New World Handicap System: A positive step for golf, but increased participation unlikely

A new universal golf handicapping system is coming in 2020. It's called the World Handicap System, which is designed to find common ground between the current six handicap systems around the world.

Mainly a joint effort between the Royal & Ancient and United States Golf Association, the new system means that in 2020 your handicap will be able to travel with you all over the world. One world, one handicapping system. If you're a 6-handicap in New Jersey or California, you will be a 6-handicap in Scotland or Australia. It’ll be the same system under the same set of rules of all over the world.

But what are these new handicap rules, and how do they differ from what we currently have? Well, that all depends on where you play most of your golf these days.

Video: Will World Handicap grow the game?

A new world order for handicaps

For U.S. golfers, the differences aren’t that dramatic. For golfers in most of the rest of the world, the new system represents a more dramatic change.

Here’s a rundown of the new World Handicap System, according to a recent article published by the R&A:

  • Flexibility in formats of play, allowing both competitive and recreational rounds to count for handicap purposes and ensuring a golfer’s handicap is more reflective of potential ability
  • A recommendation that the number of scores needed to obtain a new handicap be 54 holes from any combination of 18-hole and nine-hole rounds, but with some discretion available for handicapping authorities or National Associations to set a different minimum within their own jurisdiction
  • A consistent handicap that is portable from course to course and country to country through worldwide use of the USGA Course and Slope Rating System, already successfully used in more than 80 countries
  • An average-based calculation of a handicap, taken from the best eight out of the last 20 scores and factoring in memory of previous demonstrated ability for better responsiveness and control
  • A calculation that considers the impact that abnormal course and weather conditions might have on a player's performance each day
  • Daily handicap revisions, taking account of the course and weather conditions calculation
  • A limit of Net Double Bogey on the maximum hole score (for handicapping purposes only)
  • A maximum handicap limit of 54.0, regardless of gender, to encourage more golfers to measure and track their performance to increase their enjoyment of the game

54 max handicap seems a bit high

One major difference in the new system for all golfers is the maximum handicap being raised from 36 to 54. The concept here is to encourage players who previously didn’t think they were good enough to have a handicap to register and establish one. The bodies of golf believe that the more people who have handicaps, the better. And the idea of handicaps is so golfers of all abilities can compete against and play with one another.

I would hope the idea of making the max that high is simply so a beginner can track his or her progress. A 10-handicapper playing against someone getting 54 strokes means that if the 54-handicapper manages to shoot 115 (which wouldn’t be difficult for a beginner who improves after a few months of play), the 10-handicapper would have to record a gross score 71 to tie that player. Which one of these scenarios is more likely?

And will raising the maximum handicap to 54 really encourage that many more players to sign up if they’re not in it to sandbag? I can't imagine many golfers who would want to be labeled at -50 or higher, no matter what their ability. I’m guessing if your average score is 130-plus, you probably want to keep on that on the lowdown. And most of the people I know who would fit into this category simply don't keep score. It's too embarrassing.

My Golf Advisor colleague Tim Gavrich agrees that while standardizing the handicap system throughout the world is probably beneficial, he doubts that it will encourage more players to sign up.

"It doesn’t seem to address two key barriers that keep players from establishing a handicap: a relative disregard for competitive play and cost," Gavrich says. "Establishing a handicap costs about the same as a dozen middle-grade golf balls, and millions of golfers are content to play whatever they find in the woods or nearest pond. The long-overdue streamlining of the handicap system is not going to inspire these golfers to suddenly keep a handicap."

The weather factor might be sticky

The other big difference is this whole concept of adjusting for weather. Gavrich thinks this could be a slippery slope, and I agree.

"It seems like the introduction of a weather calculation opens up a can of worms whereby golf's governing bodies are going to try their darnedest to quantify the unquantifiable," Gavrich says. “If Player A plays Course X in the morning under calm conditions and then Player B plays in the afternoon while some rain and wind move in, does that mean both players have played two different golf courses? If not, will the algorithm choose Player A's benign conditions or Player B's? This seems to be an attempt to eliminate a form of 'rub of the green' that is guaranteed to shortchange some players and unfairly advantage others every single day."

Indeed, how do you quantify adjusting for weather? Can it be too cold as well as too hot? I would guess rainfall would be a factor, but wind seems the be the biggest variable when it comes to scoring. This seems pretty difficult to regulate, and who makes these determinations?

Changes more dramatic for R&A golfers

As for golfers who currently have handicaps in the U.K. and other parts of Europe, the first bullet point represents a huge difference in the current system and the new system. Handicaps in the U.K. and Ireland are much more complicated than they are in the United States, but the bottom line is they are based more on tournament golf rather than casual golf and they usually only report two or three scores a year.

In fact, most of the casual play in Great Britain and Ireland is match play or foursomes (alternate shot) anyway, so those rounds typically don't count. This is one of the reasons that players in Scotland, for example, play rounds closer to three hours while U.S. rounds typically average 4 ½ hours. You have to wonder if this new system might slow down pace of play in the U.K., for example.

By the way, if you’re a 6-handicap from the United States and you go over to Scotland and play a 6-handicap there, you’re at a distinct disadvantage. Because someone who has a 6-handicap established in tournament play is usually going to be significantly better than a golfer who is a 6 handicap in casual rounds. Plus, often those rounds in Great Britain or Scotland are played in less than ideal weather conditions, which also makes that six handicap more impressive.

Maybe there should be two handicap systems

The new World Handicap System (like the current USGA system) is designed to calculate potential; that’s why it uses the best 8 of the last 20 scores, and double net bogey is the max players can count for handicapping purposes.

But it really doesn’t prevent sandbagging. And it doesn't prevent vanity handicaps either, (which for some reason irritates me even more). I mean, under the current system, you can report whatever scores you want to fit your agenda. Nobody really verifies what you report. Yes, I think most golfers make some attempt to be honest, but we all know sandbaggers and players who claim to be single digit handicaps who can’t break 90.

Also, most golfers really don’t adhere to the Rules of Golf when playing casual golf, which is why I think there should be two different systems. One handicap system for tournament players that would supersede all other handicapping systems, and one that’s merely an average of your scores. The latter wouldn’t be allowed for tournaments, which is fine since most golfers don’t play in official events anyway (scrambles do not count). But a casual handicap would still be good for setting up games or even providing proof of minimum ability to play difficult courses (which is already the case at many courses in the United Kingdom and should be required at some U.S. courses like Bethpage Black and many Pete Dye designs).

Still, the World Golf Handicap is a positive step, but it doesn't do enough. The world is definitely getting smaller, and more and more golfers like to take their games to all corners of it. It would be nice if we all spoke the same language -- golf handicap-wise --- and the new WHS at least does that.

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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