George Stead
By George Stead

The R&A and USGA have recently announced the first update to the World Handicap System as part of an ongoing review of the Rules of Handicapping and Course Rating System.

These revisions have come with the continued emphasis on "accuracy, consistency and equity" within the game.

WHS Changes 2024

The World Handicap System was first introduced in January 2020, said to provide golfers with a unified and more inclusive handicapping system. As a result of this, many countries have seen significant increases in the number of scores being submitted for handicapping purposes since the WHS was introduced, perhaps reflecting golf’s post-covid, broadening appeal and growth. Since it's outset, more than 100 million scores have been posted each year, unifying millions of golfers through a standard measure of playing ability.

That being said, although there have been many supposed benefits, the new system has also been met with criticism from many golfing circles with debate sparking among amateur golfers that already played the game around handicap accuracy and integrity of handicaps outside of competition.

Hoping to address the issues the 2024 update leverages performance data gathered from around the world, in addition to feedback received from many of the 125 countries now using the system.

The latest revisions will come into effect from 1 January 2024, and the most significant updates to the WHS include the following:

Moving to Course Rating Minus Par (GB&I only)

England Golf say Course Rating minus Par is an adjustment for the difference between the Course Rating and the Par of the course you are playing. Simply put - if the par is lower than the Course Rating players will receive additional shots on their Course Handicap. If the par is higher, they will lose strokes. For example:

Par 72, Course rating 73, every golfer will gain one shot for the Playing Handicap on their Handicap Index.

It will mean players now play to par, rather than the Course Rating.

This new rule could favour lower handicappers, particularly on more difficult courses.

It will also see bigger adjustments in the number of shots players receive depending on the tee sets they play and should make mixed tee and mixed gender events much easier to calculate.

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Inclusion of Shorter-Length Golf Courses Within the Course Rating System

The overall length requirements for Course Rating in the WHS will be significantly reduced. A set of tees on an 18-hole course may be as short as 1,500 yards to be eligible for a Course Rating and Slope Rating, and a set of tees on a 9-hole course may be as short as 750 yards.

This change is intended to expand the WHS to thousands of shorter length courses, including par-3 courses, and enable more golfers to obtain and use a Handicap Index.

Fourball Betterball Scores Can Count for Handicap

Fourball betterball formats in competitions, such as stroke play, Stableford and Par/Bogey, can be used for handicap purposes in GB&I subject to some strict criteria.

These include one player of the pair scoring on a minimum of 9 holes, the total score of the pair being at least 42 points or six under par, and the player’s upscaled score adding up to at least 36 points.

This alteration could divide opinion, whilst on one hand it has been cause for complaint for many golfers that teams can sweep in and clean up pairs’ events – while reluctant to participate in other club competitions, on the other, the consistency of an individuals play can be questioned in a fourball, 9 holes of good golf can not always determine a strong 18 holes.

Use of an Expected Score for a Hole Not Played

If a hole is not played, this will now be based on a player’s expected score rather than a score of net par. This new method will produce a 9-hole or 18-hole Score Differential that more accurately reflects a player’s ability. As golfers across the world are playing more 9-hole rounds, an expected score can also be used to convert a 9-hole round into an 18-hole Score Differential.

For some countries, this means that 9-hole scores will be considered in the calculation of a player’s Handicap Index immediately after the day of play, rather than waiting to combine with another 9-hole score.

Playing Conditions Calculation Adjustments Made More Frequent

The Playing Conditions Calculation (PCC) has been modified to increase the likelihood of an adjustment for abnormal playing conditions. National associations were given discretion, beginning in July 2022, to introduce this revision within their computation platforms, which will be complete by 1 April 2024.

Enhanced Guidance on Conducting a Handicap Review

The role of the Handicap Committee is vital to the success of the WHS and the Rules recommend that a Handicap Review is conducted regularly, or at least once a year to ensure a Handicap Index remains reflective of a player’s ability.

To do so new reporting tools have been developed that national associations can incorporate into their handicapping software to assist Committees in conducting the review process effectively and consistently.

Since its inception, the WHS has embraced the many ways golf is played around the world by giving national associations scope to apply regional discretionary items, with the objective for greater alignment over time. For this reason, the governing bodies expect countries to continue to shift the way they calculate Course Handicaps so that they are relative to par, making a golfer’s target score to “play to handicap” more intuitive.

The R&A is encouraging golfers to visit their national association’s website to learn more about the discretionary items that apply to their region.

Mirroring the review processes of other areas of governance in golf, including the Rules of Golf and the Rules of Amateur Status, the R&A and USGA are pledging regular reviews of the WHS will continue, taking into consideration performance data and feedback to help identify areas for improvement.

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