world handicap system

WHS has left club competitions in a mess – and only you can fix it

The cure for our World Handicap System issues may be worse than the disease. But, asks Steve Carroll, are we prepared to completely change the way we think about the game?

I am part of the problem. My handicap isn’t true. Over the last five months, I have entered four scores. Not one of those has come since October 1. 

I haven’t really played much more than that, to be honest. But I have just been for my sixth lesson. And I’ve spent plenty of time waggling a club around in my back garden.

Is it a work in progress? Absolutely. Does it mean I’ll suddenly click into the form that once took me as low as 7? Who knows?

But my handicap is out of date. It could be better. It could be worse. The point is, it’s no longer necessarily reflective of my current ability.

For all the hoo-ha about the Playing Conditions Calculation, or why we can’t easily post scores in other countries, I think one of the major problems with the World Handicap System is how we interact with it.

That it’s not performing as it should in the UK stares us all in the face in every golf club competition. Outlandish scores in club and open events are not apocryphal. They are not aberrations. They are the norm.

We know a proportion of players have abandoned competitions and match play events altogether – because they perceive the system works against them.

Now we’ve got governing bodies stepping in, fashioning policies that aim to plug what they perceive to be the misuse of general play scores to lower handicaps to get in competitions at the top end.

It’s likely many clubs will adapt versions of this and will demand competition scores take precedence when it comes to teeing it up in some major events.

But you can fiddle with maximum handicaps. You can vary the requirements between competition and acceptable scores. Ultimately, these are just sticking plasters.

They don’t address our real issue with WHS.

In the months running up to D-Day, back in November 2020, there was a clamour. Handicap committees were told to instruct their members to put in as many scores as possible before transition arrived.

Only with a full record could you hope to get a new index that was up-to-date and indicative of your ability.

Many of us thought that was temporary. But I believe WHS depends on us doing this all the time.

It’s why club committees are asked to keep an eye on roll-ups and winter leagues. It’s why we’re encouraged to put general play scores in all year round.

The system is at its best when it gets frequent new inputs from everyone involved. When it doesn’t, it seems to me that cracks start appearing.

WHS is essentially a legacy adaptation of the American handicap system. We use the USGA course rating calculation and we also use Slope.

Across the pond, posting every score is a requirement unless you declare you’re not going to beforehand (by saying it’s a practice round, for instance). It’s built into the culture of how golf is played in the United States.

We’re the complete opposite. We instinctively feel golf is a social game. We have a clearly defined competition season – one that’s been in place for decades – and we don’t want the ‘pressure’ of having a score on the line every time we play. Sometimes, we just want to turn up, play golf, and have some fun.

golf club competitions

There are, of course, others who have enthusiastically embraced WHS and put in scores at every opportunity. But it’s far from the majority.

Let me tell you why I think it matters.

If we’re playing similar amounts but you’re putting every score in, while I’m entering one card in a blue moon, your handicap will undoubtedly reflect your ability better than mine will.

It means the system is imbalanced. Have enough players doing this and it throws everything out completely.

Yes, we had supplementary scores with CONGU. But how many of us really used them regularly? I think I count the number I submitted on one hand. There are now far more general play scores being submitted than ever was the case under the old system. There’s more potential for greater disparity now because there are far more frequent inputs.

So how can we solve this issue – in this iteration of WHS at least? Buckle up, because you’re probably not going to like the answer. I’m really not sure I do myself.

Here we go. You make it mandatory to submit all cards. General play or otherwise.

It would end difficult questions about handicap indexes (although some would clearly still cheat). It would bring some much-needed consistency to golf club competition scores.

And let’s not kid ourselves. They are in a mess. What we have now is damaging confidence and the fudge isn’t working.

Other countries are moving towards the eventuality that every score must count. But think what will happen if our home unions tried? The roars of disapproval we’ve already heard since WHS’s arrival would be submerged by the fury of club members if posting scores were mandatory.

There would be anarchy. But where does that leave us? We can fix inaccurate handicaps, and stupid scores, but do we actually have to completely change the way we think about and play the game?

That asks fundamental questions about why we turn up at our clubs. Is it for fun, health, the company, for competitions? Or is it a combination of all these things? However you answer will frame your opinion on this debate.

Many of you will think this ‘cure’ is worse than the disease. But accepting that means understanding an inalienable truth about WHS.

The system is embedded and it’s going nowhere. It’s the will of the R&A and USGA and too many national associations and federations are invested in it. So harking back to the old days is a pointless exercise.

If we’ve got to adapt to it, and if we then won’t and are determined to complain, then we must also accept that WHS is not the only ‘problem’. We are.

Now listen to the From the Clubhouse podcast

Tom Irwin and I talked about this in some depth in the From the Clubhouse podcast, as well as looking at England Golf’s pilot Championship Entry policy and examining what more club handicap committees can do to protect the integrity of their competitions.

You can listen in the player below, or click the button to be taken directly to your preferred podcast platform.

What do you think about the World Handicap System and general play scores? How do you feel golf club competitions are running? Would you be happy, or furious, if every round had to count? Let me know with a tweet.

Steve Carroll

Steve Carroll

A journalist for 25 years, Steve has been immersed in club golf for almost as long. A former club captain, he has passed the Level 3 Rules of Golf exam with distinction having attended the R&A's prestigious Tournament Administrators and Referees Seminar.

Steve has officiated at a host of high-profile tournaments, including Open Regional Qualifying, PGA Fourball Championship, English Men's Senior Amateur, and the North of England Amateur Championship. In 2023, he made his international debut as part of the team that refereed England vs Switzerland U16 girls.

A part of NCG's Top 100s panel, Steve has a particular love of links golf and is frantically trying to restore his single-figure handicap. He currently floats at around 11.

Steve plays at Close House, in Newcastle, and York GC, where he is a member of the club's matches and competitions committee and referees the annual 36-hole scratch York Rose Bowl.

Having studied history at Newcastle University, he became a journalist having passed his NTCJ exams at Darlington College of Technology.

What's in Steve's bag: TaylorMade Stealth 2 driver, 3-wood, and hybrids; TaylorMade Stealth 2 irons; TaylorMade Hi-Toe, Ping ChipR, Sik Putter.

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