Tuesday, July 21, 2020

World Handicap System Penalizes the Honest Player

Handicap golf has always been abused by players manipulating the system to gain a higher handicap than deserved.  The USGA tried a precision strike against such players with it “Reduction of Handicap Index Based on Exceptional Tournament Scores (Sec. 10-3).” Players who had two exceptional scores could have their Handicap Index reduced.   The USGA’s effort, however, was ineffective as any penalty could be easily avoided by the astute sandbagger.  The USGA, apparently admitting defeat on its war on sandbaggers, eliminated this section with the adoption of the World Handicap System (WHS).

The WHS took a different approach.  Instead of concentrating on tournament scores, it decided to penalize all exceptional scores whether in or out of competition (Rule 5-9 of the WHS).  This was carpet bombing without regard to civilian casualties and hoping a sandbagger might be among the injured.

Before assessing whether Rule 5-9 serves any legitimate purpose, it is important to understand how it works.  As an example, assume a player has a 16.0 Handicap Index.  For simplicity further assume par on the course is 72 and the Slope Rating is 130.  This gives the player a course handicap of 18.  Now assume the player shots an 81 for a scoring differential of 7.8.  The difference between his current Handicap Index and his exceptional differential is 8.2 (16.0 – 7.8).  Since the difference is greater than 7.0, the player is subject to an exceptional score reduction. 

Under Rule 5.9, a reduction of -1.0 is applied to each of the player’s most recent score differentials.[1]   Even though the WHS consider the players 81 an exceptional score, for handicap purposes he is credited with an even more exceptional score of 79.8 (i.e., a scoring differential of 6.8).   This is like radar catching you speeding at 65 mph and the officer writing you up for 70 mph.  The WHS has not published any defense of this unusual punishment,

The actual effect on a player’s handicap will depend upon the distribution and placement of his eight best differentials.  Assume the player had the following 8 low differentials in his file before the exceptional score: 11.0, 14.0, 15.0, 16.0, 16.0, 17.0,18.0, 21.0.  The table below shows the player’s Course Handicap would be reduced by three strokes under Section 5-9 and one stroke if the Section was not applied.  In general, the reduction with Sec.5-9 will initially be one or two strokes below what player’s handicap would be without Section 5-9. 


Handicap With and Without Rule 5.9 Penalty 


With Penalty

Without Penalty

Low Differential



Total of Next 7 Differentials



Handicap Index



Course Handicap




The question never answered by the WHS is why an exceptional round out competition should be penalized?  Here are three possible reasons the USGA might put forward:

1.       Scoundrel Theory -The USGA assumes an exceptional score indicates the player is a scoundrel and deserving of punishment.  Assuming a normal distribution of scoring differentials, a player with  standard deviation of 3.0  would have a 1 in 333 chance of making his exceptional score or better.   While such exceptional scores would be rare, they are not evidence of cheating beyond a reasonable doubt.  It would be like assuming the winner of the Powerball Lottery must have cheated since the odds against winning are astronomical.   It is also clear from the USGA’s own research that high-handicap players are forty-two times more likely to have the exceptional score discussed above than a low-handicap player.[2]  Therefore, Rule 5-9 continues the USGA tradition of discriminating against the high-handicap player.

2.       WHS Failure -Another defense of Rule 5-9 would be an exceptional round proves a player’s current Handicap Index is not a good estimate of his potential and therefore the reduction is justified.  The penalty, however, is reduced overtime as new differentials are not reduced by -1.   If a player enters three scores a week, the penalty will disappear within 7 weeks.  Unlike the Reduction in Index Based on Exceptional Tournament Scores which could last a year, a Rule 5-9 only lasts a short period.  Which raises the question, if an exceptional score indicates a player’s Index should be lower, why is the penalty of such short duration?

3.       Anti-sandbagger Tool -The USGA could argue Rule 5-9 is another weapon in its war on sandbaggers.  This is not a convincing defense of the Section since it will have no impact on sandbaggers.   The unethical player knows enough to dump a shot in the lake coming in to avoid any penalty.  The only one affected is the honest player who is excited to post a low score.  Unfortunately, he is collateral damage of an unwise policy created by the technocrats at the USGA and R&A. 

