World Handicap System one year on: Is it working or not?

Exceptionally high scores grab attention on social media but there is a lot more to it

Everyone has seen them – the 63 points, the monthly medals won by net scores in the low 50s, the high handicaps seemingly cleaning up at golf courses around the country since the World Handicap System was introduced just over a year ago. But are these headlines an indication of a malfunctioning system or are they exactly just that: headlines that don’t tell the full story?

From the off it’s worth noting that change in any sport or any walk of life at all is never going to be smooth. Golfers in Ireland were happily set in their ways of being split into four handicap categories, getting cut based on how much they beat standard scratch by and getting shots back in 0.1 increments. And, as we know, in terms of sports that are reluctant to change, golf is right up there with the most traditional of them all. People don’t like change, golfers really don’t like change.

So, on November 1st last year the old handicap system was scrapped and the new World Handicap System came into being. Now, one of the most notable things about that November 1st date is that golf clubs around the country happened to be closed as part of Covid-19 measures at the time. Clubs reopened briefly for the month of December before those dark months of post-Christmas lockdown at the beginning of this year confined us all to our houses and once again made golf courses a no-go zone. Even when they reopened on April 26th, it was not until June 7th that competitions were officially permitted.

Taking all of that into account, the World Handicap System may officially be in place a year now but realistically it is only working off six months of play.


And that’s important, because this system works much more off a basis of the golfer’s current playing ability as opposed to their potential. To put it simply: the more someone plays, the more accurate their handicap index will be.

This is quite a change for golfers in Ireland to get used to. In theory, all scores should now count towards a handicap index, whether they are in competition or not and golfers are encouraged to submit non-competition rounds as general play scores in order to make their handicap index more accurate. However, according to Golf Ireland figures, only 10 per cent of the 2.3 million scores submitted in Ireland in the last year have been general play scores and 95 per cent of golfers in the country are yet to submit any general play scores.

This can partly be put down to the heavily competition-based culture in Ireland which means most golfers play their golf competitively whether it be in the weekly singles stableford, the monthly medal, weekday open competitions and so on. In other countries, such as the US, general play scores are much more common as most golf is played outside of a competitive environment.

“Ideally, a player’s record should have a balanced mix of general play and competition scores and we would like to see all general play rounds recorded for handicap purposes either through the club computer software or the Golf Ireland app,” explains Pauline Bailie, the chair of handicapping at Golf Ireland.

“There are of course safeguards in place for general play as there are for competition scores. All general play scores must be pre-registered, for example, and the score must be verified by a marker. A player cannot decide on the third hole that they are playing well and want to register their score for handicap purposes. Similarly, if a player is not playing well, they cannot then decide to disregard the score.”

However, the general play aspect of the system also does leave itself open to manipulation with those golfers who are that way inclined able to register deliberately poor scores to bump their handicap index up. At one club in Leinster the committee recently took the decision to ban general play scores to stop such manipulation happening. At other clubs limits have been brought in to say that the maximum handicap a player can play off in a competition is 28. Those with handicaps of more than 28 (the system now allows for indexes up to 54 for both men and women) are still allowed to play but can only receive 28 shots. According to Golf Ireland, 11 per cent of male golfers in the country have an index of over 28.4 while 35 per cent of females have an index above 36.4.

“The underlying issue here is not with general play, but with players who try to circumvent the system to gain an unfair advantage - either upwards or downwards,” says Bailie. “Ultimately, golf is a game of honour, and players are expected to act with integrity.

“A player should not be restricted in how many general play scores they can put in, and should not be banned from using the Golf Ireland app. Instead of a blanket ban, the club could consider using the system to monitor the input of scores and confront anything that looks suspicious. Handicap committees play a vital role in the successful administration of their members’ handicaps and if a player is found to be manipulating their handicap, the committee has the option to apply penalty scores, reset a handicap index, consider disciplinary procedures, or withdraw a handicap index for an agreed period.”

