The United States Golf Association wants to help you with your handicap. Not by teaching you to play better but simply by helping you find out what your true handicap is. To do that, the USGA has teamed with the R&A on a World Handicap System, to be rolled out in 2020.
The new system would, for the first time, transcend national and continental boundaries and loop the entire world of golfers globally into a single, unified network. Right now the international handicap system is a hodgepodge of different accounting networks, with portability a problem, comparability among like-numbered handicaps questionable and faith in the equity of the outcomes questionable in too many cases.
The WHS brings under one umbrella what had been separately administered systems involving Golf Australia, the Council of National Golf Unions in Great Britain and Ireland, the European Golf Association, the South African Golf Association, the Argentine Golf Association and the USGA. Collectively they represent 15 million golfers in 80 countries – 25 percent of the estimated 60 million golfers worldwide.
The WHS involves two components: one for course evaluation and the other for golfer handicapping. The course assessment element includes a rigorous set of measurements to derive both the rating and slope of a golf course for each of its formal teeing grounds. While almost all 16,750 U.S. golf courses have been evaluated for slope and rating, the system has been recently extended in anticipation of the WHS to include more of the 22,100 courses outside the U.S. (Course inventory numbers per the National Golf Foundation). A recent push to rate 3,000 more courses has virtually completed the process for Europe, Asia, South America, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Mexico.
In an effort to promote the new handicap system the USGA has run training workshops. There have been 10 overseas )co-sponsored by the R&A), with participation from 100 countries, plus another 10 domestically reaching all 59 U.S. state and regional golf associations. The system does not supersede existing networks by which golfers receive their index data, but it does unify the calculus by which those numbers are determined.
Lance Hellring, handicap chair at LaGorce Country Club in Miami Beach, Fla., attended the Florida State Golf Association meeting with the USGA and came away impressed with the new handicap method's ease and timeliness of information input and delivery. "The new system is doing a much better job," said Hellring, "of incorporating today's technology opportunities, information storage, smartphone access, and real-time, day-to-day application by course professionals, event managers and everyday amateurs."
For U.S. golfers, the system involves only a few noticeable changes. For one thing, a handicap index will now be based upon the eight best of the last 20 posted scores, rather than the 10 best. And instead of taking 96 percent of that total average, the index will represent 100 percent. As Steve Edmondson, USGA managing director of handicapping and course rating, told us, “the results will be more responsive to better rounds and favor the more consistent golfer.”
The resulting index will also travel better, fitting in with handicap efforts worldwide. And good news for golfers who feel challenged by the game, the system will raise the bar on maximum handicap to 54, whereas the previous limits were 36.4 for men and 40.4 for women. Another major tweak: the maximum score that can be turned in for handicap purposes on any one hole is net-double bogey. And should the cloud-based algorithmic system “detect” unusually high or low scores posted from any one course by eight or more golfers in a single day, a built-in adjustment system will take place to deal with what are presumably anomalous course or weather conditions.
Overseas, the impact will be mixed. In the U.K., for example, where the system does not go into effect until Nov. 2, 2020, match play is common. Converting that to a postable score is possible, though it will require some cultural adjustment for golfers to keep track. Neil Hampton, general manager of Royal Dornoch Golf Club in northern Scotland, doesn't anticipate much incentive for players to switch over to stroke play. And he thinks more overseas golfers will be able to determine their handicap for the day and post their scores afterwards.
The biggest change from his standpoint is that "clubs will no longer have any role in calculating or adjusting handicaps as this will be done by the WHS cloud at the end of each day. "
For all these changes, the USGA and the golf industry still have a long way to go when it comes to making index and handicap a regular part of the game. Industry estimates suggest only 10-15 percent of U.S. golfers carry a handicap at all. Of those who do carry a handicap, the average for men is 14.3 and 26.5 for women. One can only imagine what the average would look like if more everyday golfers participated in the handicap system.
One hindrance to increasing participation is a recent decision by the USGA disallowing golfers who played a solo round from posting their scores. The official rationale has to do with ensuring proper protocol on witnessing a round and having playing partners attest to the score afterwards. It was also a concession made to handicap systems worldwide to create a standard for those posting and to discourage sandbagging (inflated handicaps) or ego-flattering (deflated handicaps).
But the tacit, if unintended consequence is basically to tell solo golfers that they are disqualified from posting their rounds out of concern for their cheating on their scores. In a game based upon honor and self-reporting of infractions, it seems strange to build distrust into the system. But that’s what it takes to get a refined handicap system going. Golfers will judge for themselves if it’s worthwhile.