Is a World Handicap System enough?

By | June 2, 2017

World Handicap System in the Works via USGA.org

More than 15 million golfers in more than 80 countries currently have a handicap, a numerical index long used as a measure of a golfer’s potential skill level. Today, handicaps are delivered through six different systems in the world.

The aim of the proposed handicap system is to adopt a universal set of principles and procedures that would apply all over the world.

Of course, coming up with a worldwide system for calculating golf handicaps is a good idea. It’s one of those things that makes you ask, “Why wasn’t it standardized already?”

It does feel like an initiative with limited benefits. I assume the systems weren’t standardized before because it’s a rare problem to have. What percentage of golfer’s run into issues trying to transfer their handicaps for international competition? No harm in solving the problem I suppose.

What I believe to be a bigger issue is the continued complexity and confusion surrounding the process of maintaining and using a legal handicap in the first place. The USGA Handicap System Manual is massive. Thankfully we have computers to do the math for us. But does it need to be so complex?

For example, does everyone understand the guidelines surrounding the ESC system? Show of hands? Not bad, but not nearly everyone. The ESC (or Equitable Stroke System) is the set of rules controlling the maximum score you can post on a hole for handicap purposes. When I was coming up, decades ago, I understood the rule to be a maximum of a double bogey on any given hole. That isn’t right today. At least it isn’t right for me. It might be right for you. Confused?

Here is an excerpt from the USGA Handicap Manual discussing the ESC system:
ESC is used when a player’s actual or most likely score exceeds a maximum number, based on the table below, for the player’s Course Handicap from the tees played. (For nine-hole Equitable Stroke Control table, See Section 10-5c.)


Example: A player with a Course Handicap of 6 has a maximum number of par plus two strokes (double bogey) for any hole. A player with a Course Handicap of 13 has a maximum number of 7 for any hole regardless of par. A player with a Course Handicap of 42 has a maximum number of 10 for any hole.

Again, thank goodness for computers.

Golfers who want to establish a handicap can still do so easily enough. Many local courses will sell you access to the GHIN handicap system. There are a few online services that might be able to get you an approved handicap with some limitations. We type in our score, wait for the computer magic to happen, and get a handicap. Then we take that number, convert it for the course we are playing, and enjoy a day of competition either with ourselves or other players.

But is that handicap fair and equitable? Are we using it correctly on the given day? If we have golfers out there setting and using their handicaps in a manner they believe to be correct, but isn’t, then the rules need correcting. Hopefully, the minds at the USGA and R&A will soon expand their efforts to simplify the rules of golf to the handicap system as well.