Rule 5-9 can have a consequence that is not good for the game.   If a player is having a hot round, he should not have to be worried about a Rule 5.9 penalty. The handicap system should encourage those to go as low as they can.  If his playing partners give him a three-footer to speed up play, should he insist on putting to protect against a penalty. If he misses, he might be viewed as a sandbagger.  Better to take the penalty than hurt his reputation he may reason.  A player should not be put in such a predicament.

So how did Rule 5-9 make into the WHS?    The WHS is not the result research, but of compromise among committee members.  The sections on the treatment of exceptional scores are similar to the old Golf Australia Handicap System.  Under that system, a reduction for an exceptional score was imposed at the discretion of the player’s club.  That seemed fair, but the WHS did not want to give primary authority to clubs.  The WHS first delivers a few penalty whacks and then allows the club to override if it feels the WHS was unjust.  Historically, clubs are hesitant to act for or against members.  If a member had a great round not in competition, the club’s inertia would lead it to take no action.   If the Rule 5-9 penalty were imposed, a club would take the position that this is the result of the WHS and without convincing evidence otherwise it must stand. 

In its effort to make it look like it is tough on sandbaggers, the WHS has only imposed collateral damage on the honest player.   Thankfully, the damage is short lived, but has a lasting consequence on the game.  The WHS states the player has the responsibility to make the best score possible on each hole.[3]   Rule 5-9, however, discourages a player to live up to this responsibility and that is too bad.

[1] If the difference between a player’s Handicap Index and his scoring differential is between 7.0 and 9.9, the player receives a score reduction of -1.  Differences greater than 9.9 receive a score reduction of -2.  There are also other sanctions placed upon the player for having an exceptional round. If the player’s low index is now 13.4,  under the “soft cap” procedure, a player receives only 50 percent of any increase above in his Handicap Index over 16.4 See Rule 5-8 of the Rules of Handicapping).  For example, if his differentials compute to an 18.0 Handicap Index, the soft cap procedure would reduce his Index to 17.2.   The “hard cap” limits in increase to five strokes over his Low Handicap Index or 18.4

[2] The USGA Handicap System 2016-2017, Appendix E. A 0-4.9 Index player has a one in 8795 chance of having a net handicap differential of 8.00 or better.  The 30.0 Index player has a one in 209 chance.

[3] Rules of Handicapping, Appendix A, USGA, p. 79.


  1. Thanks for this post, I'm building a software for golf competitions, and this is the best analysis I found of WHS's Section 5.9.

  2. What is your feelings regarding using 10-3 as a basis for tournament score reduction like that used by Golf Association of Michigan (GAM)? Is there a good procedure for Tournament Committees regarding players who score -5 or more (SD-HI)?

    1. I believe Section 10-3 was eliminated with the adoption of the World Handicap System. It was not very effective so its disappearance is no great loss. I do not believe any "computational" system will work. The shrewd sandbagger is in control of his scoring and can take steps to evade detection by the computer while still winning 2up. The best hope is to have a Handicap Committee that has both wisdom and courage. Such committees, however, are as rare as an albatross.

  3. Since most tournament events I play in use your lowest handicap in the last 12 months it's actually a 12 month penalty. Would like to see their data they claim supports the idea that one exceptional score foretells future lower scores. I've had 2 or 3 exceptional scores in the last 10 years. All involve chipping in from off the green, making 20+ foot putts, avoiding the water that I usually find, etc.

  4. Excellent point about the effect of Rule 5.9 on a player's low index (LI) If a player's LI is lowered due to Rule 5.9, he is more likely to be further penalized under Rule 5.8 (soft and hard caps). There is no data indicating these Rules make for a sandbagger-free world. They just sound tough which was enough for them to be adopted

  5. Just had the Exceptional Score penalty hit me for the first time. Literally two holes where bounces off trees kept my ball out of penalty areas was the difference. My score differential was -6.95 from my index, but that got rounded up to -7.0. I was really excited about my round, as I actually had a chance to break par for the first time with a birdie on the last hole. Now, I'm just annoyed with the USGA. How does this make golf more fun?

    1. And what are the percentages of you shooting that great round? My complaint is now the tournaments I play in are restricted by absurd percentages of handicap.

    2. Sorry. You are proof that no great round goes unpunished.