Introduction – The
United States Golf Association (USGA) recently announced a new World Handicap System
(WHS) would be implemented in 2020. The
USGA had a hard time enumerating the benefits of the WHS. In a paragraph that would make George Orwell
proud, the USGA wrote:
“(The WGS) would result in less
confusion, easier administration of international events and, potentially, it
could allow national associations more opportunity to focus attention on golf
development and strategic planning to support the game. A single WHS would provide the opportunity to
aggregate data to help ensure the game remains healthy.
Examining this statement in its parts, it is hard to discern
any tangible benefits for players.
Ninety-nine plus percent of players do not participate in international
handicap events. How will spending
millions on a select few advance the interest of the game? How will the WHS create more opportunity for
golf’s bureaucrats to focus on “golf development” and “strategic planning?” And finally, how does aggregating data help
ensure the game remains healthy? To be
charitable, the USGA’s statement on the WHS’s benefits is less than convincing.
When the WHS cannot be justified on its merits, the USGA
argues that there is an overwhelming demand for the WHS:
research was conducted in 15 countries around the world, through which 76
percent of the 52,000 respondents voiced their support for a World Handicap
System, 22 percent were willing to consider its benefits, and only 2 percent
The USGA does not subject its research on handicap issues to
peer review so it is difficult to evaluate its claim of quantitative research
behind the WHS. It is probable the
apparent demand for the WHS rests on an unscientific survey that asked the question
“Should there be a universal handicap system?”
Any respondent not knowing the particulars of the WHS or its cost would
likely support the idea. To cite such a
survey as proof of the efficacy of the WHS is disingenuous.
Before announcing the implementation date for the WHS, the
USGA should have addressed four research questions:
- What will be the investment and operating cost
of the WHS? And secondarily, is it the
best use of limited resources to advance the game?
- Is the WHS a more valid measure of a golfer’s
potential than existing systems?
- Does the WHS produce a more reliable estimate of
a player’s Handicap Index than other systems?
That is, does the WHS produce estimates closer to a player’s true Index
than other systems?
- Is the WHS easier to understand and use for the
average player than existing syste
The USGA has not
provided answers to these questions. The
answer to the first question requires details about the WHS that have not been
made available to the public and therefore is not addressed here. The remaining three questions are explored by
examining how the major elements of the WHS impact validity reliability, and
ease of use.
USGA argues the WHS will bring uniformity to handicaps. This would mean “a handicap of 6.0 in Lima
should be the same as a 6.0 in both London and Los Angeles.” Assume this is true. How much would a player be willing to pay to
ensure the next time he plays in Lima his handicap is equivalent to that of his
Peruvian competitor? And here are some
problems the player may encounter in such a match. Since there is no universal language, our
player does not understand the terms of the bet, but can only nod
agreeably. Since there is not a universal measurement
system, he mistakes meters for yards and consistently under clubs. He loses 4 and 3. Since there is not a universal culture, he
questions whether he and his opponent share the same reverence for the
strictures of the handicap system. Since
there is neither a universal currency nor a universal exchange rate, he simply
hands his opponent a handful of U.S. dollars and hopes the wager will be
settled honorably. As he takes a taxi
back to his hotel, the player has time to reflect on the importance of a
universal handicap system—“Muy poco,” he
The USGA argues the WHS would allow for easier
administration of international events.
The history of large scale handicap events, however, has been marked by
fraud (e.g., the AT&T Pro-Am, the Oldsmobile Scramble). To believe that such events would be more
equitable under the WHS is unreasonable.
There are only two ways a player wins a handicap event. A player is either lucky or his handicap is
not an accurate reflection of his ability.
If there are significant prizes involved, the latter is the most likely determinant
of who wins. To spend millions on the
WHS to facilitate such tournaments is a fool’s errand.
Uniformity will bring little benefit to the typical USGA
player. Since the WHS is sponsored by
Rolex, maybe the lower- to middle-income player was not its intended target
Every Round Counts
– The WHS will allow “both competitive and recreation rounds to count for
handicap purposes (to ensure) that a golfer’s handicap is more reflective of
This component of the WHS is already part of
the USGA Handicap System so the American player will not see a change.
Systems that are based on tournament scores
(e.g., the Council of National Golf Unions or CONGU), however, will be less
reliable due to three attributes of the USGA’s Handicap System that will
probably become part of the WHS:
- The USGA and R&A present no argument on why
the inclusion of recreational rounds will be a more valid indication of ability. They may reason the inclusion of recreational
scores provides a more current sample.
