Inconsistencies in WHS application derailing standardization efforts

  • August 2, 2021
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By Rosemary Dolan

The World Handicap System is a “single set of handicapping rules that apply worldwide to all golfers”, or so states the WHS Rules of Handicapping.  However, each country has been given the “discretion to adapt the system to fit their own golfing culture”. The consequences of which is a system that is not, in practice, a “world” system.

The rule book says:  “The scores a player submits for handicap purposes are at the core of the calculation of their Handicap Index.” But each country has been allowed to pick and choose the scores to be used in the calculation of the Handicap Index.  So, in Kenya, to fit our golfing culture, we chose to continue using only individual scores. However, in other countries, such as South Africa, and the other African countries that relied on South Africa to get them on to WHS, team events and matchplay scores are acceptable for handicap purposes.

Let’s imagine what using a fourball better ball round for handicap purposes would look like. Say your partner chips in from off the green for a birdie and you are left on the green with a 40-foot putt for par; you are allowed (encouraged, in fact, for pace of play reasons) to pick up and enter your “most likely score.  What, you might ask, would be your most likely score?  Well, the WHS Rules of Handicapping for South Africa say the most likely score “should” involve adding one stroke if you are 5 feet or less from the hole and adding 2 or 3 if you are 5 ft to 60 ft from the hole – but this depends “on the position of the ball, the difficulty of the green and the ability of the player.” Who then decides on the difficulty of the green or your ability? Do the four of you stand there on the green arguing about the “most likely score”. No guidance is provided!

The South African rules state “there is no limit to the number of most likely scores that can be submitted within a player’s score”. So, conceivably you could return a score for handicap purposes where in reality you never actually put the ball in the hole for the entire round! In fact, in some countries, you never need to enter an individual score and you never need to play a full round of golf to get a WHS Handicap Index.

Now golfers generally agree on what constitutes 18 holes of golf.  But NO, now each country decides what constitutes 18 holes of golf.  We have a new concept: “the minimum number of holes that needs to be played to return an 18-hole score”.  There is lots of room from manoeuvre as to what this minimum number of holes might be; three options were offered- 10 holes, any number of holes from 11 to 17 inclusive and lastly all 18 holes.  

Kenya decided that 18 holes means 18 holes but with even such basic concepts not being universally enforced how can this be called a World Handicap System? How would tennis be if in some countries you are allowed to have the ball bounce once while in other countries two bounces are allowed?  

The WHS uses Slope Rating to assess the difficulty of a golf courses. The USA has been using Slope since the 1970s.  Dean Knuth (known as The Pope of Slope) developed the idea of weighted ratings of ten characteristics for each hole; previously only length was measured. He also developed the idea of a Bogey Rating to be used with the Scratch Rating to provide a Slope Rating. Now, under WHS,  the whole world uses this system. As long as the people doing the rating adopt a reasonably similar set of criteria for all golf courses, this system can provide a single method for assessing golf courses worldwide.  While Dean Knuth is happy that his Slope Rating system is being used all over the world, he is far from happy with WHS. He describes it as “a downgrade from the old USGA system”. (Golf Digest, January 2020).

The British also have reservations and have issued a series of Guidelines over the last six months on how the WHS rules must be interpreted.  Version 1 of these Guidelines was issued on 15th September 2020, then version 2, followed by version 3 and Version 4 on 1st February 2021.  Version 4 provides clarifications/ modifications to over 50 clauses in the original (GB&I) Rules of Handicapping.

The new (2019) Rules of Golf have also not been universally popular; but the new Rules of Golf seek to simplify not complicate. However, there can be no doubt that WHS, makes the golfer’s life more complicated. I attended the biannual World Golf Conference in St Andrew’s Scotland in 2013 where I first heard presentations advocating a World Handicap System. By 2013 many countries had the same handicap rules for men and women and the governing bodies had been amalgamated.  Golfers all over the world, both professional and amateur, play on the same golf courses, by one set of Rules with the same equipment standards. Why not have one set of Handicap Rules?  And so, the negotiations between the administrators of the six existing handicap systems began. However, from what I have read, neither the US, UK or South Africa are happy with WHS as it stands.

The new system gives golfers more of everything. More tees to play from, more handicaps to choose from and more rules to get our heads around.  Previously we had six sets of Handicap Rules around the world; now we have a different set of rules for every country since each country is free to choose how it applies WHS rules. This seems to defeat the original intention of a World Handicap System.

Rosemary Dolan (the views expressed in this article are entirely those of the author).

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