Understanding the World Golf Handicap System with Calculator

Golf is one of the few sports in the world where it’s possible to equitably compete against someone else regardless of your ability.  That’s right, in theory, you could compete on equal footing with Tiger Woods or Rory McIlroy (even though I wouldn’t recommend it).  How so?  It’s called handicapping.

The Evolution of Handicaps

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In golf, your handicap is a numerical measurement of your ability as a player.  In the old days, your handicap was based on nothing more than your average score in relation to par.  Even though this system was simple, it fell short in accounting for the difficulty of different golf courses.  To that end, a score of 80 at one course was a lot different than the same score at another course. 

The next evolution (and the one that was in place until this year) assigned different sets of tees at every course a rating and a slope.  The rating was a measurement of what a professional man or women would shoot from that particular set of tees.  Slope accounted for what a bogey golfer would shoot relative to a professional from the same set of tees.  These two numbers, calculated with a golfer’s 10 best out of their most recent 20 scores, gave them a handicap index. 

A golfer’s handicap index (expressed as a number with a single decimal) was then used to calculate their course handicap for whatever set of tees they were playing.  That number was then compared to the course handicap of their competitor(s) and strokes were allotted accordingly… If you’re confused, so was I for a long time…

Don’t worry though, the new World Handicap System gives you a whole new set of criteria to understand.  The good news is we’re here to answer all the important questions and help you understand how the new system works.

How Did the World Handicap System Come About?

A little over two years ago, the USGA and R&A came to the conclusion that the six major handicap systems previously used around the world were archaic and did anything but overlap.  The need for systemic continuity was the nexus for the World Handicap System.

How are Handicap Indexes Calculated?

This hasn’t changed much.  Under the World Handicap System, a player’s handicap index is still based on slope and course rating.  Even though there are some minor changes in this calculation, most golfers shouldn’t see their handicap index change by more than a decimal point or two from where it was at in 2019. 

What’s the Difference Between Course Handicap and Playing Handicap?

Under the rules of the Course Rating System, different sets of tees on different courses are assigned a rating and slope (see definitions above).  This Rating System provides a sliding scale to assign course handicaps based on a player’s handicap index.  This number is always assigned as a whole number and represents the number of strokes a player should need to shoot even par.  As an example, if your handicap index is 11.3, your course handicap might be 10 based on the tees you’re playing. 

Playing handicap represents the number of strokes you give or receive during a round of competition.  For example, if your course handicap is 14 and your opponent’s course handicap is 10, you will be spotted four strokes for the round (a playing handicap of four).  This means that on the four most difficult holes, your opponent will give you a one-shot advantage. 

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What’s the Difference Between Gross and Net Scoring?

When you watch the Tour Pros battle it out on television, they’re using gross scoring.  For the best in the world, handicaps are more or less irrelevant.  The assumption goes that they’re all good enough to win any given week.  As a result, they use gross scoring.  Gross scoring is nothing more than the total of how many strokes it takes you to complete 18 holes. 

Net scoring on the other hand, accounts for handicaps.  This is the most common type of scoring used in club play as it allows for players of all abilities to reasonably compete with each other.  Let’s say your course handicap is 11 and you shoot 85.  Your net score is 74 (gross score of 85 – 11 strokes for your course handicap = net score of 74). 

What You Need to Know About the World Handicap System

Now that we have a better understanding of how handicaps are calculated and utilized, let’s take a closer look at the biggest takeaways under the new World Handicap System. 


Fewer Scores Used to Calculate Handicap Index

Under the old handicap system used in the United States, your best 10 of 20 most recent scores were used to calculate your handicap index.  Under the new World Handicap System, only eight of your best 20 scores will be used.

The thinking behind this reduction places greater emphasis on good scores and rewards consistent play.  The net result is less room for players to artificially inflate their handicaps for an advantage over the competition.  Doing so is known as sandbagging.  Trust me, you don’t want to be labeled a sandbagger.  If you are, don’t expect your buddies to treat you too kindly.

Your Handicap Index Updates Overnight

The old handicap system updated handicaps only on the first and 15th of every month.  This meant that if a player started playing exceptionally well or poorly, they had to wait two weeks for their handicap index to adjust.

The World Handicap System updates every 24 hours which means players’ handicap indexes are always reflective of the latest trends in their score.

