April 27

World Handicap System: Everything You Need to Know

The new World Handicap System (WHS) was introduced at the start of 2020.

But did you know that, until this time, there were 6 distinct handicap systems in use around the world?

They were obviously similar to one another, but each one of them was slightly different from the others in some unique ways.

But, since one of the primary objectives of providing golfers with official handicaps is to enable them to play anywhere in the world and to compete with others on a fair and equitable basis, the fact that so many different systems existed was obviously inconsistent with that goal. 

So, finally recognizing the problems inherent in utilizing multiple handicap systems, golf’s major governing bodies came together to implement and publish a single, unifying system for use around the world.  

Earlier in 2020, the United States Golf Association (USGA) and the R&A, working together with the existing handicapping authorities, introduced the World Handicap System, which will finally consolidate the multiple handicap calculations from all of the existing systems into a single, portable Index.  

This is a very welcome development.

A History Lesson

It’s estimated that only about 15-20% of all golfers actually have an official handicap index.  

That means that a large portion of the golfing public is probably unfamiliar with handicap systems in general, why they were invented, and how they have evolved.   

So before we get into explaining how the new World Handicap System works, and how it differs from the current systems that many have become familiar with, let’s take a step back and look at the interesting history of handicapping in golf. 


How Golf Handicapping Began

Great Britain and Ireland

Golf historians believe that the earliest known use of handicaps in golf was back in the late 17th century.

In the diary of a Scottish student at the time, which was later uncovered, there were references to how strokes were given in a golf match and on which holes they would be in effect, and that these negotiations were conducted prior to the beginning of a round.  

This was the first known “system” that was used to make sure that a competition would be fair between golfers of different abilities.  

Although the actual term “handicap” didn’t come into popular use until two centuries later, this was the precursor to what would eventually evolve into the handicapping system.

The methods used in an effort to make golf matches more equitable continued to evolve over the years and in the late 19th century, golfers began to rely on a calculation that factored in the average of someone’s best three scores during the year.  

The formula used at that time was to calculate the difference between this three score average and par, and that differential became the golfer’s handicap.  

But as golf grew, so did discontent with the fairness of handicapping, with less proficient players being particularly unhappy as it was much less realistic for them to always play to the standard of their three score average.  

It was becoming obvious that a better system was required.

Eventually, the golfing authorities knew that they had to come up with a fairer, standardized system.  

But it wasn’t until the formation of the British Golf Union’s Joint Advisory Committee in 1924 that an official system was introduced and made standard throughout Great Britain and Ireland.  

This system was initially published in the Standard Scratch Score and Handicapping Scheme in 1926.

The United States Golf Association

While all this was going on in the U.K., the USGA in America was also working to devise a single, standardized handicapping system.  

While the USGA’s system was based initially on the old “three score average” method that Great Britain had used, they further incorporated new calculations that took into account a “par rating,” which was designed to make someone’s handicap more portable. 

 It also made clear that a player’s handicap was intended to reflect their potential rather than their average play.  

This was an important concept that has remained central to handicapping systems to this day.

The USGA Handicap System has continued to develop further through the years, with an increase to the number of scores used for handicap calculations, the introduction of Equitable Stroke Control, and improvements to the course rating system.  

Probably the most significant change was the creation of the slope rating system, which enables handicaps to allow for differences in difficulty between scratch and bogey golfers.

But while individual governing bodies were working to refine and enhance their respective systems, the obvious problem remained.  

There were too many different systems in place around the world that prevented handicaps from one system from being converted for use in another system.  

This was the primary issue that was the genesis of the push to develop a new World Handicap System.


Introducing the "World Handicap System"

Work on the new World Handicap System actually began back in 2011 and finally, in 2018, the USGA and the R&A announced that the WHS would be launched in 2020.  

So now, for players the world over, there is a single, unified system in effect that governs the way handicaps are calculated and administered.

For the most part, the WHS largely follows the USGA Handicap System.  

But there are some significant differences that are worth noting.

The WHS’s Most Significant Changes

In many ways, getting and keeping a handicap index under the World Handicap System will be identical to the way it was done under the previous handicap systems.  

However, there are some important changes that all golfers should understand.

1. Number of rounds needed to obtain a handicap

Under the previous system, a player needed a minimum of five rounds to be able to obtain a handicap Index.

With the introduction of the WHS, that minimum number has been reduced to three rounds (54 holes). And keep in mind that the 54 holes that are required can be derived from any combination of 18-hole or 9-hole scores.

2. Number of rounds used by WHS to calculate your Index

Your new Handicap Index will be more responsive to good scores by averaging your eight best scores out of your most recent 20.

The previous system used a slightly different metric, counting the best ten out of your most recent 20 scores posted to calculate your Index. 

