Should Golf Have a Worldwide Handicap System?

Earlier this year, the USGA and the R&A established a working group to study the feasibility of a Worldwide Handicap System (WHS). Combining a number of systems into one, however, can create problems. A common currency seems efficient unless one of the countries is Greece. A uniform state income tax sounds fair unless you’re a retiree in Florida. Centralizing authority over a sport would seem a sound policy unless that authority is FIFA. A global handicap system thus may not be the “best” for all.

There are three possible reasons for adopting a WHS. First, it could substantially increase the equity of competition among players from different nations. Second, a WHS could provide more accurate estimates of a player’s ability than some of the existing systems. Third, the WHS could better serve the typical form of competition in each country. Of course, a WHS would be marketed on the basis that it will do all three of these things. On closer examination, however, any WHS will be costly, have little impact, and possibly make matters worse.

It’s arguable that a WHS would enable more equitable matches between players who established their handicaps under differing systems. But is there a screaming need for such a thing? The number of international matches is unknown, but they’re likely a very small percentage of all matches played. Moreover, the major handicap systems—USGA, CONGU (Council of National Golf Unions, the handicap authority for Great Britain and Ireland), Golf Australia, European Golf Association, and South African Golf Association—do not provide widely different estimates of a player’s ability even though they rely on different numbers of rounds, and in some cases different playing conditions, for their calculations. Spending large sums to correct a rare and minor injustice hardly seems justifiable.

It has been proposed that a WHS would include something called a Daily Course Rating (DCR) to improve accuracy. DCR attempts to adjust a player’s scoring differential based on course conditions. This would prove the most expensive component of the WHS as it would require many associations to upgrade their data-processing capabilities. But if a player’s handicap is based on a percentage of his best scores, even DCR is of limited effectiveness: The estimate of a player’s handicap is already subject to significant random and human (i.e., sandbagging) error. In terms of accuracy, a handicap is just a step above a dating profile on DCR could be an expensive second-order improvement, but it’s not likely to change who wins next year’s member-guest.

The different systems evolved in response to the way golf is played in each country/region. Competition-based systems like CONGU use scores made in tournaments to calculate a handicap. Such systems are superior in ensuring fairness in tournaments and would be favored by the competitive player. But they fail the casual player who uses his handicap for friendly four-balls or to measure progress. For this player, a competition-based system does not provide a sufficiently large sample to estimate his Index with any current accuracy.

Non-competition based systems (e.g., the USGA’s GHIN) use all scores in estimating a player’s handicap. Such systems are best for the casual player since they use a larger, more recent sample of scores than competition systems. The inclusion of non-competition scores, however, makes such systems less reliable in estimating a player’s tournament performance.

Thus, if a WHS chooses one type of system over the other, either the competitive or casual player will not be well served. Yet, there remains the bureaucratic desire to cede authority over handicaps to the USGA and R&A. Such control, however, may not be in the interest of either ruling body. Handicap systems will always be imperfect and mired in politics. For the R&A to engage in squabbles over the handicap system is out of character for an august body. The quest for a WHS also detracts from the USGA’s mission of developing the best handicap system for its members. Changes in the USGA system make sense only if they increase equity or better predict tournament performance. They should not be made because they satisfy the concerns of other national associations.

When it comes to handicaps, globalization will not make the world a better place.