The debate continues: Is the World Handicap System's 54-handicap limit a good thing or do we need to go back to the drawing board?

It might be a new year, and there might have been a few revisions, but the World Handicap System is still a source of contention for many golfers – especially when it comes to the maximum handicap limit of 54.

I’ve talked a lot about the World Handicap System in the past. I’ve questioned whether the new approach to handicaps is all it’s cracked up to be in terms of accessibility and inclusivity. And I’ve questioned whether, in some cases, it’s actually having a detrimental impact on the game, in particular on women’s golf.

To say my articles have been met with some hot debate would be an understatement (let’s just say it’s a good thing I have thicker skin than the stereotype of my generation would have you believe).

But this week we received a comment from a reader that I just couldn’t resist replying to.

Our reader said …

The World Handicap System was introduced to encourage more people to become involved in golf. A good idea. It was, however, a system introduced by golfing administrators, who are all golfers, and the thinking was (I am sure) that people would soon come down to 36.

Well, that hasn’t happened, and we have people with course handicaps of 50+ after three years, who quite frankly can’t play golf and shouldn’t be allowed on the course.

What should be done?

The problem is that these golfers are no longer being accepted either in competitions nor on the course and nobody wishes to play with them. Instead of inclusivity, it becomes the opposite. There is no incentive to get better and they are just alienated.

And so, the 54 debate continues …

The WHS journey

Let’s start from the beginning. The implementation of the World Handicap System marked a significant shift in the way golf handicaps were calculated worldwide.

Its purpose was clear: to create a standardised system that levels the playing field for golfers of all skill levels.

There were a few amendments to the system at the start of 2024, but one of the most significant changes from the old system is the rise in the maximum handicap limit from 36 to 54 for women.

The 54 debate

I can see the logic of increasing the handicap limit; make it easier for women to get on the course and compete, then watch dwindling ladies’ sections thrive again.

But, unsurprisingly, things haven’t quite unfolded like that. Instead, the practicality and impact of allowing handicaps as high as 54 has been repeatedly questioned.

Lack of incentive to improve. Slow play. Competitions are being won with crazily high scores. Low handicappers feel alienated. Rifts in women’s sections. If anything, the overwhelming response from female golfers is that increasing the limit has done little else but drive exclusion, not inclusion.

On both sides of the handicap coin, it seems, women golfers feel isolated.

Solutions to the problem

I want to start here by saying that I understand this isn’t an issue at every single golf club or with every single ladies’ section. And I am sure there are plenty of examples of the new handicap limit working to get more women on the course. And anything that achieves that gets a huge tick from me, 14 stars.

However, for all its advantages, there are some disadvantages too.

Ultimately, WHS aims to create an environment where golfers of all skill levels feel welcome, motivated to improve and enjoy the game together. And I genuinely believe that with a few adjustments and inputs from club management, it could achieve that.

Here are some potential solutions to the continuing 54 debate:

Pathways for progression

Implementing programmes that provide a clear pathway for progression for new golfers will help them improve their skills over time, and give them an environment in which they feel supported to do it.

A better understanding of members

An important caveat to my point above is that not everyone who has a handicap of 54 is a new golfer. A lot are golfers returning after injury or elderly golfers who can’t hit it as far as they once could. Some are happy to play in competitions week in, and week out, and some won’t even sniff at the course on a medal day.

Having a really good understanding of their members is an easy way for golf clubs to make sure everyone has the opportunity to play the type of golf they want to play ­– competitive, non-competitive, to improve or to have fun.

It’s not enough to just put a women’s Stableford on a Tuesday and hope for the best. If the section is big enough, divide competitions by handicap categories. Create scratch events for your low handicappers or relaxed nine-hole events on quieter afternoons.

If your low handicappers are satisfied and your high handicappers are happy, then we finally start tiptoeing into a place where everyone feels welcome and comfortable.

Handicap reviews

Periodic handicap reviews are critical to ensure they accurately reflect a golfer's current skill level. They also help to ensure that the WHS is delivering on its promise of creating a level playing field.

Mentor programme

Something we’re hearing about more and more is golf clubs implementing a mentor or buddy programme for new members. It’s someone to show you the ropes and make you feel comfortable as you settle into the golf club, and it goes a long way in making a club feel so much more accessible.

The 54 debate highlights the need for ongoing discussion and potential adjustments, and I’d love to hear about your experience at your golf club. Email me at [email protected].