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WHS: Has the World Handicap System been good or bad for golfers?

Bunkered World Handicap System

Seldom has gassroots golf experienced a shock to the system quite like the jolt the World Handicap System has sent surging through it.

Since its introduction in November 2020, the World Handicap System, or ‘WHS’ for short, has been the hottest topic of conversation in clubhouses across the country.

Why was the old CONGU handicap system dropped? According to The R&A and the USGA, “a key objective of the initiative was to develop a modern system, enabling as many golfers as possible to obtain and maintain a Handicap Index".

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In theory, with WHS, golfers should be able to transport their Handicap Index globally and compete or play a casual round with players locally and from other regions on a fair basis.

In the spirit of golf, a “fair” handicap system should be the very least that should be expected. However, there have been numerous reports from golfers that WHS is, in fact, delivering the opposite. 

One of the major gripes is that the system marginalises low handicappers.

Scott Wilkinson, who plays at Kinghorn Golf Club in Fife, boasts a single-figure handicap but is one of those unhappy at the way WHS is operating.

“Several low guys are now not playing in the sweep anymore due to ridiculous scores winning every week,” Wilkinson told bunkered.co.uk.

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“There has already been chat amongst the low guys at the club about forming their own personal single figures sweep. If guys start feeling the sweep isn’t fair, then I believe they’ll soon start thinking the competitions aren’t fair either. How many will seriously evaluate the worth they are getting from annual club fees?”

It is this last question which is one of the major concerns surrounding WHS. Wilkinson believes that the system is so fundamentally flawed that it could change the face of grassroots golf.

“In my view, that’s the beginning of some bad change,” he added. “When people feel that it’s not a fair competition, then clubs will start to lose members.”

This is a view shared by 83-year-old Terrie Gibbons, a member at Frinton-on-Sea in Essex as well as Felixstowe Ferry.

“Competitions are now being won with 47 to 50 Stableford points," he said. "The better golfers are victimised by this system. If 47 points leads the way, that requires a scratch golfer to shoot 60 gross at Felixstowe.”

The issue of difficult-to-beat scores in medals is a problem that appears to be rife within the new system.

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“In 40 years, I’ve never seen so many nett 61s winning medals and Opens,” said Don Deveney of Dunfermline Golf Club on social media. “This determination to make the handicap as accurate as possible will destroy the resurgence golf has enjoyed during the pandemic.”

The World Handicap System calculates a Handicap Index from the eight best scores over a player's last 20 rounds. There have been rumblings that scores dropping off after just 20 rounds is partially to blame for the low scoring and benefits inconsistent players.

“Calculating eight rounds from 30 rather than 20 scores may help,” suggested Alex Burnett. “If you are playing three or four times a week, 20 rounds isn’t enough. A run of poor golf will see your Handicap Index rocket.”

On the flipside, Richard Hall, a member at Turnhouse Golf Club in Edinburgh, has faith in the new system, believing it provides an accurate reflection of a golfer’s ability.

“I think the WHS is a very fair system because, over time, once 20 scores have been submitted, it will give a true reflection of a player’s ability,” he told bunkered.co.uk. “I understand anomalies can occur before a player has enough scores but this is ironed out over time.

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“Where I play, there are two divisions for handicaps divided at around 12. This gives some protection to lower handicap payers and should really be adopted by all clubs in some format. Eventually, players shooting nett 58 will see their handicap tumble.”

Away from the issue of low scoring, one of the other overriding concerns with WHS is that it is quite difficult to follow.

Visit the R&A website and bullet point No.4 says that WHS is “easy to understand and implement”.

Bunkered World Handicap System

Despite this, many seasoned amateur golfers continue to complain about the difficulty of the system.

“I have no idea how I would go about explaining WHS to anyone new to the game or interested in taking the game up,” said Scott Wilkinson. “There are so many different aspects to simply just calculating your handicap that you can imagine a prospective member saying they’ll just try the bowling club instead.

“I would like to see the system simplified. You have your Index and a Playing Handicap, and that’s all. If you’re 4.4 then you’re 4 and if you’re 4.5 then you are a 5.”

Instead of relying upon technology to calculate a handicap, Chris Worthington, an avid English golfer attempted to manually work through the process himself, concluding that it requires “a mathematics degree from Harvard”.

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“Does the WHS system make the game easier to understand? For me, I don't think so,” said Worthington. “I hold on to the thought that it may become easier with the passage of time as we all get more used to it. I sincerely hope so.”

England Golf CEO Jeremy Tomlinson acknowledged from the outset that there would be “teething problems” with the new system but that golf “would get through it”.

Almost ten months on, it seems the teething problems are still there in abundance and more and more golfers are becoming disgruntled with the new system every week.

The introduction of the WHS might not as cataclysmic an event as some have suggested but, for a large section of golfers, it is placing a severe strain on their relationship with the game.

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