What You Need to Know About Golf's World Handicap System

Golfer in a golf cart marking his scorecard.

 Tinpixels/E+/Getty Images

The World Handicap System (WHS) was developed by the USGA and R&A in conjunction with existing golf handicapping authorities, with the goal of creating a single, consistent way of acquiring, calculating, and applying golf handicaps.

What does that mean for golfers? In terms of actions required by golfers or changes to their previous handicap numbers, not much. The World Handicap System was designed to make the transition from the previous systems to the new one as seamless as possible.

However, there were bigger changes behind the scenes, and golfers might, in fact, notice small adjustments to their handicap numbers as they migrate into the WHS, as well as some differences in terminology or some features that didn't previously exist for their region.

Key Takeaways: The New World Handicap System

  • The World Handicap System went into effect across the golf world in 2020, replacing the six regional handicap authorities golfers previously played under.
  • Among the most important changes under the new system is a per-hole maximum score of net double bogey; and a "playing handicap" that takes into account daily course and weather conditions.

WHS Replaces Regional Handicap Systems

The World Handicap System rolled out across the golf world throughout 2020, beginning in the United States in January and concluding in CONGU regions (the UK and Ireland) late in the year.

Prior to the creation of the WHS, most golfers around the world who carried handicap indexes had those handicaps governed by one of six different authorities: The USGA, CONGU, European Golf Association, South African Golf Association, Golf Australia, or Argentine Golf Association.

Six different governing authorities meant six different handicapping systems. And that meant golfers from regions governed by different systems had a hard time converting their handicaps when traveling or playing against golfers from different parts of the world.

The WHS eliminates or smooths over those differences, making handicaps portable around the golf world. The regional handicap authorities still exist, and there is room within the WHS for some regional difference to remain. But those differences will be much smaller—the big stuff is standardized.

Takes Course Rating, Slope Rating Worldwide

Course Rating and Slope Rating were both USGA projects and have been adopted haphazardly in different parts of the golf world. Under the World Handicap System, "The Course Rating System" incorporates both and becomes a worldwide standard, with almost all golf courses around the world rated under the same system using the same standards.

Fewer Scores Needed and Fewer Used in Calculation

The number of played holes required for a golfer to get her first handicap index is as low as 54 (the regional authorities have the ability to set higher requirements), in any combination of 9-hole or 18-hole rounds.

The maximum handicap index issued under the WHS is 54 for both men and women, an increase. Both the reduction in holes required and the increase in maximum handicap are intended to encourage more golfers to get handicaps.

The handicap calculation has also been modified slightly in ways that make it more of an average of the golfer's best scores. Under the previous USGA system, for example, the 10 best of a golfer's 20 most recent scores were used, then multiplied by 96%; in Australia, the multiplier was 93%. Under the WHS, only the eight best of the golfer's 20 most recent scores are used, and there is no further reduction of the resulting handicap index.

Maximum Score Allowed: Net Double Bogey

The scores used in the handicap calculation are not gross (actual) scores, but "adjusted gross scores." That means adding up the golfer's scores using net double bogey as the maximum score allowed, for handicap purposes, on any given hole.

What is a net double bogey? The specific stroke total that constitutes net double bogey will differ from hole to hole based on each hole's par rating and the golfer's handicap. Always, though, take the hole's par rating, add two strokes (for a double bogey), and add any handicap strokes you get on that hole. The resulting number is your net double bogey for that hole.

Sometimes a golfer will get three handicap strokes on a hole, sometimes two or one, sometimes zero. Net double bogey is always the maximum for handicap purposes under the WHS. (For golfers previously under the USGA system, net double bogey replaces equitable stroke control.) 

Adjustments for Rounds Played in Bad Conditions

What the USGA has always called "course handicap"—an adjustment to one's handicap index to account for the specific golf course being played—is called a "playing handicap" under the World Handicap System.

The change in wording is significant. A playing handicap considers not only the rated difficulty of a golf course being played, but also the conditions under which the round of golf takes place. That might mean some type of condition on the golf course itself that changes from day to day. Or it might mean playing in poor weather, such as strong winds, for example, or rain. Those elements affect golfers' scores, and through its playing handicap, the WHS has the ability to take those conditions into account.

How to Find More Info

The official website of the World Handicap System is WHS.com, and golfers can go there to do a deep dive. The site's resources include an Association Finder, allowing golfers to search for national or regional groups authorized to administer WHS handicaps.

Many state and provincial golf associations around the world are also posting WHS resources and explainers, as are the game's two governing bodies, the R&A and USGA, who collaborated to produce it.