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Top 10 Questions About Course Rating


  1. What is Slope?
  2. Who rates a course?
  3. How is a course rated? (The rating procedure)
  4. What if our course is not in its typical playing condition the day it is rated?
  5. How often is a course rated?
  6. How do the course rating and slope numbers affect my Handicap Index?
  7. Why is our course rated so high?
  8. Who allocates handicap stroke holes?
  9. Does the MGA measure courses?
  10. Why did our course rating and slope rating change?


1. What is Slope?

Most golfers believe that the higher the slope number, the more difficult the golf course. This may or may not be true depending on the level of golfer you are. The Slope number for a golf course actually tells you how difficult the golf course is for a bogey player (17.5 - 22.4 Handicap Index for a male golfer) compared to a scratch player. The higher the slope number, the harder the course is for the bogey golfer relative to the difficulty of the course for the scratch golfer. Slope numbers can range anywhere between 55 and 155 with the average slope in the United States being 120.

The slope number is used to convert your Handicap Index into a Course Handicap. This allows the player to receive enough strokes from a particular set of tees, to play at an equal level of a scratch golfer from the same set of tees.

The Slope number is derived from the following mathematical formula:
(Bogey Rating - Course Rating) x 5.381 = Slope

When your course is rated, a scratch rating and bogey rating are both determined from each set of tees. (The scratch rating is the same as the course rating). From both the bogey rating and the scratch rating, we can then use the formula above to achieve our slope number.

Why do we need all of these numbers? The system was developed to allow a player to take his Handicap Index to almost any course in the world and be able to compete on an equal level with other golfers.


2. Who rates a course?

The MGA’s course rating team is led by an experienced staff member who has been trained under the USGA’s Course Rating System. Nearly every golf association throughout the world has been trained to use the exact system that is used here in the Met Area.

There are approximately 45 volunteer committee members throughout the Met Area who assist the MGA staff representative in evaluating a course. All of the individuals on the MGA’s course rating committee have been trained in course rating procedures and have attended an annual course rating seminar.

The backgrounds of course raters range from lawyers to engineers to teachers. Regardless of the person’s past or present profession, each course rater has the same thing in common: their love for the game of golf. 


3. How is a course rated? (The rating procedure)

All courses rated under the USGA Course Rating System are rated using the same parameters that have been established by the USGA. A male scratch player is defined by the USGA as an amateur golfer who has reached the stroke play portion of the U.S. Amateur Championship. On average, he hits his tee shot 225 yards in the air with 25 yards of roll. His second shot travels 200 yards in the air with 20 yards of roll. The male bogey golfer is defined as having a USGA handicap index of 17.5 - 22.4. By definition, he can hit his tee shot 180 yards in the air with 20 yards of roll. His second shot travels 150 yards in the air plus 20 yards of roll for a total distance of 170 yards. Therefore, the bogey golfer can reach a 370 yard hole in 2 shots and a scratch golfer can reach a 470 yard hole in 2 shots.

There are five playing-length factors that are considered for each hole: roll, elevation, wind, dogleg/forced lay-ups, and altitude. Between these five factors, or a combination of them, the overall playing length of a golf course is either lengthened or shortened from the physical yardage of a golf course.

In addition to the effective playing length of a course, there are 10 obstacles that are evaluated on each hole (nine of the obstacles are physical and one psychological). The nine obstacles are as follows: topography, fairway, green target, rough and recoverability, bunkers, out-of-bounds/extreme rough, water, trees, and green surface. If that weren’t enough, the hole is given an extra boost of difficulty under the obstacle of psychology if the rating numbers determine that the hole plays more difficult.

Each obstacle is given a numerical value ranging from zero to 10 (zero being non-existent, 10 being extreme). To avoid subjectivity, the values assigned are taken from a table in the USGA Course Rating Guide. These values are based off of the distances the obstacle is from the center of the landing zone or target.

For example: assuming there are no effective playing length corrections, the team of course raters would first evaluate the landing area for the bogey golfer 200 yards off the tee. In this area, the team would measure the width of the fairway, the distance from the center of the fairway to the nearest boundary line, trees, hazard line, and whether there are any bunkers nearby. The same procedure would be done for the scratch player’s landing area 250 yards off the tee. This evaluation process is repeated until the group reaches the green. The green width and depth are then measured as well as the amount of water and/or bunkers surrounding the green as well as how far it is to the nearest boundary line.

