Cork Golf: World Handicap System causes debate for players and club

The new WHS was 10 years in planning and the new format is used in 116 countries. 
Cork Golf: World Handicap System causes debate for players and club

Peter O'Keeffe finished the season with a handicap index of +5.6. Picture: Niall O'Shea

IT was an eventful 2021 for golfers and in addition to the closures and disruption caused by Covid, there was also the little matter of the WHS. the new handicap system signalled the biggest change in the Irish handicapping system in several decades. 

The old CONGU system had been in place in Ireland for 95 years, and that system governed handicaps in the four home nations. 

The new World Handicap System was 10 years in planning and the new system is used in 116 countries. 

The new system was spearheaded by the R&A and the USGA, and it was aligned to the USGA system. 

It also had the advantage of having the six largest governing bodies on board to drive the adoption worldwide.

The WHS officially launched in Ireland in November 2020, but it wasn’t until May when the season started that golfers got to see how the new system operated. 

Unlike the old system where a fixed handicap saw marginal movement for most, the new system was based on a weighted average. 

The new system counts the best 8 scores from 20 counting rounds to make up the new handicap Index.  That meant that golfers were no longer playing against the course or the CSS, they were in fact playing against their own record. 

As just 8 of the 20 scores were counting there was a slight bias towards the upper end of a golfer's playing ability, but the new system is designed to reflect a golfer's current ability.  Golfers were now effectively playing against the 20th score in their handicap record, or playing against their top eight scores. 

Beating the competition standard scratch or 36 points only matters if you beat the last counting score in your record.

There were talks of wild swings in handicap Indexes In the first half of the season, but that soon receded as golfers came to understand the system. 

There were many reports too of golfers scoring 48 or 50 points in stableford competitions, and while that remains a bit of a talking point under winter rules, it is hoped that a more traditional distribution of points for winning scores as more golfers have a full playing record of 20 scores. 

At the other end of the handicap scale, the cut of points for championships were almost all in the plus handicap category with some reaching +2.5 and lower. 

12 months ago it was accepted that the low handicapped golfers got a lower handicap index under WHS rules, while the higher handicappers went in the opposite direction. This trend seems to have continued through the qualifying season with many of the elite amateurs reaching handicaps of +5 or +6.

Pauline Bailie Is the Chair of Handicapping for Golf Ireland, and she Is happy that overall the WHS has been a success. 

"In terms of the positives to take from the initial year of implementation, feedback has suggested that, in the main, a WHS Handicap Index is more reflective of a player’s ability. 

Former Cork hurling goalkeeper Anthony Nash. Picture: Niall O'Shea
Former Cork hurling goalkeeper Anthony Nash. Picture: Niall O'Shea

"Being an averaging system, which represents your current playing ability, players who were rarely seen winning prizes are now able to compete, thus increasing their enjoyment of the game. 

"The system is constantly being reviewed by the World Handicapping Authority so will continue to evolve."

The counting of general play rounds has come in for some criticism from golfers who are used to counting competition rounds only. 

Golfers could report non-competition rounds for handicap counting purposes provided they had another Golf Ireland member willing to attest their score. 

There was a lot a commentary during the year about the recording of general play scores as a way of managing handicaps. 

It must be remembered that there was much talk on the same Issue under the old CONGU system, the term handicap building was applied in many instances where golfers were thought to be manipulating the system. 

Players in that instance would have to enter a club or open competition but the opportunity to submit a score to effect a change in handicap. Now scores from casual rounds can be counted once the player has another Golf Ireland member willing to approve the score submission. 

Bailie points out that there are protections in place to ensure that the general play option Is not abused. 

“There are of course safeguards in place for General Play as there are for Competition Scores. 

"All General Play scores must be pre-registered for example, and the score must be verified by a marker. A player cannot decide on the third hole that they are playing well and want to register their score for handicap purposes. 

Similarly, if a player is not playing well, they cannot then decide to disregard the score.”

As general play is an Integral part of WHS, the removal seems unlikely, but clubs can put safeguards in place If they feel these are appropriate. 

In one Cork club a local rule for club competitions was introduced stating that golfers must have 50% of their counting rounds from competitions in order to win first prize. 

Another local rule required members to have at least six counting rounds (three rounds in addition to the initial 54 holes for handicap allocation) in order to win a club competition. 

It's likely that more clubs will adopt these types of rules to ensure fairness for those playing in club competitions. 

Classic organisers brought in handicap limits as a way of minimising the chances of being caught by a crack team of high handicappers.

In addition to general play scores, there was the perennial issue of Cups and Shields – or the Inter-Club event as they are now known. 

For several years the Bruen, Purcell and others have been criticised, with repeat winners at provincial and national level leading to questions about the winners actual playing abilities. 

Those questions were repeated in 2021 but the issue of pennant winners qualifying to play in the same competition the following year. Like previous years it’s unlikely that anything will change for 2022.


Pauline Bailie adds that club committees have an Important part in maintaining the integrity of member handicaps. 

“The underlying issue here is not with General Play, but with players who try to circumvent the system to gain an unfair advantage - either upwards or downwards. 

"Ultimately, golf is a game of honour, and a player should act with integrity. Handicap Committees play a vital role in the successful administration of their members’ handicaps and if a player is found to be manipulating their handicap, the committee has the option to apply penalty scores, reset a Handicap Index, consider disciplinary procedures, or withdraw a Handicap Index for an agreed period [following relevant processes and procedures]. 

"Additionally, a member who attests to inaccurate scores is equally culpable and risks losing their handicap if they are caught.”

2022 will give everyone another chance to see the new system in action, and while it’s unlikely that any major changes will happen next year, handicap committees and Golf Ireland will be more familiar with the application of the rules and it is likely that the local rules and guidance from the governing body will deal with issues that persist.

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