WHS? WTF!

At an intellectual level I can understand a world handicapping system. On a practical level I can’t understand why vast amounts of money and time are being expended in its creation. Let’s face it; you don’t have many Brazilians, Rumanians or Egyptians lining up to play in your 3-Man Team Open.

I can see it is a potential issue at the top level, where handicap validity is a key element of getting into top events when a handicap ballot applies. When the bloke from Bahrain enters the Amateur off +1.8 you need to know it is a genuine number that the guy can play too. I get that. But why the bloody hell do the rest of us have to get sucked into your megalomania?

To the rest of us, the other 99% of the golf world who aren’t elite players, does having a handicap you can play off in Lima, London or Los Angeles actually matter? Pretty obviously no.

Handicaps are a vexed issue. You can’t spend over 15 years in club management and fail to recognise this. You can’t step into any golf clubhouse in the world and fail to appreciate this. The conversations always seem to revolve around someone’s score, the validity of their handicap, “he’s never 15”, the introduction of maximums of 54 etc., etc.

In the UK we’ve been operating under the auspices of the CONGU Scheme since 1984. I’m sure students of Orwell will find something significant in that date. Being so old I can recall prior to this date we ran, effectively, two systems, depending on your handicap. 6 and above the club ran it; 5 and below you recorded it but the County authority administered it, confirming details with the club. It was simple.

At club level if you beat your handicap by 1 or 2 strokes you went down a shot; by 3 then down 2, by 4 then down 3 and so on. And that’s where you stayed until the annual review. If you’d done nothing else, or there was a poor year, back up you went. Now that could be harsh, but the compensation was in the match play allowances (and in my memory we played more social matches then). Higher handicaps got fewer shots, which actually was an incentive to improve. All the stroke play was to the established Standard Scratch Score, with no performance or weather variables – the SSS was the number. And if you didn’t play to your handicap there was no immediate change.

Playing to your handicap had meaning then. Getting 40 points in a better ball stableford from ¾ allowance would mean you and your pal would probably win. These days you’ll be 20th.

For the Category 1 guys of 5 and under, to retain or reduce your handicap you had to play to it/beat it 3 times in 9 scores, or 4 times in 12, again to an unmoving SSS number. Fail in that and up a shot you’d go. Try that as a member at a huge, windy, seaside links. Being a scratch golfer really meant something. I have neither the time, energy nor mathematical knowledge, but reworking some top amateur player’s performances to those criteria might produce a surprise or two. I have a suspicion the odd +1 or +2 modern guy would be revealed to truly be a 2-handicapper. I know I would be at least 3 on the old system, and am currently 1.

And this system had none of the greatest stupidity of the current approach. If you just wanted to go bash it round with your mates, you just went right ahead. Nobody was looking over your shoulder suggesting you were a second-class citizen because you didn’t play competitions, or telling you your handicap wasn’t worth it unless you’d put in three cards each year – because make no mistake; that is how those forced to put in said cards these days feel about it.

The introduction of the active/inactive handicap concept (now softened to competitive/social) cost every club membership. That condescending little “i” on the handicap list led to endless “what’s the point if my handicap’s invalid” (member’s interpretation) conversations. People left because of it. I suspect UK clubs lost thousands of members. Lunacy.

Since 1984 we have experienced manifold tweaks and changes. No buffer zone, to two shots for all to multiple buffer zones. 0.2 increases for a fail back to 0.1 – yes, that’s right. In the first year of the system everyone got a shot back to start the year, there was no buffer zone at all and a 0.2 increase if you missed your handicap. And you wonder why there have been continuing problems with dodgy handicaps and increasing winning scores.

And I continually ask the same question. To what end? What have we achieved by trying to squeeze everyone into an inappropriate, one size fits all system? Discord, distrust, disbelief and disinterest.

Most golfers don’t understand how their handicaps work, which is no surprise. I know how CSS is worked out, but most golfers can’t fathom why it doesn’t go up on a day when virtually no one beats their handicap. Logic tells them low score is the criterion that matters. Actually logic tells me that too. In any event, leaving the club after a competition and having ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA how your handicap will be affected until someone runs a computer programme is just daft.

Whatever we need at the moment, which above all is greater simplicity, I can almost guarantee it won’t be what we’ll get. There is now way too much money and standing involved. The old system you could run yourself on a spreadsheet; now clubs have to pay a provider hundreds, if not thousands of pounds a year to provide the necessary software.

Every course in England and Wales and a fair number in Scotland and Northern Ireland, will have to be re-rated as in the UK we switch to Slope Rating, a scheme I note is trademarked to the USGA; few bob there then, eh chaps?

Hope you’re all looking forward to explaining (Handicap Index/2) x (Slope Rating/113) when someone asks you what they’re paying off today. Simplicity?

Learn the lessons is, I guess, what I’m saying. The “full” system we have now really only needs to apply to Category 1, maybe at an extreme stretch for local league purposes, Category 2 (up to 12 handicap). For the rest of golfing humanity, which is the overwhelming majority hitting the small white ball, it is a complete irrelevance. Strange as it may seem to the golfing authorities, the clubs in fact are entirely competent to administer their members’ handicaps. Let them do it.

Was there ever a bigger slap in the face of UK clubs than the introduction of a National system, a more effective way of saying “you know what, we actually don’t trust you guys to do this right”. Not that I can think of. Then again, those sending the message all started in the clubs, and it’s not always the cream which rises to the top.

And here comes a shock to those who know me. I believe if the “full” scheme is misguidedly to apply to all golfers then the one we need is actually the USGA one. I know, every individual score returned, competitive and social, pace of play yadda, yadda, yadda. But let’s face it. If we want a handicap scheme that is a genuine reflection of a given player’s current performance how else is it going to be achieved?

There is little doubt in my mind that the introduction of a WHS is entirely concerned with the top end of the playing of the game, and more particularly the standing of some of its administrators – “look what I’VE done” – than the genuine needs of our game worldwide. Do you really think this is going to up participation numbers? Quite. So when your national affiliation dues rise have no doubt about why.

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