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 former Golf Advisor 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. He has also been 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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Calculations of the best 8rounds do rounds with NR on several holes still count or are completed rounds only count as the best eight

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May I support the higher handicap argument! I only took the game up when I was 50 and only started playing twice a week when I recently retired at 75yrs, so that clearly puts me in my competence category - I got down to 18 but am now a 27 handicapper. Now, at 78 this week, I still like to play in our seniors' and members roll-ups and games. It is enjoyable and I see golf as a way of keeping reasonably fit, plus many other pleasant advantages. With more older people now trying to keep going, golf is an exceptionally good activity for them in my view.

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How is, " factoring in memory of previous demonstrated ability for better responsiveness and control," handled mathematically? Pretty nebulous as stated. Too late now, but wouldn't it have been better to use statistics and probability to calculate a score which someone has a 20% chance (the present target) of beating? You know, bell curves, standard deviation and all. This would be based on all scores, The average of your 8 best rounds is just an estimation trying to accomplish the same thing. That would also take care of your 54 handicapper shooting a 115 scenario, since presumably his bell curve would be much wider.

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The discussion regarding the 10 handicapper vs the 54 handicappers doesn’t sound logical. While a 54 could shoot 115, it’s not probable. If the 54 handicapper has improved to be shooting 115 on a regular basis the daily revision of handicaps should have already reduced the 54 particularly with using only the best 8 scores in the calculations.

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Leave the system as it currently is
As an aside , anyone who shoots 130 will not play the game if it doesn’t improve

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im a proud 130 shooter and not about to quit

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I need to bring Mike Bailey up to date with golf in Scotland. Apparently, we only report 2 to 3 scores per year. In fact, if we report 2 or less, the handicap lapses. My club has, perhaps, more competitions than many others but I expect to play over 40 competitive rounds at my home club that will count for handicap this year. As for foursomes, this may still be popular in traditional clubs such as Muirfield, but elsewhere it is rarely used for bounce games and most clubs will have just the occasional foursomes competition. An advantage of the current handicap system here is that you are effectively forced to decide in advance whether your round will count for handicap by the act of taking part in a competition. There is no option to cheat the system in either direction by putting in scores that fit your purposes. On the other hand, I am looking forward to seeing the slope system in operation here as a six handicapper at a difficult course in Scotland will be a better player than a six handicapper at an easy course.

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The changes are worth trying. However, four balls are often frowned upon for medal rounds. How are those of us who like that format regularly going to be accepted when speeding up play in competitions is one of the aims?

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I have an issue with taking the best 8 of the last 20 scores as an average for your handicap. You should take the average of the last 20 scores. Why only the best? I know the USGA system currently takes the best 10 of the last 20 and then adjusts handicaps downward if someone has a great score in one tournament. This defeats the purpose of the handicap system by giving an advantage to low handicap golfers who are much more consistent in their game.

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This is absolutely false! The advantage goes to high handicappers (inconsistency). Because with only 8 scores used, a high handicapper can have a spectacular round every 8 rounds and it will never end up in the handicap reducing, because it will fall off every 8 rounds.

Wheras a low handicapper will be consistent and a bad score or even 2-3 bad scores will do nothing to to move the handicap to an appropriate value.

The 8 out of 20 is an absolute benefit for the sandbagger, making it worse than ever before!

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I don't understand the limit of net double bogey on the maximum score. Does this mean that for handicap purposes, you cannot score any hole greater than 7 when putting scores into the GHIN system? So that the maximum score for 18 holes would be 126? Elaborate.

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If you are an 18 hc, then net double bogey means you can triple bogey a hole(gross). If you take a quad on a hole, you can only record a triple.

If you are scratch, you can only record max double bogey.

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It’s too easy to play and not post a score. I’ve played for 40 years at public, semi-private, and private courses where there are plenty of people who don’t post a score every time they play. I’ve known sandbaggers who don’t post their low rounds and reverse baggers that don’t post their high rounds and even players that adjust some holes because of mulligans. How will the new system stop this?

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