This process is repeated on every hole and for every tee. Through this data, a scratch and bogey rating are achieved. We are then able to use these two numbers to calculate the slope number.


4. What if our course is not in its typical playing condition the day it is rated?

“The day our course was rated, the rough was higher than normal and the greens were slower than usual.”

With more than 250 courses throughout the Met Area, it would be physically impossible to rate every course during its “prime” season. Therefore, courses are rated as if normal mid-season playing conditions existed (i.e., conditions at the time of year when most rounds are played). For the majority of the golf courses in the Met Area, mid-season conditions with respect to fairways, length of rough, foliage, and speed of greens, exist between spring and fall.

Because the USGA requires all courses to be rated at least once every 10 years, it is important for the team of course raters to obtain accurate, mid-season course conditions. Prior to your course being rated, the MGA sends a “Course Condition Questionnaire” to the club’s superintendent and head golf professional to ensure that the course is rated under the correct parameters. Even though the rough may be 4” for the club championship and the greens may have a stimpmeter reading of 11 feet for the member-guest tournament, the MGA would rate your course according to the conditions the course is maintained during the mid-season.


5. How often is a course rated?

The USGA requires all authorized golf associations to periodically review the ratings of their courses and to revise them if necessary. The USGA has licensed the MGA to rate courses according to their guidelines. If your club is a member of the MGA, you are required to comply with the guidelines that the USGA has set down for the MGA to follow.

The MGA is required to re-rate a golf course within a 10-year period. All newly constructed golf courses often change due to their maturity. Therefore, the MGA rates these courses 2-3 times within the first 10 years to account for these changes.

If there have been any “significant changes” to your course, e.g., the size of the greens have changed, greenside or fairway bunkers have been added or removed, or a new set of tees have been added, your course may be in need of an adjustment. However, more than likely you are not in need of a full course rating. Many times the MGA can send out a representative to view the changes made on the course. These changes can then be entered into the USGA Course Rating software to calculate an updated course rating and slope rating.


6. How do the Course Rating and Slope numbers affect my Handicap Index?

To fully understand how course rating and slope numbers ultimately affect your Handicap Index, you must first understand how a Handicap Index is derived.

Using equitable stroke control (the maximum score you can take on a hole for posting purposes), a player takes his adjusted gross score and subtracts the course rating. Multiply that number by 113 (slope rating of a course of standard difficulty), and divide by the slope rating of the tees played. (Round to the nearest 10th).

Handicap differential= (Adjusted Gross Score - Course Rating) x 113 / Slope Rating

A player’s index is based on the best handicap differentials in a player’s scoring record. For example; if a player had 20 scores in his file, the best 10 handicap differentials would be used to calculate his USGA/MGA Handicap Index. These 10 differentials would be totaled and divided by the number of differentials used (10), multiplied by .96 and rounded to the nearest tenth.

It is important to remember that the course rating affects a player’s index much more than the slope number. Often, players focus too much on what the slope number is when it is the course rating number that drives the system. For example:

Course A
Player shoots 85
Handicap differential = 14.2 [(85-69.3) x 113/ 125]


Course B
Player shoots 85
Handicap differential = 13.4 [(85-71.1) x 113/117]

Some players feel that if their golf course’s slope number is too high, they will not be competitive when visiting another club. This is not necessarily true. The above example shows the significance the course rating has on a player’s handicap differential compared to the slope number.


7. Why is our course rated so high?

Golf courses are rated based on the measured length of the course from each set of tees. The measured length of a particular set of tees is taken from the permanent marker to the center of the green.

Accurate permanent marker placement is essential to an accurate course rating. Permanent markers are to reflect the average placement of the movable tee markers. Permanent markers should be placed on the teeing ground at a spot where the movable tee markers can be placed on either side to consistently reflect the overall length of the hole and course.

Inaccurate placement of the permanent markers is more likely to have a greater effect on a player’s handicap differential than any course obstacle. For instance, if a course consistently placed their movable tee markers in front of the permanent markers on average 10 yards per hole, the golf course would play almost one shot easier than the rating indicates. This practice would result in an artificially low Handicap Index.

The USGA recommends placing the permanent markers in the middle of every teeing ground. When two tees share one teeing ground, the teeing ground should be divided in thirds. This process maximizes the ability of the golf course to use the entire teeing area and gives the best chance of reflecting the overall yardage.

