One thing that makes golf different than other sports is the “playing field.” Whether long or short, hilly or flat, no two golf courses are alike. And while they’re all challenging in their own way, some golf courses are harder than others. In fact, some courses are like childhood bullies who will steal your lunch money and make you want your mommy.
Is there a way to objectively compare the 15,000 or so golf courses in the United States?
Yes. It’s the United States Golf Association (USGA) Course Rating System™. The course rating measures the relative difficulty of a golf course. The higher the course rating (expressed as a number such as 69.7), the more difficult the golf course. In other words, golfers would be expected to shoot a higher score on a golf course with a course rating of 73.1 than a golf course with a course rating of 69.7.
The USGA defines course rating as follows:
“A USGA Course Rating is the evaluation of the playing difficulty of a course for scratch golfers under normal course and weather conditions. It is expressed as the number of strokes taken to one decimal place (72.5), and is based on yardage and other obstacles to the extent that they affect the scoring difficulty of the scratch golfer.”
And what is a scratch golfer?
According to the USGA, a scratch golfer is a man or woman who can play to a course handicap of zero on all rated golf courses. In others words, he or she can shoot a score that nearly matches the course rating from his or her designated tees. For example, a score of 69 or 70 on a course rated 69.7.
The USGA further explains the ability of scratch golfers. A male scratch golfer can hit 250-yard tee shots on average and reach a 470-yard hole in two shots. A female scratch golfer can hit 210-yard tee shots on average and reach a 400-yard hole, at sea level, in two shots.
Meanwhile, the USGA says bogey golfers have a course handicap of 20 for men and 24 for women on golf courses of standard difficulty. Average yards off the tee are 200 for men and 150 for women.
Calculating the Course Rating
Authorized by golf associations and using USGA standards, course rating teams closely study a golf course and collect a lot of data, including on each hole.
“Accuracy and consistency are the keys to effective course rating,” states the USGA. “A course must first be accurately measured. The measured yardage must then be corrected for the effective playing length. These effective playing length corrections are roll, elevation, dogleg/forced lay-up, prevailing wind, and altitude. Obstacles that affect playing difficulty must then be evaluated in accordance with established standards.”
Obstacles that are evaluated include topography, fairway (difficulty of keeping the ball in play), bunkers, out of bounds, water hazards, green surface, psychological and more.
Plus, courses change, which is why they must be re-rated at least every 10 years.
What is Slope Rating?
Slope rating has nothing to do with skiing. It does have to do with golf course difficulty, but perhaps not in the way you might think. Again, the USGA:
“A Slope Rating is the USGA® mark that indicates the measurement of the relative playing difficulty of a course for players who are not scratch golfers, compared to scratch golfers. It is computed from the difference between the Bogey Rating and the USGA Course Rating times a constant factor and is expressed as a whole number from 55 to 155.”
This begs another definition. Namely, the bogey rating. In a nutshell, it’s the playing difficulty of a golf course for a bogey golfer.
The slope rating takes into account that the bogey golfer’s score will likely rise quicker than a scratch golfer’s score on a more difficult golf course. The average slope rating is 120, according to Dean Knuth, also known as “the pope of slope,” the man who invented the system in 1982.
In conclusion, course ratings and slope ratings are useful and objective measures of golf course difficulty. Those numbers can give you a good sense of what you’re in for before setting foot on the first tee. Whatever they tell you, go out and play your best and make it a great day.