This would be true if a player tried to make the best score at every
hole in every round. Though this is a
basic premise of the USGA Handicap System, it is not universally adhered to by
all players. The inclusion of
recreational rounds is one of the most effective tools in a sandbagger’s
arsenal. Under the WHS, such players
will have the opportunity to more easily manipulate their handicaps by scoring
poorly in rounds of little consequence.
- The USGA Handicap System allows Internet posting
which makes it difficult to determine if an “away” round was actually
played. This allows the unethical player
to manipulate his handicap with a few simple keystrokes.
- The USGA is very lax in whom it allows to issue
Handicap Indexes. The USGA only
stipulates that a golf club have ten or more members who may or may not know
each other. This has spawned a handicap
industry where firms offer an inexpensive USGA handicap. While such clubs are supposed to have peer
review, in reality they do not. Nor is
there any evidence the USGA audits such clubs to ensure its strict rules on
handicapping are actually being followed.
In the WHS’s drive to get more players to have a handicap, it is
inevitable a debased handicap system will lead to more questionable tournament
How will players currently under tournament based systems
react to the Americanization of their handicap systems?
Will the British, for example, accept a less
reliable handicap system or will they cling to the past by having clubs
institute their own handicap controls?
Will Far Hills be seen in the same
unfavorable light as Brussels?
Why would CONGU give up its tournament based system for the
less reliable WHS?
The answer probably
lies in the economics of selling handicaps.
In the United States, many golf associations charge a player around $35
for a handicap.
The marginal cost of adding
a player to the handicap roll is measured in pennies.
So if CONGU associations can add many
recreational players, they stand to earn a substantial amount.
This may be an example of the tradeoff
between increasing benefits for the governed and enriching the bureaucracy.
The latter typically wins.
Updating Scores for
Abnormal Course and Weather Conditions – The argument is if you shoot a 90
on a windy day, shouldn’t that really be adjusted down to 88 as a better
measure of your ability? The problem is
there is no good way to make such an adjustment. Golf Australia (GA) has been a leader in
trying to make such adjustments. Based
on the average net score for the field, the average handicap of the field,
field size, and gender of the competitors, GA has a complex equation to derive
the Daily Scratch Rating (DSR). (The DSR
is equivalent to the USGA’s Course Rating.)
GA, however, has never produced any study on the effects of
the DSR on handicaps. In other words,
does all of this massaging of scores lead to significant differences in
handicaps? If bad weather produces high scores, it is
probable the score would not be one used in the calculation of a player’s
Handicap Index. The DSR also does not
take account of when a round is played.
A competitor, who plays under benign conditions in the morning, will
have his score reduced if the wind comes up in the afternoon.
At best, adjusting for weather conditions is a second order
improvement. The estimate of a player’s
Index is subject to many errors. There
are errors in the estimates of Course and Slope Ratings. There are sampling errors due to limited
sample size. There are rounding errors
embedded in the handicap system. There
are errors due to missing variables (e.g., player characteristics such as
slicer, short hitter, or familiarity with the course). Basically, this component of the WHS is like putting
lipstick on a pig. It is still a pig.
Why make the handicap system unfathomable with no proven
increase in validity? It is probably
being done for three reasons:
Daily Handicaps –
Updating handicaps on a daily basis has a certain appeal, but is not without
its problems. A daily handicap would be
more current and reduce the “lag” in the estimate of a player’s handicap. If this was important, the USGA could have
recommended the use of its Trend Index.
The USGA, however, recommends
against using the Trend Index since it ”could be
missing scores that have failed to be re-routed to the player’s home club
before the next handicap revision, including any possible reductions or
modifications to handicaps.”
- To gain GA’s acceptance of the WHS. GA has put a lot of work into the weather
related adjustment and sold it to its members as a necessary addition to its handicap
system. To reject it as part of the WHS
would embarrass the GA.
- The weather adjustment gives the illusion of
accuracy which can be sold as “new and improved” by the USGA. Unfortunately, golf has nothing comparable
to the Federal Trade Commission to analyze such a claim for its truthfulness.
weather adjustment will burnish the reputation of the USGA. The equations behind the DSR are beyond the
understanding of most golfers. They
see a quadratic equation and assume the experts (i.e., the USGA) must know what
they are doing. The USGA will do nothing
to disabuse them of this assumption even though it is likely to be false.
Assuming the routing problem can be fixed through the huge data
processing project the WHS requires, there is still a problem with when a
player posts. The USGA does not require
a score be posted on the day it is made.