3. Change to the maximum Index a golfer can carry

The prior system had established maximums for the handicap Index an individual player could be assigned.

For men that maximum was 36.4, and for women the maximum was 40.4.

Under the new WHS, that maximum Index has been increased to 54. 

4. Frequency of revisions to your Index

Golfers who have had a handicap Index in the past will remember that the handicap system would publish the revisions to your handicap Index two times a month, on the 1st and the 15th of the month.

But by modernizing the technology (making the WHS a cloud-based service, among other things), revisions to your Index will now be made daily.

You will know from one day to the next what you updated Index is.

Now, a player’s updated Handicap Index will become active the day after their score is posted.

5. Formula used to calculate your Index

In the pre-WHS handicap system, your Course Handicap represented the number of strokes a player would have received in relation to the Course Rating of the tees being played.  The formula for that calculation was: 

Course Handicap = Handicap Index x Slope Rating / 113

With the implementation of the WHS, that calculation has now been changed.  Your Course Handicap now represents the number of strokes a player will receive in relation to the Par of the tees being played. 

The formula now includes a Course-Rating-minus-Par adjustment:

Course Handicap = Handicap Index × (Slope Rating ÷ 113) + (Course Rating – Par)

Applying Course-Rating-minus-Par within the Course Handicap calculation allows players to compete from different tees without any adjustment having to be made.

Note: Devised by the USGA, the Slope Rating of a golf course describes the relative difficulty of a course for a bogey golfer compared to a scratch golfer.  Slope Ratings are in the range 55 to 155, with a course of standard relative difficulty having a rating of 113; the higher the number, the more relatively difficult the course is. That explains why the number 113 appears in the handicap formulas.

6. Maximum of Double Bogey

The previous handicap systems used a complicated method of determining the maximum score a golfer could post for any given hole. That calculation was governed by a procedure called “Equitable Stroke Control (ESC).”

Under the WHS, ESC has been replaced by a much simpler standard.

Now, the maximum score that any player can post on any one hole (for handicap purposes) is Net Double Bogey.

The calculation is straightforward:

Par + 2 + any handicap strokes you receive on that hole

7. Playing Conditions Calculation

Under the older systems, handicap calculations used only three inputs:  

  • The course rating
  •  The course slope
  •  The score you posted

With the WHS, however, a 4th input can now potentially be factored in.

Now included in the Index calculations is a possible adjustment to your posted score based on the severity of the weather conditions on the day that you play.

Recognizing the obvious, that a round played in 30 mph winds is much more difficult than a round played in ideal weather, WHS incorporates a score adjustment for golfers who had to deal with abnormal course or weather conditions during their round.

In short, it is rightfully being conceded that a higher score in difficult conditions is often a much better performance than a lower score on a calm day.

The way that the system determines whether or not the Playing Conditions Adjustment needs to be invoked is to analyze all of the scores posted on a given day at a particular golf course.

If it detects unusually high (or low) scores posted by at least eight golfers, a built-in adjustment takes place.

8. Soft and Hard Cap limits on Index movement

Everyone who has played golf in any type of competitive format (a club championship, a team best ball event, etc.) can unfortunately attest to the fact that, on occasion, unethical golfers will try to “game” the handicapping system by padding their Index prior to the competition to gain an advantage on other players in the field.

The common term for this behavior is “sandbagging.”

Under the WHS, there is now a built-in protection to prevent this kind of behavior.

The system notes an individual’s lowest Index on record for the past 12 months and establishes that as the baseline for these caps.

The “soft cap” involves a reduction in your Index if it climbs more than three strokes, while the “hard cap” establishes a limit of upward movement of five strokes at any point within the 12-month period.

Summary of the Changes:


Previous Handicap System

World Handicap System (WHS)

Rounds needed to establish a handicap

(5) 18-hole scores

(3) 18-hole scores

Number of scores used in the Index calculation

10 best of last 20 scores

8 best of last 20 scores

Maximum handicap Index

36.4 Men
40.4 Women


Frequency of updates

On 1st and 15th of Month


Course Handicap Formula

Handicap Index x Slope Rating /113

Handicap Index x (Slope Rating/113) + Course rating - Par

Maximum score on a hole

Equitable Stroke Control

Net Double Bogey

Adjustment for abnormal weather


Playing Conditions Adjustment

Limits on handicap movement


Soft and Hard Cap Limits


A key objective of the initiative to develop and implement a single, unified, global handicapping structure was to develop a modern system, enabling as many golfers as possible to obtain and maintain a Handicap Index.  

Golfers are now able to transport their Handicap Index anywhere and compete or play a casual round with players from other parts of the world on a fair basis.

The introduction of the World Handicap System is a significant step forward from the medley of systems that existed previously.  

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