The World Handicap System (WHS) has been in effect for about a year. If the WHS was a product, the manufacturer would be examining if it made handicaps more equitable, more accurate, and easier to use. If history is any guide, golf's governing bodies are not making such an effort. Without the data within GHIN, independent analysis of the WHS cannot be undertaken. It is possible, however, to theorize about the contribution of any Rule to making the WHS fairer and easier to understand. This post examines Rule 5-8 Limit on the Upward Movement of a Handicap Index. It recommends studying the elimination of the soft cap and making editorial changes for consistency and clarity.
Soft Caps - Rule 5-8 limits the upward movement of a Handicap Index by employing soft caps and hard caps. The soft cap is triggered when a player’s calculated Handicap Index is 3.0 or more above his Low Index. The value above 3.0 is restricted to 50% of the increase. There does not appear to be empirical evidence justifying the soft cap. It was probably added because it made the WHS look complicated and by implication scientific. If the soft cap was adopted to control sandbagging, it would not have a large impact. The table below shows a player's reduced Index under the WHS compared to only having a hard cap of 5.0. If most soft cap reduction are for players with calculated Indexes between 3.0 and 4.0 over their Low Index, the reduction is small—0.5 at most. The small reduction raises the question “Is the confusion caused by the soft cap worth the effort?
If many players are receiving a soft cap reduction, it may indicate there are valid reasons for the increased Index such as the seasonal variation in scoring. Reducing Indexes under such circumstances would not be justified.
The case for eliminating the soft cap would depend on the data. If the governing bodies are interested in simplifying the WHS while possibly increasing equity, they should consider eliminating the soft cap.
Terminology - Rule 5-8 states “When a calculated Handicap Index increase is greater than 3.0 strokes, the value above 3.0 strokes is restricted to 50% of the increase.” The use of the term “strokes” is a mistake in nomenclature and should be corrected. Indexes and differentials are not defined by “strokes.” A player has a 10.0 Handicap Index and not a 10.0 Stroke Handicap Index. To be correct, any association of “strokes” with a player’s Handicap Index or differential should be eliminated.
Rounding - Rule 5-8 does not detail how the 50% reduction is calculated. For example, if the increase is 1.3, Rule 5.8 prescribes a 0.65 reduction to a player’s Handicap Index. The Rule is silent on whether this reduction should be rounded up (0.7) or rounded down (0.6). From a sample of scoring records, it appears the WHS rounds down. This should be made explicit when Rule 5-8 is revised.
Notification of Reduction - Under the previous USGA Handicap System, a reduction in Index was signified by placing an "R" next to the player's Index. Under the WHS, a player is not notified of a cap reduction with similar clarity. The WHS places a small icon "!" next to a player's Index. If the player notices the icon and clicks on it, a message will appear stating a cap reduction has been applied. The player is not informed of the size of the reduction, however. This lack of transparency could prevent a player from appealing the reduction to the Handicap Committee if he believed it unjust. The WHS should follow the basic tenet of a good handicap system by fully informing a player about his reduction in Index. This will allow players to provide feedback on the perceived value of the soft cap in ensuring equitable competition.
All of this assumes there will be a revised WHS. The USGA and R&A have not indicated any timetable for revising the WHS.
 The USGA Handicap System did not use the term "strokes" Golf Australia’s previous Handicap System did. This is another example of Golf Australia’s heavy influence (e.g., counting 8 of 20 scores, daily course ratings, hard caps) in the construction of the WHS.