News

World Wide Handicap System a Possibility

The golf handicapping systems used in Scotland are different from the ones used in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. But the USGA is leading an effort to make handicapping systems uniform throughout the globe.
The following was reported by John Paul Newport in the Wall Streeet Journal May 15, 2015
Say you meet a 12-handicap golfer from Australia on the first tee at St. Andrews in Scotland. If your U.S. handicap index also happens to be 12, you might suggest a friendly little money game, with no strokes given. Bad move.
That’s because Golf Australia, the sport’s governing body there, doesn’t calculate handicaps the way that the U.S. Golf Association does. Handicap formulas also vary in Great Britain and Ireland, continental Europe, South Africa and Argentina. Similarly handicapped golfers from those regions won’t necessarily be better players than their U.S. counterparts, but they might be. There’s no way to know based simply on their index.
In three or four years, things could be different. The USGA is leading an effort to get the world’s six handicapping authorities on the same page. The U.S. handicap system, including the USGA’s course rating and Slope system, would be the basis for the proposed World Handicap System, but it would incorporate the best elements from the other handicapping schemes. Among the likely changes U.S. golfers would notice: daily adjustments to the handicap formula to reflect playing conditions. A 92 posted on a cold rainy day with howling wind would count for more than a 92 shot in benign conditions.
This initiative is the final piece in a long-term push for unified golf governance around the world. In the last decade or so, the USGA and its governing partner, the R&A (which oversees the game everywhere but in the U.S. and Mexico) have pretty much consolidated the game in three other areas: the playing rules of golf, equipment regulations and most recently the code of amateur status.
“The handicap system is effectively a fourth set of rules,” said John Bodenhamer, the USGA’s point man for the initiative. Not all golfers keep a handicap, of course, but for those who do the score-posting requirements enforce a rules-like discipline. Yet those rules deviate from country to country. “We feel it would benefit the game enormously, and add to its enjoyment, if golfers everywhere had a single, portable handicap number that worked the same wherever they traveled,” Bodenhamer said.
The USGA has overseen handicapping in the U.S. for more than a century and its system is by far the most sophisticated in the world. In recent years, the roll call of countries outside the USGA’s jurisdiction that have voluntarily adopted its handicap system has grown to more than 30, including Brazil, Japan, and China. The system’s underlying course rating methodology, necessary to fairly adjust scores shot on courses of diverse difficulty, is used in more than 60 countries.
Unlike the USGA, the R&A doesn’t function as a day-to-day national governing body and hasn’t been involved with handicapping. Its primary functions are to administer the rules of golf on behalf of roughly 150 organizations in 138 countries and to run the British Open. The R&A long ago ceded handicapping to the various regional authorities that sprang up. Over time, those systems evolved to reflect local cultures.
In Argentina, for example, the vast majority of play takes place in club-sponsored competitions with strictly enforced rules. “No mulligans, no gimmes,” said Mark Lawrie, until recently the executive director of the Argentine Golf Association. (He is now director for Latin America at the R&A.) Another difference is the absence of equitable stroke control, which the USGA system includes. In Argentina, if you hit two drives out of bounds and score a 12 on a hole, all 12 strokes count in calculating your handicap. In the U.S., the worst you can do on a hole for handicap purposes is limited on a sliding scale based on your index.
“It’s a pretty harsh system,” Lawrie said. You might reasonably expect a 10 handicap Argentine to be a more consistent player than a 10 handicap American.
In Great Britain and Ireland, usually only competitive tournament rounds are used for handicaps. For many golfers, that may only be a handful of rounds per year. Indexes can be woefully out of date. In Australia, the predominate form of play, mostly in competitions, is in the Stableford format. Points are awarded for par, birdie, bogey and so forth. That system creates more incentive to take risks and less incentive to play out bad holes, since any net score above double bogey earns zero points.
All these cultural preferences impact the handicap index that individual golfers carry.
“We’re a long way down the road on the new system technologically,” Bodenhamer said. An international team of mathematicians and computer geeks has been working on it for more than two years, under the radar. But it’s still a work in progress. Ongoing discussions with the regional handicap authorities will try to accommodate how golf is played in different places, but the objective is for everyone eventually to handicap with the same system.
Bodenhamer is optimistic this will happen, in part because the USGA and the R&A will jointly bear the costs for maintaining and updating the new system. Local golf organizations would still supervise handicaps and remain connected to their members. But it’s likely to take some selling. That phase of the game is beginning now.