New Qualification criteria to safeguard Ireland’s elite Championships

John Craven
John Craven

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It’s hoped that recently announced changes by Golf Ireland in relation to its Championship qualification criteria will protect the integrity of future elite championship fields.

The game’s governing body in Ireland announced on Wednesday that prospective championship entrants will need to ensure their Handicap Index is proportionately based on scores achieved in Competition, and not be overly reliant on General Play Scores.

Following a lengthy international review in parallel with recommendations from the WHS Handicap Operations Committee, it was decided that in the event that an entrant has more than four General Play scores on their record (in their last 20) and where their General Play scores are significantly better than those in competition, (ie, more than two shots better on average) their entry will be reviewed by the Championship Committee.

Golf Ireland Director of Championships Mark Wehrly insists the changes are not about exclusion, rather ensuring that players who should be competing in Ireland’s elite championships receive every chance to do so.

“It’s certainly not an Irish phenomenon but internationally it was felt that there were entrants into championships, some of whom were qualifying for Championships, based on a Handicap Index that was disproportionately based on General Play scores, and they were struggling then to actually acclimatise themselves to the championship environment,” said Wehrly.

“From our perspective, it’s not that we’re trying to get rid of players from championships who we think shouldn’t be there. It’s more about ensuring that people who should be getting into championships are getting into championships, and not being left out.”

Many observers welcomed Wednesday’s announcement as the necessary first steps towards protecting Ireland’s elite championships against perceived handicap manipulation, however, it also raised further question around the continuing use – or misuse – of General Play scores.

On one hand, Irish golfers have been told to embrace General Play scores, but the changes to the qualification criteria suggests an element of mistrust when it comes to a Handicap Index overly reliant on casual round scores. While Golf Ireland is well aware of a growing frustration among golfers around General Play scores, Wehrly insists there’s no evidence to suggest any widespread manipulation of the system when it comes to using General Play scores to gain entry into Championships.

“This is just another mitigation measure,” Wehrly said. “It’s not that we don’t trust the system, and it’s not that we think there’s widespread manipulation of the system in relation to Championships. We’re not making any judgements here.

“All that we’re saying is that there are some incongruities in the way the system has been working where we’ve been using handicap to establish qualification for fields and the way we’re looking to address that – not just Golf Ireland but other countries as well, England Golf have introduced a very similar criteria for their championships next year – is we’re taking a rounded view in relation to General Play scores and scores recorded in Competition and we’re saying that handicaps have to be at least based on a balance between competition and General Play scores.

“You could have ten General Play scores in your last twenty, and if broadly speaking the scores that were recorded in General Play and Competition are the same, that’s absolutely fine, and that Handicap Index is compatible with Championship golf.

“It’s just in situation where, for whatever reason, the scores people are achieving in General Play are much, much better than what they’re achieving in Competition, we’re saying that person hasn’t a Handicap Index that has been tested sufficiently in competition to warrant their qualification for the championship. That’s ultimately the point of the change.”

It’s not just the Men’s and Women’s Bridgestone Tours that have been subject to review, the interclub Championships have also announced a number of changes. Among them, prospective entrants must ensure that they have 20 cards on record by December 31, 2022, a player’s lowest handicap index will be used for all purposes throughout the year, and a number of maximum combined handicaps have been reduced for team competitions.

The new measures not only safeguard against WHS discrepancies, but they also help combat handicap manipulation, a topic of discussion trending around the country since the introduction of WHS.

“Discrepancies don’t always arise because of manipulation, they sometimes arise because it’s a new system, and that’s probably more of a reason for some of the anomalies that have popped up, but it’s understandable that there’s an element of debate around that,” said Wehrly.

“Initially we made a conscious decision to make the rules of eligibility as straightforward and as simple as possible. WHS is a complicated algorithm but as it beds in, Golf Ireland are reintroducing some of the criteria that would’ve been there before with the old system.

“We’ve stopped short of saying you need to have four cards from the previous calendar year but in requiring fully developed Handicap Indexes, it’s another step towards trying to ensure the handicaps people play off in competitions are an accurate reflection of their current and demonstrated playing ability.”

There have been some calls for the General Play restrictions within the Championship qualification criteria to be extended to the Interclub Championships but for 2023, that is not on the agenda.

“Because General Play scores account for such a small proportion of the overall scores on the system, in 2022 only 11% of scores submitted were General Play versus 89% from competition, it’s not foreseeable that if you took General Play scores away, it would address any issues that people are reporting to us about the handicaps in such a club being much higher than they should be etc.,” added Wehrly.

Many club golfers believe the simple solution is to scrap General Play scores altogether. While casual rounds have undoubtedly opened doors for time poor golfers to be able to maintain an accurate playing handicap, there’s a perception that General Play scores have left competitive golf exposed to manipulation now more than ever.

“If you were to remove General Play scores tomorrow, my suspicion is that the debate would continue around the veracity of handicaps in many cases and that some other element of the system would be seized upon as a reason why handicaps aren’t, in certain people’s view, as accurate as they should be,” Wehrly added.

“Issues around the handicaps of golfers was a subject of the debate long before the system was introduced and the fact that General Play scores are there doesn’t change that debate.

“In terms of competition regulations, our goal is to try and make competitions as fair and as competitive as possible and that’s the approach we follow through with in both the Championships and the Interclub competitions.

“We have introduced these additional requirements for Interclub competitions and it’s quite probable that we will introduce further requirements as we go on, and as the system goes on.

“It’s possible in a year or two that we may introduce a requirement to have a certain number of scores in the previous calendar year as part of your Handicap Index but it was felt that in the initial period, the change itself and the adjustment itself would be quite an upheaval for a lot of golfers, so layering on additional requirements would potentially lead to unintended consequences, like a lot of teams getting disqualified from competition for administrative errors, which would be the last thing we want.”

To view the full process that will be employed to assess any variances in General Play and Competition Scores for Championships please click HERE

To read the Summary of Key Changes for 2023 Inter-Club Competitions & Championships please click HERE

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