I Play Off 1 But I Don’t Care About My Golf Handicap Anymore. This Is Why...

Under the World Handicap System, handicaps have become so fluid that Fergus Bisset no longer places much importance on the number after his name

Fergus playing at St Andrews
(Image credit: Porsche Golf Circle)

My exact handicap used to define me as a golfer. Under the old CONGU system, I was obsessed with trying to knock 0.1 off and to avoid 0.1 going on. In clubhouse bantering, it was a badge of honour to keep as low a handicap as possible and a good season was defined by whether you ended it with a lower number beside your name than when you started.

Getting your handicap down was a serious challenge, particularly in Category 1 (0-5) – One shot under the “Standard Scratch Score” for the day, you got 0.1 off. Even superb rounds might see just a few tenths shaved off your handicap. Those who managed to get down to low single figures had truly grafted to achieve it and had delivered consistency over a long period of time to maintain it.

Now, under the World Handicap System (WHS,) you can knock great lumps off your handicap with a single score, or few decent rounds. With the best eight from the last 20 counting, someone with a couple of rogue low scores can come plummeting down, for a time at least, and be playing off a handicap way lower than anything they could have achieved under the old system. That’s one of the reasons I don’t care about my handicap anymore – I used to have to play well almost every time I went out to maintain low single figures. Now I just have to do it every three or four games.

The Good Old Days


Fergus putting at Gleneagles

(Image credit: Kenny Smith)

One of the great challenges under the old system was attempting to make the “buffer zone” when you were having a mediocre day and keep your handicap static (not losing 0.1.) If you finished strongly after a poor start, you could still salvage something from the day. I would celebrate holing a par putt on the last to make the buffer zone as heartily as I would holing for a birdie and posting a great score.

Now, if you’re not going to win anything, and if you’re not going to return one of your best eight scores, there’s not much left to play for. People might say, ‘yes, but it could be one of your best eight in future…’ Agreed, but who thinks that far ahead when they’re three over handicap?

In the good old days, people only played for their handicap in competitions, certainly around where I live in Aberdeenshire. Although there was provision to put in extra counting scores, (as long as you weren’t a plus handicap) nobody really did it – so you could be almost certain that everyone you played with or against had a handicap that was based on their competitive performances.

General Play

Walking too slowly on golf course

General Play is so different to competitive golf

(Image credit: Tom Miles)

In WHS, “General Play” is so straightforward, and you can do it for nine holes, 10 holes of an 18-hole round, 16 holes… Whatever. It’s supposed to be more representative of your playing ability and I guess it is more representative of your “bounce game” playing ability. But it doesn’t demonstrate what you’re like in competition. It’s a totally different thing.

I know that I play better when the pressure is off and I’m just knocking it round with a few pals. I’m sure I’m not alone in experiencing that. The scores I have in bounce games are better than those I post in competitions. If I put in General Play scores my handicap comes down. I occasionally do put in General Play scores, as you’re encouraged to do so as often as possible. But I’m aware they skew my handicap to be lower than it should be.

I’m also aware that people can easily manipulate their handicaps upwards using General Play, to accrue more shots for competition purposes. That is cheating by the way, and anyone who does it should be ashamed, but anecdotal evidence would suggest that, unfortunately, it happens. With golfers posting General Play scores that could come from anywhere at any time, how can you be sure people’s handicaps are true and accurate? You simply have to trust everyone and, I’m afraid, not everyone can be trusted.

A Change In Focus


Fergus on the tee

(Image credit: Kenny Smith)

With WHS now well established, my focus has been shifting and I’ve decided that my handicap is no longer a top priority. It can change so quickly that there’s just no point in worrying about it.

Nowadays, my priority is simply to play as well as I can. I’m trying not to stress about my Handicap Index, I’m not fussed about winning anything as – playing off somewhere between 0 and 3, I don’t have a chance (maybe slightly more of a chance with the new Course Handicap calculation that’s come in) – I will just go out and play and try to enjoy it. I think that if I can do that, I’ll almost certainly play better than in years past when I’ve been battling to either defend or improve my handicap.

I should judge myself by how I play, how I strike the ball, how I plot my way around and, above all, how I conduct myself on the course. I will focus on improving those things rather than a silly number, kept online on a server somewhere that bounces about like a rubber ball.

Fergus Bisset
Contributing Editor

Fergus is Golf Monthly's resident expert on the history of the game and has written extensively on that subject. He is a golf obsessive and 1-handicapper. Growing up in the North East of Scotland, golf runs through his veins and his passion for the sport was bolstered during his time at St Andrews university studying history. He went on to earn a post graduate diploma from the London School of Journalism. Fergus has worked for Golf Monthly since 2004 and has written two books on the game; "Great Golf Debates" together with Jezz Ellwood of Golf Monthly and the history section of "The Ultimate Golf Book" together with Neil Tappin , also of Golf Monthly. 

Fergus once shanked a ball from just over Granny Clark's Wynd on the 18th of the Old Course that struck the St Andrews Golf Club and rebounded into the Valley of Sin, from where he saved par. Who says there's no golfing god?