Although summer rules seem like a distance away, March 2016 will mark the first change to upward handicap adjustments in over a decade. New rules will limit handicap increases to a maximum of one shot per year. The term handicap-builder or bandit has been widely used in golf. Sometimes it’s meant in jest but other times it’s a far from humour that’s intended. While golf is known as a game of honour, managing handicaps has become an accepted manoeuvre by some golfers. While club golfers will be acutely aware of the handicapping rules and regulations, casual golfers may not know that although you are allocated a handicap initially, and that a handicap may fall as you get better, handicaps can also increase if you are not playing well. If you don’t play to your handicap (and are outside the buffer zone of 2-4 shots) your handicap is increased by 0.1. If you get enough of these increases then your playing handicap goes up and in theory increases your chances of winning. Many golfers place the blame for this gradual development on clubs and competition organisers. Over the past decade the value of prizes has increased dramatically in some cases. With the limit for prizes in amateur competitions stretched out to around €750, some clubs view this as a target and not an upper limit. With the increased value in prizes, golfers have used handicap increases as a tool to increase their chances of winning. That point is probably the most widely discussed topic in golf, as there’s a widespread belief that some golfers used the “point one” system to increase their chances of winning notwithstanding their true ability. Up until now it was common for some golfers to accrue twenty 0.1 increases in a playing season. Playing twenty or more qualifying rounds isn’t an issue when summer rules run from March to October and between club competitions and open singles competitions, golfers have an opportunity to play in a competition almost every day of the week.
The new rules have been broadly welcomed by all categories of golfers. From 2016, not only can a golfer only get a maximum increase of one shot, the increase is measured from his lowest playing handicap in that year. That means that if a golfer starts the year on 14.6 (playing handicap of 15), and he gets cut by 1.2 for beating standard scratch by four shots, the maximum increase that he can now get back in that year will bring him back to a playing handicap of 14. That’s because his new lowest handicap is 13.4, and the highest he can go is to 14.4. The new limit will prevent a golfer from going back to his old handicap is he’s cut by more than one shot.
Regular commentator and scratch golfer Joe Lyons was quick to come out in support of the changes. Joe runs the popular Irish Golf Noticeboard on Facebook and he led the charge in exposing the issue. “The extent of the handicapping problem cannot be underestimated” said Lyons”. “A player’s handicap is first and foremost his or her responsibility however the culture within clubs needs to be addressed. Handicap building has been tolerated and to a lesser extent encouraged by some clubs. Last year I had a conversation with a former handicap secretary of a local club who suggested that the Junior members of that particular club should have been told not to drop below five handicap in order to remain eligible for Junior Cup the following year. I have to say I was none too impressed with the suggestion that anyone should be advising Junior members to manipulate their handicap. Surely as with any sport we should be trying to play to best of our ability and compete at the highest possible level anytime we compete.”
One other change that’s likely to cause some discussion, especially among better golfers, is the changing of the fourball handicap allowance from ¾ of the handicap difference to 90% of the difference. This is will give the pair with the higher handicap a better chance but to be fair to CONGU, the statistics back up this change. In making these changes, CONGU reaffirmed that the changes are to support their primary objective, namely “the aim of assisting club members to have handicaps which truly reflect their playing ability.” CONGU is a representative body for all of the home nations that is responsible for official handicaps for all golfers in the United Kingdom and Ireland. The 2016 changes follow a standard review of the operation of handicaps and the current changes will remain in place until the end of 2019. It was also signalled that this may be the final cycle of CONGU rule changes as talks about a new international handicapping system will commence shortly.