Your golf handicap is about to become more accurate. Here’s how

Golf scorecards with pencils and tees

Updates to the World Handicap System will allow for scores from short courses, and much more.

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Raise your hand if this has happened to you. A narrow window opens in your schedule, so you sneak out to play 9 holes.

You quite like it. You’re not alone.

As golf has boomed in recent years, with participation swelling in this country and beyond, 9-hole rounds have grown in popularity, too.

They’re fun. They’re fast. They’re great for beginners.

There’s just one drawback: In many countries, the United States included, a single 9-hole score can’t be counted toward your handicap index. (Don’t have a handicap yet? You can register for one here.) Under the current system, you have to wait until you play another nine, and then combine those two scores into an 18-hole total. In the interlude between those 9-hole outings — maybe it’s a few days, maybe it’s a month, or more — you may feel that your index is not as up-to-date a snapshot of your play as it could be. You would not be wrong.

Something similar applies if you play a par-3 course or an executive course, which are all the rage these days as well. There are thousands of these shorter layouts around the world, providing golfers with a Goldilocks experience, a sweet spot, in particular, for beginners, families and anyone pressed for time. Good, clean fun, on a smaller footprint.

Again, though, there’s a catch. Because many of these shorter courses have not been assigned a Course Rating or Slope Rating, the scores you post on them can’t be counted toward your handicap, either.

Double bummer.

And yet … all of that is about to change.

On Wednesday, the USGA and the R&A announced the first quadrennial update to the World Handicap System (WHS), which was established in January 2020 as a way to unify millions of golfers around the globe through a standard measure of playing ability.

Under the changes, which will take effect Jan. 1, 2024, the length requirements for Course Rating in the WHS will be significantly reduced, with courses as short as 750 yards for 9 holes and 1,500 yards for 18 holes brought into the fold. If you play one of those newly rated courses, you’ll be able to post the score toward your handicap.

At the same time, the updated system will have an improved method for handling holes not played. If you play only 9 holes (or 10 to 17 holes, for that matter), the system will generate an 18-hole score on the spot. No waiting. That score will be applied toward your handicap index the next day.

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“When we look at trends and pore over data, and we see things like the popularity of short courses and the number of 9-hole rounds that are being played, you can bet we’re going to do our best to be responsive,” says Steve Edmondson, the USGA’s managing director of handicapping and course rating. “The goal is to be as accurate as possible, and to meet golfers where they are.”

Where golfers are today is not where they were a generation back. Or even where they were just before the pandemic. Since the birth of the WHS, in 2020, more than 100 million rounds have been posted each year, and the governing bodies have been taking stock of them. Among the revelations: While 9-hole rounds have grown increasingly common for golfers of all stripes, they’re especially popular for newbies to the game. Over the past year, 9-hole rounds accounted for more than 45 percent of scores posted by female beginner golfers, and 21 percent of scores posted by male beginner golfers. 

The updated WHS will make it easier for them — and many others — to obtain and maintain a handicap. Let’s say you play 9 holes. Rather than make you wait until you play another 9 on another day, and maybe even on another course (factors that can introduce all kinds of variables), the system will produce an 18-hole tally that combines your score for the holes you completed with your “expected score” on the rest — your expected score being what a player of your ability would be expected to shoot on a course of standard difficulty. In this calculation, more weight will be placed on the holes you played than on the holes you didn’t complete.

While playing 10 to 17 holes is less common than playing 9 (it mostly tends to happen on account of bad weather, darkness or a match ending early), the updated WHS will have a better way of handling that, too. For starters, you won’t have to play 13 holes; under the current system, if you don’t make it through 13, your scores on holes 10, 11 and 12 don’t count. What’s more, instead of using net par to calculate an 18-hole score, as the system currently does, the updated WHS will add the player’s Score Differential from holes played to the player’s expected Score Differential for holes not played.

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In other words, where the current system is “course dependent,” relying on a player’s Course Handicap and where strokes are received to calculate a score for holes not played, the new system removes the course from consideration. The thinking behind this makes good sense: Because you didn’t play those holes, the course difficulty should have no impact.

We’re starting to get into the weeds here, but the upshot across the board is this: greater accuracy, equity and consistency.

Though the updates take effect on Jan. 1, any handicap adjustments triggered by them will not show up until the middle of the month. The governing bodies have the holidays in mind, and they want to make sure that they’re fully staffed and ready with tech support to respond to any potential glitches. Come mid-January, any 9-hole rounds waiting for their mate will be paired; any short-course score recorded since the start of the new year will show up in the system around that time as well, provided that that short course has been rated

On that note: As of now, roughly a quarter of the short courses in this country have been rated. Plans call for half of them to be rated by the spring of 2024, and the rest completed by the end of the year — all with help from allied golf associations.

We’re not quite finished. The WHS updates include two other changes. One is a refinement of the methods used to make handicap adjustments based on abnormal playing conditions (long story short, the new system will be more sensitive, and thus more likely to make such adjustments). The other change will bring additional guidance to handicap committees conducting handicap reviews, with new tools to help sort through the potential headache of outlier scores and other inconsistencies.

You can read more about that and all the other WHS updates here.

Meantime, got time for a quick 9?

Don’t have a handicap yet, what are you waiting for? Register for your own Handicap Index here.

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