Meet the World Handicap System

MWHSost golfers have heard that change is in the wind. The USGA Handicap System will undergo some very significant modifications sometime in early 2020. I recently became “certified” through the USGA in the new Handicap System and will share with you the most significant aspects of the new program.

If you’re not particularly concerned with the minutia of the new system, you can simply go with … the new system, like the old system, is designed to level the playing field when golfers with different skill levels compete against one and other. The old system does a good job; the new system (probably) does a slightly better job.

If you’re inclined to know a bit more, here you go.

1. The old system used the best ten of your last twenty rounds to calculate your handicap index. That result was then reduced to 96%. In the new system, your index will be based upon your best eight rounds. The result will NOT be reduced to 96%.

2. In the old system, your “course handicap” was calculated by taking your playing index, multiplying by the course slope and dividing by the average slope of all golf courses, i.e., 113. In the new system, your course handicap is calculated in exactly the same way – except that it is totally different! The new system is keyed to the total course par whereas the old system was keyed to the course “rating”. If there’s a difference between course par and course rating, you will now adjust your course handicap accordingly. For example, with the old system, if you had an index to 10.0 and you played a course with a slope of 126, your course handicap would be (126/113) times 10.0, i.e., 11. In the new system, the calculation remains the same except you now adjust for the difference between course rating and course par. If the course you’re playing is rated 69.0, you deduct an additional three strokes from the old system’s course handicap. You become an 8 handicap.

Interestingly enough, we’ve been doing this exact same thing when competitors play from different tee sets. Those playing from the more forward tees lose the difference in course rating from the two tee sets from their handicaps. With the change in the Handicap System, there will no longer be a need to adjust handicaps when playing different tee sets. The adjustment is automatic in the course handicap calculation. On the downside, in days gone by, many have been confused by the adjustments for different tees. Now everyone can be equally confused every day they play. However, there are a couple of extra considerations that make the system easier to understand and slightly more equitable. If you’re interested, ask. I’ll be happy to belabor the topic a bit more for you.

3. Many have been asking about ESC (equitable stroke control) where you have certain maximum scores you can post depending upon your handicap range. In the new system, the maximum score that may be posted for handicap purposes is “net double bogey”. For example, if you take a seven on a par three hole and you get one stroke on that hole, you are allowed to post a six, i.e., a “net double bogey”. If you take a twelve on a par five hole and you get two strokes on that hole, your posting maximum is nine, i.e., “net double bogey”.

4. Handicaps will be updated on a daily basis. The rules have always called for “timely” posting of scores. With the daily updates, “timely” takes on a new meaning. You are obliged to post on the same day as you played the round.

5. The new “World Handicap System” has a number of not so obvious features that the USGA is calling “safeguards”. I won’t get into the details of “hard caps”, “soft caps”, and the like here, but most of these features are intended to constrain the activities of those who have historically had a problem with their handicaps increasing as tournament appeared on their horizons. Some of these features are rather cute, but all you need to know at this point is that your handicap will generally be prevented from rising by more than five strokes in any given twelve month period. So, if you’re going to sandbag, plan well in advance.

One component of the new system that has raised a lot of eyebrows is the system for compensating for abnormal course conditions. If you’re playing in winds gusting to forty miles-per-hour, chances of you shooting a net 65 are pretty close to zero. The USGA will be attempting to correct postings for rounds played under such conditions. Heavy rains, locust plagues, armed insurrections, civil unrest, even cases of extremely slow play (like Friday the 18th at Camelback) may be adjusted by the USGA.

This is a noble goal and in theory possible; time will tell. But it certainly raises a lot of questions. No, they will not be checking the local weather report. They will not have a weather station on the course. Drones and satellite surveillance will not be used. At this point, you may be wondering if they’ve established a partnership with Santa Claus; after all, only he knows who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.

To find out how they’re going to do all of this, you might also suspect the best way to find out would be to simply ask the USGA. Not so fast Ferdinand. To paraphrase their response, “it’s none of your business!” They’re trying to keep this a closely guarded secret.

As a mathematician, I’m pretty confident I can tell you exactly how they intend to do this. Frankly, I like their approach despite its minor flaws. In a nutshell, if for the past fifty days, you’ve had perfect weather. During that time period, postings have consistently hovered around say three strokes over handicap with a standard deviation of a half stroke. Then on one given day, the USGA computer looks at scores and sees they’re solidly six strokes over handicap with a standard deviation of one full stroke. Guess what … something’s amiss. There a good chance a monsoon just blew through or the laws of gravity were suspended on that day or … whatever. But from a statistical standpoint, there was very clearly an “abnormal course condition”. The USGA plans on automatically adjusting if the deviations were what they consider to be “significant”. The definition of “significant” may still be up in the air, but you’ve got the gist of their system.

There are some interesting potential consequences of this system. One I envision will occur at Camelback Golf Club where two eighteen-hole courses are played. One of those courses is reasonably rated by the Arizona Golf Association (as long as management doesn’t keep moving tees dramatically closer to holes than they were when the course was rated). The other course is – in the studied opinion of this writer – not properly rated at least from one of the common tee sets. The end result is that when golfers play Ambiente, their postings fall within the statistically expected range. However, when golfers play Padre, postings typically fall two to three strokes higher than statistically expected.

With your nominal understanding of the way the USGA will be handling “abnormal course conditions”, it will tend to have two pronounced effects. The first is that these semi-automatic adjustments to postings will tend to mitigate the consequences of an improper course rating. It’s sort of a self-correcting rating system. The other result is that meteorologists will be driven to drink heavily after seeing that the Ambiente course basks in perpetual paradise from a weather standpoint. Yet Padre will appear to be at the epicenter of a never-ending typhoon of biblical proportions. Invite someone from the USGA to play Camelback and they’ll say, “With pleasure, but only if it’s Ambiente.”

Enough said about the new WHS (World Handicap System). However, for a future topic of discussion in the Acacia Lounge, ask yourself … “Why is the USGA keeping the details of the abnormal course conditions calculation so secret?”

Author: h. Alton Jones

writer/scientist/adventurer

5 thoughts on “Meet the World Handicap System”

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