If a player posts two days after the round, his Daily Handicap for the
previous day will not be accurate.
Moreover, the Daily Scratch Rating will be in error (probably
insignificant) since the player’s round was not included. (Note: To be effective, the WHS would require
a player post on the day he plays.)
Errors created by late posting are likely to be small. The administrative problems created by the
daily handicap, however, may not be so small.
Under the WHS, a player will need to look up his Handicap Index and calculate
his Course Handicap every time he plays.
The WHS assumes players are more diligent than common experience suggests.
Tournament directors will now have to specify which day’s
handicaps will be used in the competition.
In order to check on a guest’s handicap, programs such as the Golf
Handicap and Information Network (GHIN) will have to store a player’s daily
Index rather than his bi-monthly Index. This
is a data processing problem that can be solved, but only with more
expense. If tournament directors opt to use handicaps
from the first day of the month for tournaments held in the first two weeks of
the month, for example, the daily handicap feature of the WHS will be
essentially the same as the current USGA Handicap System. That is, the WHS will probably have no effect
on the equity of such tournaments.
Will any increase in accuracy due to daily handicaps be worth the daily
hassle of calculating that handicap? If
a player’s Index is volatile, daily handicaps could provide a more accurate
estimate of his potential. The Index of
most players, however, is marked by low volatility. For these players, the Daily Handicap will
not differ significantly from a handicap computed twice a month.
Best Eight Scores –
The USGA Handicap Index is now based on a player’s ten best differentials out
of his last twenty.
The WHS will use the
average of a player’s eight best differentials out of his last twenty.
The USGA has presented no evidence on why
reducing the number of differentials used will be a better measure of a
In the one study that analyzed the equity of
various handicap systems,
the USGA Handicap System was found to be less equitable than some mean based
systems (e.g., average of the middle 16 differentials) for individual match
A handicap system based on the
best five differentials was less equitable than the USGA system.
From that finding, it can be projected that
lowering the number of best differentials to eight is likely to decrease validity
of the estimated Index rather than increase it.
So why go to eight best differentials? Lowering the number of differentials makes it
appear that handicap controls (i.e., anti-sandbagging efforts) are being
strengthened. This may have been a sop to the associations
(i.e., tournament based systems) that are having their handicap controls
weakened by the WHS.
The New Equitable
Stroke Control – Under the WHS, equitable stroke control (ESC) will allow a
player to make a maximum net double bogey on a hole. The
reason for the switch is the WHS ESC is consistent with the Stableford Scoring System
which much of the world plays. Under
this system, a player receives no points for a net double bogey. If the current USGA ESC system were
continued, a player would have an incentive to play on even though he would
receive no Stableford points (e.g., a 36 handicap player has a net double bogey
on a par 3 --7 strokes-- but can take up to 9 strokes under the current USGA
The table below compares the maximum allowed strokes under
the USGA ESC and the WHS ESC for a selection of handicaps. Under WHS ESC, the maximum hole score for a
single- digit player will either stay the same or increase by one stroke. A 15-handicap player will have his maximum
hole score either reduced or stay the same with the exception of a par 5 where he
strokes. Similarly, a 25-handicap will
have his maximum hole score either reduced or stay the same except on a par 5
where he gets two strokes. Therefore,
the single-digit player should see a small increase in his Index while higher
handicap players should see a small decrease in their Index due to the change
Maximum Allowed Strokes under the USGA and WHS
The change to the WHS ESC illustrates another inconsistency
in USGA policy.
In introducing the
current ESC back in 1993, the USGA argued it eliminated “par” from
The USGA argued this made the system simpler
and eliminated the problem of clubs having similar holes with different par
ratings (e.g., a 401 yard hole might be a par four for women at one course and
a par five at another).
The USGA, never
hamstrung by consistency, now apparently believes it was wrong back in 1993 as
it adopts a par-based system under the WHS.
The USGA goes further, however, and incorporates “stroke
allocation” into the mix.
however, can assign similar holes different stroke allocations.
The USGA currently argues “the difficulty in a
making par on a hole is not an effective measure of the need for a stroke.”
Courses that follow the USGA recommendation
will often assign the hardest holes relatively high stroke allocations.
Courses that assign stroke allocations based
on difficulty would assign the hardest holes relatively low stroke
It seems logical the WHS should
allow a 5-handicap player, for example, to take a triple bogey on the hardest
holes and not on easier holes where a triple bogey is improbable.
