A Quick Guide to Slope & Course Rating (And How to Compute Your Course Handicap)

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Gillette Ridge Golf Course Bloomfield, CT 13th_hole

What’s a course rating? What’s a slope rating? How are they determined? How do they help figure how many strokes you get?

On almost every scorecard, you’ll find two values for every set of tees. For example, at Boston’s George Wright course, the rating and slope for the men’s blue tees is 69.5/126. For the men’s white tees, the numbers are 67.3/122.

The first number, 69.5, is the expected average score of scratch golfers playing under good weather conditions in mid-season. The second number, 126, is the relative difficulty for a bogey golfer under the same conditions. That’s not an expected score; it’s a number used to figure your specific handicap on that course on that set of tees.

The national average difficulty rating (slope) for all courses across the US is 113. Any number above that is more difficult; anything below is easier.

We use these numbers to create a fair match between two golfers. Allen has an official handicap index (supplied by his home club through the USGA) of 7.4. Is he a “7?” Not really—it depends upon where he plays. Bob is a 16.1 index.

How many do I get today?

On the bulletin board of your course, or the USGA’s handicap website, GHIN.com, you can figure how many strokes each golfer will get—in relation to the difficulty of the course they are playing by using the slope rating. Allen is playing the blue tees, his index is 7.4, and the slope rating is 126. The chart says Allen gets 8 strokes. Bob from the same tees, with a 16.1 index, gets 18 strokes. So Allen will give Bob 10 strokes.

But if Bob elects to play from the white tees, because he’s not as strong a golfer as Allen, he uses his index (again, it is still 16.1) and applies it to the slope rating for the white tees, which we know is 122. From the whites, the chart says Bob gets 17 strokes.

Now since Allen and Bob are playing from different tees, one more adjustment comes into play—the course rating. The blue tees course rating is 69.5; the white tees rating is 67.3, a difference of 2.2 (rounded to 2). Thus Bob’s handicap would be adjusted 2 strokes downward to 15.  So Allen gets 8, Bob gets 15, means Allen gives Bob 7 strokes for the match (15–8 =7).

How are ratings determined?

The USGA publishes a robust guidebook on course rating with multiple factors:
• length of hole;
• mid-season depth of rough
• green speed
• elevation changes (to determine more or less roll of a struck ball);
• topography (how many uphill, downhill, and/or sidehill lies);
• fairway width at expected landing zones;
• size and contour of greens;
• number, depth, and placement of bunkers;
• out of bounds (OB) and extreme rough, if any;
• water hazards and trees and their proximity to greens and landing zones;
• forced carries and forced layups;
and several sub-factors within most of these.

This system is used by a course rating team to determine the difficulty level of each hole, from each tee, for scratch and bogey-level men and women, for each hole on the course. While length of the hole is the primary factor, all the above-named factors add or deduct the hole’s expected playability for each golfer. That’s a ton of numbers to crunch.

In New England, courses generally get re-rated every three to five years.

The USGA uses expected shot lengths for scratch and bogey players in its rating system. For example, a scratch male is expected to reach a 470-yard par 4 in 2 shots (250+220 = 470). While a male bogey golfer will be 100 yards shorter (200+170= 370).

So pick the tees that suit your game.