New Handicap Maximums

In an effort to make golf more inclusive, golf’s governing body’s have agreed to raise the handicap ceilings for both men and women.  Prior to 2020, the maximum handicap index was 36.4 for me and 40.4 for women.  The World Handicap System now raises those ceilings to 54.0 for both sexes respectively. 

Get Used to Net Double Bogey

In order to protect against sandbagging and inflated scores, the USGA and R&A implemented equitable stroke control (ESC) under the old handicap system.  This was a sliding scale that limited the number of strokes a player could take on a single hole.  (For handicaps under 10, the highest score you could take was gross double bogey.  For handicaps 10-19, you could record up to a gross score of seven.  Handicaps 20-29 were limited to a gross score of 8.)

The World Handicap System has streamlined equitable stroke control across the board.  The highest score any golfer can record on a single hole is a net double bogey.  So, if your course handicap is 10, the highest gross score you can record on the ten most difficult holes is a gross triple bogey (you get a shot on these holes) and gross double bogey on the eight easiest holes.

Your Handicap Index Has Become Smarter

Just like the technology in your phone tells you where traffic is, what the weather’s going to be, and let’s big brother know your location 24/7, your handicap index has become smarter too.

Under the playing conditions calculation implemented in the World Handicap System, your scores will be adjusted for adverse or unusual playing conditions. 

As an example, let’s say you play on a day where it’s pouring down rain and blowing 30 mph.  Because of the conditions, maybe you shoot a score that’s 10 shots higher than what you normally shoot.  Obviously, this score would have a negative impact on your handicap index. 

The World Handicap Index takes this into account by looking at all the scores that were posted at that course on that particular day.  Chances are everyone’s scores were higher.  As a result, the system adjusts by taking an average of all those other scores and doesn’t penalize you considering the conditions.

More Safeguards

The handicapping system of old used only the best 10 of your last 20 scores when calculating handicap index.  This meant it was possible for someone that plays a lot to have their handicap fluctuate uncontrollably.

The World Handicap System looks at a players’ low handicap index over the past 12 months.  It uses that number to establish a cap of how much a player’s index can increase due to a short period of poor play. 

The system also accounts for scores that are abnormally low. If a player shoots a score more than seven shots below their index, the “exceptional score reduction” is triggered to lower that player’s handicap to more accurately reflect ability.

This is great news for those of us that are used to giving out a lot more shots than we receive.  Cheers to the anti-sandbagging movement!

How Many Shots You Get is Going to Change

Even though the system that calculates your handicap index isn’t changing, the one that determines your course handicap from a particular set of tees is.  Under the old system, your course handicap dictated how many shots you would receive in a competitive round.  Recall from earlier that course handicaps are the product of course rating and slope.

The new formula under the World Handicap System calculates course handicap by how many strokes you receive in relation to par.  In addition to the normal rating and slope measurements, “course rate minus par” has been added to the equation.

As a result, course handicaps will vary more based on the tees you play under the new system.  If you play forward tees you won’t get as many strokes and if you choose to play from farther back, you’ll get more strokes.

This singular change should make tournament scoring a whole lot easier going forward. 

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Like anything new in the game of golf, the World Handicap System is going to take some getting used to.  In particular, I’ve noticed that the number of strokes players receive has been meant with some resistance.  However, that’s not going to change anytime soon, and I doubt the USGA cares too much about my opinion even though I think it’s important.

Sure, the World Handicap System is going to take some getting used to but, I think there are some positives worth noting too:

–  The ability for handicap indexes to be revised overnight ensures that they’re are always up to date.  

–  The universal ESC of net double bogey is going to simplify the scoring and posting process.  Hopefully this improves pace of play too, as there’s no longer any point in marking that 12-footer when you’re putting for a nine.

–  The playing conditions calculation is going to further ensure the integrity of handicaps as fluke scores in nasty weather are bound to happen.

–  The built-in safety guards for high scores and low scores are going to make the game more fair for everybody.  Under the new system, sandbaggers that artificially inflate their scores to get more strokes are going to have a much harder time doing so.

Since the 2020 golf season has largely been put on hold in the wake of COVID-19, I think the jury is still out on the World Handicap System.  There’s no question that it’s difficult to fully comprehend and it’s my hope that this article answers some of your questions.

We’re curious to hear your thoughts as the golf season is barely underway, so be sure to leave us a comment below. 


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