To remove any inconsistency in stroke
allocations, the USGA should change its recommendation for stroke allocations
and base it on the relative difficulty of the hole.
Overall, the WHS ESC will be more difficult for the USGA
player to understand and for the handicap chairman to administer. It is unlikely to have any significant impact
on a player’s handicap. Its inclusion is
not based on making things better for the USGA player, but on building
bureaucratic consensus with the golf associations where Stableford scoring is
Increasing the Number of Players with Handicaps – The WHS is intended to
provide incentives for more golfers to get handicaps. The
number of rounds needed for a handicap to be issued has been reduced from 5
acceptable scores in the current USGA Handicap system to 3 acceptable scores in
the WHS. In theory, this lets a player
get a handicap faster.
The USGA Handicap system currently limits a player’s Index
to 36.4 for men and 40.4 for women. For
a course with a 133 Slope Rating, the maximum handicaps would be 43 for men and
48 for women. The WHS raises the maximum
handicap to 54 for both men and women.
This increase is supposed to let the very high handicap player know he
or she is welcome—upon paying the requisite fee.
The premise behind these changes is the health of the game
is dependent on the number of handicaps sold.
This may be a wrong assumption and could lead to the USGA misallocating
its resources. When a player is
starting to learn the game he should be focused on the challenge to improve and
the joy a good shot brings. If you are
teaching children do you want them to think “I can beat Tommy if only I had a
higher handicap” or do you want them to realize that to beat Tommy they have to
improve their short game?
There are better ways to encourage a 54 handicap to stick
with the game than selling him a handicap.
Public Service Announcements
showing golfers challenging the golf course rather than each other would be a
start. Programs such as First Tee for
older beginners could also have a place.
There are lots of efforts the USGA could undertake that would promote
the game, but convincing beginners they need a handicap is not one.
Conclusion – As
judged by three criteria (validity, reliability, and ease of use) the WHS will have
little positive impact for the average USGA player:
Validity – The daily handicap and weather adjustment features of
the WHS should make for more valid estimates of a player’s potential. Any improvement in the estimates, however,
will be small because of the low volatility in scoring for most players, and
the unproven ability to estimate the impact of weather with any precision. Though much research is yet to be done, going
from the best ten differentials to the best eight appears to decrease the
validity of the estimate of a player’s potential. Overall, the WHS does not bring any
significant gain in validity.
Reliability – There is no change in reliability for players
enlisted under the present unreliable USGA Handicap System. For players currently using a tournament
based handicap system, the reliability of the estimate of the Index will
Ease of Use – The major selling point of the WHS is that it creates
a uniform handicap system. This benefit
seems small for the average USGA player.
The daily handicap feature will burden the player with having to
calculate his handicap each time he plays.
This is not an onerous task, but it will lead to errors in handicaps
from the more slothful. The weather
adjustment will be perplexing. A player
will not know until the next day what his adjusted score was. There will be no appeal from any injustice
created by the computer since few will know or can replicate what the computer
actually did. The change in ESC should
also be confusing to some. There is
little doubt it will lead to more errors in a player’s adjusted score and
inevitably lead to less validity in the estimate of a player’s Index.
The WHS is designed to serve the needs of the bureaucracy
and not players.
It will add prestige to
the Handicap Department which has always been considered the backwater of the USGA.
Kudos will be bestowed those responsible
for getting the USGA and the R&A hegemony over the handicap system.
It will also fulfill the bureaucracy’s
ambition of increased size, funding, and overseas travel. While the bureaucracy will be jubilant over the WHS, players should be skeptical. They have seen many changes
in the handicap system over the years with no notable change in equity. Players may see the WHS as just another case of confusing
motion with progress.
In theory, the course rating and slope rating at all courses should be changed since they are estimates based on the best 10 of 20 scores. If that is not done, a
players should see a reduction in their Index under the WHS. Assume a player’s differentials are normally
distributed with a standard deviation of σ. The average of a player’s ten best
differentials will be approximately .8∙σ below his mean differential. The average of a player’s eight best
differentials will be approximately .95∙σ below his mean differential. So players will see their Handicap Index
reduced by .15∙σ. Standard deviations are
typically in the 3-4 range, so reductions in a player’s Handicap Index caused
by the WHS should be in the .45 to .60 range.
The steady player (low σ) who is typically a low handicap player already
has an advantage when only the best ten differentials are used. The WHS will
only increase his advantage.
See Position Paper on the New Equitable Stroke Control Procedure,
United States Golf Association, Far Hills, NJ, 1992.