The Problem With The World Handicap System

Fergus Bisset wonders if a tentative approach by golfers on general play scores is preventing WHS from working as effectively as it might.

Problem with the World Handicap System
(Image credit: Tom Miles)

Fergus Bisset wonders if a tentative approach by golfers on general play scores is preventing WHS from working as effectively as it might.

The Problem With The World Handicap System

The objective of the new World Handicap System (WHS) has been to unite six handicapping bodies around the world and make handicaps truly portable internationally.

Another key aim, for golfers in this country, is to make handicaps more reflective of current playing ability by shifting to an average rather than an aggregate system of calculation.

Now, after some eight months of playing under WHS, we’re in a better position to reflect on the transition and whether or not it’s working effectively.

To deliver a handicap that best represents current ability, WHS asks for players to enter as many scores as possible for calculation. This means “general play” scores as well as simply competition rounds.

In this country, we’re not obliged to put in social or general play scores for WHS. We have to pre-register to do so, and we can choose not to.

This option can result in some inconsistency.

At this stage, personal experience and anecdotal evidence through the various Golf Monthly channels suggests that relatively few players are choosing to enter regular general play scores.

The playing culture in this country is well established and for many, a fundamental change from only competition rounds counting to all rounds potentially counting towards handicap is a big leap.

But until those hesitant players take the leap, WHS will not work as well as it should.

Let me give an extreme example of why this is the case.

Two players have a week off work and decide to play their home course every day in preparation for a big club tournament on the Saturday.

Both start the week with a handicap index of 10.0. Both enjoy five good rounds from Monday to Friday, playing below their handicap each time.

Player 1 puts all five cards in as general play scores, as they understand this is the best way for their WHS index to be as fair a reflection as possible of their current playing ability.

Player 2 doesn’t enter any of the rounds as general play scores. They don’t have to, of course.

Player 1 tees up in the Saturday competition with an index of 6.2 – reflecting their good play and practice over the week, while player 2 remains on 10.0 – not reflecting the impact of their play and practice through the week.

Player 2 wins the competition with something to spare – They haven’t broken the rules, but it would be reasonable for player 1 to feel aggrieved.

So far this year, I’ve heard a number of stories about incredible scoring at clubs up and down the country. There’s been some fairly rogue scoring at my club too.

If a player completes regular casual rounds but only posts counting scores occasionally in competition, their WHS handicap will likely be outdated and calculated from scores not reflective of their current standard.

If they then enter an event and play to their potential, they’ll wipe the floor with those who have been putting the majority of their scores in as counting via general play.

From my experience this year – by putting in regular general play scores at home and away, on top of competition, my handicap has come down.

Most people tend to score better in non-competition golf so those who put in regular general play scores do often see a reduction in handicap.

I’m pleased about that as I enjoy trying to be as low a handicap as possible, but it has meant I basically have no chance in club competitions anymore.

With 150 competing each week, many with handicaps that aren’t properly reflective owing to a lack of recent scores, there are some low nett numbers being posted.

A different issue is that there are those who are proud of their handicap and are protective of it.

A friend of Golf Monthly who will remain nameless told me that, as the oldest three scores of his last 20 are all currently counting, he’s reluctant to put in a general play score as he’ll likely go up. He hasn’t put in a general play score this year.

Admittedly, this approach works against them competitively, but it provides another example of why a change of mindset is required if WHS is to achieve the objective of handicaps being fairer and more equitable.

There have been a number of reported early glitches with WHS which is understandable given the scale of the change. These will be ironed out, and it should be stressed that this particular “problem” with WHS is a very fixable one.

It’s not a failing of the system itself, rather a problem caused by reluctance to change. This change can and will happen with time and the right guidance.

Clubs, with support from the governing bodies, need to continue to work to educate golfers about the importance of putting as many scores in as possible to count for handicap.

Sometimes, it’s simply not on – there are formats that won’t allow for it. But when we can, we should all be entering general play scores.

If we do so, WHS will work effectively and will deliver a far more reflective representation of handicaps across the board, as per its design. Get general playing I say!

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?