particular instance cited, the Committee will no longer assign a local handicap (denoted with the letter "L" for local use only), but instead will issue a (temporary) modified Handicap Index (denoted by the letter "M"). This change supports the portability of a disabled player's handicap, so that it can be used outside the player's home club. (Section 8-4c: Handicap Index Adjustment by Handicap Committee)

An overview of these changes with more detailed information will be provided at before the end of 2015. The complete USGA Handicap System Manual will be posted to the same site, and it will be available for purchase at, on Jan. 1, 2016.

Mike Bailey is a senior staff writer based in Houston. Focusing primarily on golf in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America with an occasional trip to Europe and beyond, he contributes course reviews, travel stories and features as well as the occasional equipment review. An award-winning writer and past president of Texas Golf Writers Association, he has more than 25 years in the golf industry. Before accepting his current position in 2008, he was on staff at PGA Magazine, The Golfweek Group and AvidGolfer Magazine. Follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeBaileyGA and Instagram at @MikeStefanBailey.
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