The Handicap May Finally Go Global

Say you meet a 12-handicap golfer from Australia on the first tee at St. Andrews in Scotland. If your U.S. handicap index also happens to be 12, you might suggest a friendly little money game, with no strokes given. Bad move.

That’s because Golf Australia, the sport’s governing body there, doesn’t calculate handicaps the way that the U.S. Golf Association does. Handicap formulas also vary in Great Britain and Ireland, continental Europe, South Africa and Argentina. Similarly handicapped golfers from those regions won’t necessarily be better players than their U.S. counterparts, but they might be. There’s no way to know based simply on their index.

In three or four years, things could be different. The USGA is leading an effort to get the world’s six handicapping authorities on the same page. The U.S. handicap system, including the USGA’s course rating and Slope system, would be the basis for the proposed World Handicap System, but it would incorporate the best elements from the other handicapping schemes. Among the likely changes U.S. golfers would notice: daily adjustments to the handicap formula to reflect playing conditions. A 92 posted on a cold rainy day with howling wind would count for more than a 92 shot in benign conditions.

This initiative is the final piece in a long-term push for unified golf governance around the world. In the last decade or so, the USGA and its governing partner, the R&A (which oversees the game everywhere but in the U.S. and Mexico) have pretty much consolidated the game in three other areas: the playing rules of golf, equipment regulations and most recently the code of amateur status.

“The handicap system is effectively a fourth set of rules,” said John Bodenhamer, the USGA’s point man for the initiative. Not all golfers keep a handicap, of course, but for those who do the score-posting requirements enforce a rules-like discipline. Yet those rules deviate from country to country. “We feel it would benefit the game enormously, and add to its enjoyment, if golfers everywhere had a single, portable handicap number that worked the same wherever they traveled,” Bodenhamer said.

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