New world handicap system for golf in 2020

Before tackling golf's distance issue in a report due out over the next few weeks, the game's governing bodies have revealed plans for a new handicap system that is partly aimed at the sport becoming a 'more welcoming and social game'.

R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers. Picture: The R&A
R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers. Picture: The R&A

Set to transform the way golfers around the world will calculate handicaps when it is introduced in 2020, the R&A and USGA have developed the ‘World Handicap System’ in a bid to “strip away” some of the guff that currently exists and can be off-putting for newcomers to the game.

Coupled with the maximum handicap for both men and women having been increased to 54 this year, R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers and Mike Davis, his opposite number at the USGA, believe the new system will be good for the health of the game.

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“We are working with our partners and national associations to make golf more 
modern, more accessible and more enjoyable as a sport and the new World Handicap System represents a huge opportunity in this regard,” said Slumbers.

“We want to make it more attractive to golfers to obtain a handicap and strip away some of the complexity and variation which can be off-putting for newcomers. Having a handicap, which is easier to understand and is truly portable around the world, can make golf much more enjoyable and is one of the unique selling points of our sport.”

One of the key changes in the new system is that it will offer flexibility in formats of play, allowing both competitive and recreational rounds to count for handicap purposes and ensuring that a golfer’s handicap is “more reflective of potential ability”.

Another difference will be that, instead of three 18-hole rounds at present in some countries, though not in the UK, a player will be able to make up the 54-hole requirement to obtain a handicap from any combination of 18-hole and nine-hole rounds. In addition, some discretion will be available for national or regional associations to set a different minimum within their own jurisdiction.

The new system is also aimed at achieving a “consistent handicap” that is “portable from course to course and country to country” through worldwide use of the USGA Course and Slope Rating System, while that handicap will become an average-based calculation. It will be taken from the best eight out of the last 20 scores.

Course and weather conditions will also be taken into account with the new calculations, with the system having received support from 76 per cent of 52,000 people who took part in research on it. According to the R&A and USGA, 22 percent were willing to consider its benefits and only two per cent were opposed. This was followed by a series of focus groups, in which more than 300 golf administrators and golfers from regions around the world offered extensive feedback on the features of the proposed new system.

“For some time, we’ve heard golfers say, ‘I’m not good enough to have a handicap,’ or ‘I don’t play enough to have a handicap.’ We want to make the right decisions now to encourage a more welcoming and social game,” said Davis. “We’re excited to be taking another important step - along with modernising golf’s Rules - to provide a pathway into the sport, making golf easier to understand and more approachable and enjoyable for everyone to play.”

One person seemingly unimpressed by the new system is Richie Ramsay, who believes the R&A and USGA should be tackling other issues in the sport. “Really,” he wrote on Twitter. “That’s what you are going to concentrate on when the game is declining in numbers. Time, cost and attracting juniors are major issues. They won’t have a handicap if you can’t get them involved.

“Maybe it will help keep members, but I wouldn’t say it’s a deciding factor. You don’t go from not playing golf - zero hours - to playing 18 holes - five hours. More needs to be done to bridge that gap and cater for time people have. Nine-hole medals, especially in the winter in Scotland, I think are key.”