Understandably, the majority of the talk about the new system in golf clubs and on social media has been based around the exceptionally high scores winning competitions and low handicap players feeling they’re wasting their time entering at all when they’re playing against players who, in some cases, could have 54 shots on them.

Throughout the summer, players were being reassured that exceptional scores were just teething issues and that the system would settle. Whether it has or not depends on who you talk to. At many clubs the system certainly has settled and winning scores and the dispersion of handicaps is relatively in-line with how it was under the old system, whereas other clubs continue to have issues.

From speaking to handicap secretaries, most say that it is a case of constant monitoring and, in particular, closely assessing new members’ cards before issuing handicaps. In that sense the issue for a lot of clubs is that, over the course of the pandemic, they have seen hundreds of new members join the club, resulting in hundreds of new handicaps.

Generally, handicap secretaries say that the algorithm in the new system can often produce handicaps which are too high when a new member submits three cards. However, the handicap secretary and committee can assess the handicap index given and decide to change it if they feel it isn’t accurate but, with large numbers of new members joining over the last 18 months, this has led to a lot more work.

“If a player is consistently scoring exceedingly high or low scores, that player’s handicap can be reviewed by the handicap committee,” says Bailie.

“Clubs can manage this, for example, when assessing new members. Handicap committees are advised to establish a player’s sporting history before allocating an initial handicap index in order to establish if their ability might be better than expected for a new player.

“The club handicap committee should also monitor new members’ handicaps to ensure that it still reflects their demonstrated ability after submitting more scores. This can be a daunting task for club volunteers, but we would encourage it to be a team effort rather than left to one person to be responsible for.”

On the whole it does appear that handicap secretaries and committees have more work on their hands with the new system but, again, a lot of that is down to circumstances mentioned. Go to the Golf Ireland app and take a look at the record of any player who has shot an exceptionally high score at your club off a higher than average handicap and more often than not you’ll see that they have less than 20 scores on their record.

This is another teething issue for the system because an incomplete record (one with less than 20 scores on it) causes significantly more volatility in how the handicap index changes. Again, with so many new members joining clubs since the pandemic began, there is a large cohort of players at every club with an incomplete record. In fact, according to Golf Ireland figures, 54 per cent of all golfers in Ireland have less than 20 scores on their record.

This again adds to the workload of handicap secretaries who need to constantly monitor these records and occasionally take action to cut handicaps if they feel the index is too high.

There’s no doubt that the new World Handicap System remains volatile and continues to throw up anomalies in high scores and high handicaps at some clubs, while others have been able to manage it better through constant vigilance and human intervention if needed. With little more than six months of golf played under the new system there is probably still a way to go before we see it properly working as it’s designed to but, for the moment, handicap secretaries and committees will remain the busiest people in the club.

A player's handicap index is the base number the system works off to calculate how many shots they will be given on the course they are playing, depending on the difficulty of that course. The system calculates the handicap index by taking the best eight rounds of the last 20 rounds a golfer has played. For each round played, the system calculates a score differential (the gross score relative to the difficulty rating of the course played). The eight best score differentials are then added together and divided by eight to calculate a player's handicap index.

A course handicap is the amount of shots a player will receive at a course based on a calculation of their handicap index, the slope rating of the course, the course rating and the tees they are playing off on the day. Thankfully, players don't have to calculate this themselves as all courses will have a sheet up to tell players how many shots they will get based on their handicap index. The Golf Ireland app is also very handy in this regard as it has a very simple to use course handicap calculator. To level out the playing field in competitions somewhat, scores are based off all golfers' playing handicaps. In singles competitions this is 95 per cent of the course handicap. So, for instance, someone who has a course handicap of 18 will have a playing handicap of 17 while another player with a course handicap of four will still have a playing handicap of four.

Once a score drops out of the last 20 on a player’s record, it is discarded. This means that often a player can see their handicap index shoot up if one of their lower rounds drops out and is then replaced by whatever their next best score is. Equally, a player’s handicap index can come down drastically if they shoot a round which is far better their usual standard, therefore bringing the average of their best eight scores down significantly.