At no time should a permanent marker be less than two yards from the front of a teeing area or less than four yards from the back of a teeing area. Courses are encouraged to consult the MGA for assistance in determining accurate placement.


8. Who allocates handicap stroke holes?

The MGA does not assign handicap strokes to individual holes as a result of the course rating. The rating of your golf course will have no effect on which hole is more difficult nor does the individual handicap selection process affect your overall index. The allocation of handicap strokes is the responsibility of the club and can be accomplished through specific means.

Here are some quick guidelines for establishing your clubs handicap holes:

A handicap stroke-hole is a hole on which a player is entitled to apply a handicap stroke or strokes to his gross score. The idea behind handicap stroke allocation is to provide an equal playing field for golfers of different handicap levels. A handicap stroke should be assigned to a hole where it most likely will be needed by the higher-handicapped player to obtain a half in singles or four-ball match play. Difficulty in making a par on a hole is not a true indication of where an extra stroke is needed.

Allocate strokes based on the tee-markers used most often by the majority of your play. Usually, longer holes are harder for higher-handicapped players. These holes are usually the lower handicapped holes where they would receive a stroke.

The lower handicap stroke holes should be avoided at the end of each of the nine holes simply because it would be unlikely that players would have the opportunity to use them. Also, low handicap strokes should not be used on the first or second hole to avoid the effects they could have on a playoff.

These are just some of the recommendations found in the USGA/MGA Handicap Manual. Please refer to the handicap manual or the USGA’s Web site for further help in determining Handicap stroke allocations.


9. Does the MGA measure courses?

The MGA Course Rating Department also provides clubs with a course measuring service as part of their membership. This service is available regardless of whether your course is new, existing, or if changes have been made.

Because yardage affects the course rating so heavily, it is extremely important that a course is measured properly and accurately. Measurements are made from the permanent monuments at the teeing ground to the center of the green along the intended line of play. A hole with a dogleg is measured to the bend in the fairway and from that point to the back and front of the green to achieve a true yardage to the center of the green.

An accurate placement of the permanent markers is critical. An inaccurate placement will result in your handicap index either being artificially too high or too low. The USGA requires that the monuments be set at a minimum of 4 yards from the back and no less than 2 yards from the front of the teeing area. Preferably, the monuments would be set in an area where the movable markers can be balanced on either side ensuring an accurate playing length.


10. Why did our Course Rating and Slope Rating change?

Changes in course rating and slope ratings usually occur following a re-rating. These changes can be attributed to a number of possibilities.

Course rating and slope ratings usually change because of the effective playing length of the golf course. Even though the changes might not seem significant, it is important to note that yardage is the predominant factor in calculating a course rating. Increasing the effective playing length of the course by 55 yards adds three-tenths of a stroke to the USGA Course Rating and one slope point.

When rating a golf course, effective playing length is accounted for by factoring in, roll, wind, dogleg/forced lay-up, elevation, and altitude. These factors can significantly add or subtract the overall playing length for a golf course from each individual set of tees. The majority of the effective playing length factors are accounted for during the rating process. MGA course raters are equipped with altimeters to evaluate elevation and altitude. Wind speed is usually provided by a club representative.

Another possible change to the rating numbers is the addition or subtraction of obstacles. Generally speaking, changing obstacles has less effect on the course rating and slope ratings than effective playing length. Usually, losing one tree or adding one bunker has a negligible affect on the overall course rating. However, it is always recommended that the club contact the MGA if they feel significant changes have occurred and the golf course is in need of a re-rating.

The maintenance of a golf course is another reason why the course rating and slope numbers change when a course is re-rated. Increasing the green speeds or rough height are common reasons course rating numbers change. For example, by increasing the speed of the putting greens from 9’5” to 10’5”, will increase the course rating 2/10’s and the slope one point.

One final reason why a golf course’s course rating and slope rating increase following a re-rating is because of a procedural change. Every year, the USGA Course Rating Committee meets to discuss changes to the existing rating procedures. Although the formulas used to compute the final numbers are never altered, the techniques to obtain the numbers may be changed. Usually, these modifications are only minor adjustments that are meant to perfect the existing system that is currently in use. Other times, clarification is needed to better stress a point regarding how a rating is done. In either case, the modification to the rating procedure can be another cause to a course rating increase.

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