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Explained: How golf's new world handicap system will work as Golfing Union of Ireland signs up

You're right to look confused, Rory.
You're right to look confused, Rory.
Gareth Hanna

By Gareth Hanna

The Irish golfing unions have announced that, along with fellow governing bodies in England, Scotland Wales, they have signed up to the new world handicap system, which will be implemented in November 2020.

The R&A and the USGA have come together to plan for a unified way of governing amateur golfers' handicaps, meaning players can travel to any course across the globe and use their club handicap.

How does it work? Well, we'll warn you now, this all isn't easy.

But if you're in a comfy seat and have a cup of tea in hand, here's a deep dive into the new handicap system and how it's all going to work:

What are the key changes?

  • No longer will players have a fixed handicap figure, used on all courses in all conditions. Rather, golfers will have a 'handicap index' used to calculate their 'playing handicap' for each course. So on one course you could be off six and on another course off seven.
  • The maximum handicap is now 54.0, regardless of gender, in a bid to get more players to take up the game.
  • A player's handicap will now be based on the eight best scores from their last 20 competitive rounds.
  • If you already have a handicap, it will be used to calculate your initial 'handicap index' - your new exact handicap figure.

So how exactly will the new world handicapping system work?

There are several key phrases you need to know the definition of. As we work our way through those, the pieces of the puzzle should slot together.

How courses will be rated

Each course will be given both a 'course rating' and a 'slope rating' by trained teams of officials. These will be used to determine how difficult the track is for scratch golfers and bogey golfers.

A scratch golfer is off zero while a bogey golfer, according to the USGA, is a player who has a handicap index of between 17.5 and 22.4.

But hitting distance is also a factor. The definition of a scratch golfer also includes the ability to drive the ball 250 yards as a male or 210 yards as a female. For a bogey golfer, it's 200 yards for a male and 150 yards for a female.

These definitions enable the officials to give the course both a scratch rating and a bogey rating by assessing the relevant landing areas and who the hazards impact most on each hole.

Course rating

The scratch rating is used as the 'course rating' figure in the handicap system. This is the number of strokes required to play the course by the average scratch golfer on the average day. For example, for a relatively easy par 72, the course rating could be 71.2.

The bogey rating is the number of strokes taken by the average bogey golfer to play the course on an average day. That is significant as it is used to calculate the slope rating.

Slope rating

This number reflects the relative difficulty of a course for scratch golfers and bogey golfers and is used to extrapolate the difficulty level for the whole range of handicaps.

The slope rating is calculated currently by the USGA using the following formula: Slope rating = (Bogey rating - course rating) x 5.381 (for men) or 4.24 (for women).

So, for example, if our hypothetical par 72 course has a course rating of 71.2 and a bogey rating of 90.2, the calculation would be: 19 x 5.381 for men. That gives the men's tees a slope rating of 102.2.

Handicap Differential

So say a player goes round our hypothetical course in 77 shots. There's another fun calculation required to turn that score into a handicap differential, which will be used in the new system.

The handicap differential is calculated by multiplying the difference between the gross score and the course rating by 113 and then dividing by the slope rating.

In mathematical terms it's: Handicap Differential = (Gross Score - Course Rating) x 113 ÷ Slope Rating

So, for our hypothetical score on our hypothetical course, the handicap differential is: 6.4

It's that figure that goes forward into the pool of the player's most recent scores. The best eight are then selected and a simple average taken to calculate the player's handicap index. There will be additional allowances for exceptionally good scores and past performance to prevent huge upward or downward movements in handicap index.

Similar to our current standard scratch system, this figure won't be confirmed until the competition is closed and the playing conditions are taken into account.

Playing handicap

Of course, you don't play off your handicap index when you turn up on the first tee. Rather, your index is turned into a playing handicap for that particular round, based on the course's relative difficult, as judged by its course rating and slope rating.

The calculation for this one is: Handicap index x slope rating ÷ 113.

So if we use a handicap index of 6.4 and play the course in our example, our course handicap would be: 6.4 x 102.2 ÷ 113 = 5.78

So the playing handicap for that course would be rounded up to 6 and that's the figure that would be used for matches on that course.

And that's it. Easy, eh?

Where are we now?

We're awaiting all of our courses being rated before we can work out what our handicaps at our various clubs will be from November 2, 2020. It'll probably take until then for us all to get our heads round this new system...

The good news is that, when it comes in, the computer will do all the calculating.


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