If you’re new to golf, then gaining a handicap can be a rewarding if somewhat daunting task. What does it mean? How do you obtain one? Where do you start? They are common questions for the beginner. But help is at hand. The handicapping system has undergone a major transition in recent years with the introduction of the World Handicapping System (WHS).

  • WHS is a modernised handicapping system designed to make golf accessible and equitable for all.
  • It focuses on assessing your actual ability, irrespective of where you play or the level of competition you prefer.
  • To establish your initial handicap, you need just three scores (54 holes), even if you're new to the game. The system considers the best score of those three, deducts two, and generates your starting index.
  • WHS calculates your Course Handicap, which specifies the number of strokes you need on a particular golf course. This flexibility allows you to play on courses with varying levels of difficulty while ensuring a fair competition.
  • WHS encourages both general play and competition, offering more players the opportunity to participate and enjoy the benefits of having a handicap.
  • WHS is an adaptable system that undergoes regular review and improvements, much like the Rules of Golf. It remains open to change based on feedback and emerging needs within the golfing community.

As a fountain of knowledge on all things relating to handicapping, Gemma Hunter is a hugely respected figure in the golf industry. Here, the manager of handicapping and course rating with The R&A explains what the World Handicapping System is, sheds some light on its intricacies and processes and answers some of the popular queries.

Why was the WHS introduced?

The overall rationale behind the WHS was to enable as many people as possible to have and maintain a handicap, to make it equitable and to use it wherever and however you play golf. If you prefer playing competition golf then you can use it for that. If you prefer playing socially with friends then you can use it for that too. Anyone can use it in the way they want to use it. It’s the idea of being able to get a measure of your ability, irrelevant of which course you play most of your golf on. You always have a number that reflects your current ability. That was a slight change to previous systems, where it was always your potential. Now we are saying we are not looking at your potential, we are looking at your actual ability. It’s a system that’s easy to obtain, maintain, no matter what your gender or ability, and you can use it wherever you play in the world.

How does the WHS work?

The system basically looks at your best eight cards out of your last 20 scores. If you’re new to the game, you’re not going to have 20 scores in your record for us to look at. So, you need three scores to be able to establish a handicap for the first time and that’s three scores of 54-holes. That could be three 18-hole rounds, six nines, whatever you want. That will allow someone to get their very first index. What we do is look at the best score of those three, and it’s that score, less two. We take a little bit off the best score as we know that someone new to the game is going to develop quite quickly.

If you put more scores in, the number we start to look at increases so when you have four scores we are still looking at three, when you have six scores, we look at four. As more scores go in your record, we take into consideration more of your best scores until you get to 20. Once you get to 20, they start to roll through and it goes on a rolling basis. You put a new score in, your oldest score of the 20 drops off. It’s a continual cycle, of adding scores and updating your index. People say, ‘I have an index and I didn’t play very well today. I put a score in but I’ve lost a good score and my handicap has gone up’. That can happen if you lose a good score off the bottom and replace it with a mediocre score. Your handicap can go up. There are little nuances that people sometimes struggle to get their heads around. But we say just go out and play your game, return your scores for handicap purposes and let the system work it out.

So, it’s very much a case of trust the technology?

Yes. That’s why the technology has been designed the way it has been; to make it simple. If you put scores in, and enough scores in, the system will give you an accurate handicap index. That doesn’t mean to say handicap committees at golf clubs aren’t useful. They very much are. They know things about players that a computer never would. You still need some human oversight from committees. Perhaps someone has had a shoulder injury so his or her handicap is going up. Give them a couple of weeks, though, and they’ll get back to their usual self so we don’t need to put their handicap up as they’ll come back to their old ability very quickly. That’s where you need the oversight from the committees.

What is the Course Handicap Calculator?

Your course handicap is the number of strokes you need to play a particular golf course. Your handicap index is the measure of your ability irrespective of where you play. You need to take that and put it more specifically to the course you are going to play. That’s what the Course Handicap Calculator does. It takes your index, it takes the course and slope rating (a measure of a course's relative difficulty for different levels of golfers) of the course you are going to be playing and works out how many strokes you need to play that particular course from whatever set of tees. It gives flexibility. It allows players to play easier courses and get less shots and play harder courses and get more shots.

What’s the most significant difference between WHS and the old system?

The ability to put in general play scores. We had a lot of people who simply couldn’t play competitions, whether through work, time issues, family commitments, whatever. They can’t always play golf on a Saturday or whenever the club competition is. The opportunity to put in cards as and when they please allows them to get an index as well. That will be more built on general play than competition. It’s much more flexible in that respect.

There have been a lot more people engaging with the system and by that I mean returning scores. We have more people returning more scores. In the previous system, players used to return an average of 10 scores per year. Now, it’s almost double that. We are seeing a massive increase in general play rounds. The number of competition rounds, meanwhile, are not going down.

What are the benefits of WHS for the beginner?

People new to golf, who may have only experienced the game at a range or through mini-golf, may get to a course for the first time and say, ‘right, I understand what I have to do now but how do I play with my partner and how do we pit ourselves against each other?’.

That first step on to the handicap ladder used to be joining a club. For a lot of people, that was a big barrier. There was a lot of commitment and they didn’t think it was right for them at that time. Now, lots of national associations have launched schemes for non-club members so they can get a handicap. They are still paying green fees that are going to clubs, and they are probably still taking lessons, but it’s a cheaper way to play golf. And you can get an index and start yourself on the handicap journey.

What are some of the most common handicapping questions from beginners?

One of the biggest questions we got was ‘why do I have to have someone mark my card?’ If they are brand new to the game and they only play on their own, but want a handicap, they need to have somebody marking and verifying their score. That’s been an intrinsic part of golf for years but for new players it’s something that hasn’t always been taught to them. You have to play with someone as a marker to validate your score.

In the USA, prior to WHS coming in, you could play on your own and return your own score. I would often joke that it’s really good that a dog can count as that’s what a lot of people were doing. Going out with their pet, playing nine holes and putting a score in. That has changed everywhere in the world now. Everyone in the world who returns a score must have someone mark the card.

What are the benefits of getting a handicap?

There are loads. I got mine in the early 1990s as an eight-year-old. There was no other sport that I could play with my mum and dad at that age but golf was different. We can all do it together. It doesn’t matter if my brother is playing off 2 or my dad is 18 and mum is 25. When you get to the end of the round, you have played the same course and you can work out who is the winner. It levels the playing field and gives everybody the same opportunity.

You get your first handicap and it’s great. That’s a starting point. If you are someone who likes to improve and excel in something, then you need to set a baseline. That’s what a handicap gives you. Then you can set about improving yourself. You go and get lessons, you practice, you play on the course. Once you start seeing improvement and that handicap comes down, you get the motivation to keep going, to get better at chipping or putting. It’s brings you back. A handicap is a great tool for driving improvement. It creates milestones. Golf is a funny game. You play well one day and think you’ve nailed it. You come back the next day and you’re hopeless. It doesn’t matter if you play well or play badly, something about golf will drag you back.

Is the WHS constantly evolving?

Yes. It will never be done. It’s like the Rules of Golf. It adapts and changes. We work on a similar four-year cycle to the Rules of Golf. We’ll be coming up to a review period and any changes will come into effect in 2024. We are constantly monitoring it. If people come to us and say ‘this doesn’t work or that doesn’t work’ then we respond to it. We will then look at data and figures and make some tweaks. It’s always evolving.

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