Understanding Course Rating and Slope

Know the Slope

If you’ve ever been on a golf trip, at some point while sitting down to a nice dinner and drinks with the group, the conversation below has no doubt taken place.

Somebody asks; “Where are we playing tomorrow?”

The trip organizer, sporting a big grin says; “Shiny Bauble—has a Slope of 147.”

Which is immediately met by a universal chorus of approval and excitement, with comments like:

“Wow, 147 Slope–must be a great course,” and “Oh boy, this is going be fun”.

These sentiments may certainly be justified for the low handicap players in the group, but for the 18-handicap golfer—not necessarily so. If Handicap Index alone is used when playing their matches, and not Course Handicap adjusting for the high slope, chances are pretty good that the high handicapper will end up losing a few bucks (and absorb some battle scars as well).

Be prepared

The Slope Myth

Slope Rating is one of the most misunderstood concepts in golf, and figuring out how it’s derived is an even bigger mystery. Most assume the higher the slope, the harder the course—and also that there’s a relationship between slope and quality. There is some truth in both of these assumptions, but a high slope does not mean tougher for everybody, only that average and higher handicap players will have more difficulty shooting the score they are used to than low handicap players.

As for quality, course characteristics that increase slope, such as an abundance of trees and steep faced bunkers, certainly tend to make a course more visually appealing—but also require heavy maintenance, adding a financial strain that may make it difficult for a facility to sustain over-all course conditioning (particularly during tough economic times).

Defining The Slope Rating

One of the things that makes golf so much fun is that regardless of skill level, everyone can compete on an even footing by using their Handicap Index. Handicap Index is derived by comparing the scores you have posted to a course of “Standard” difficulty. The critical element, however, is your Course Handicap. Course Handicap is based on the difficulty of the course you are playing at any given time—so each course is rated by state golf associations to provide that piece of the equation.

Because the characteristics that make a course harder for an “every-day” golfer are not necessarily the same as those that make it difficult for a highly skilled player, the World Rating System provides both a “Course Rating” and a “Bogey Rating.” The Course Rating reflects the projected score that a “scratch” player (0 Handicap) would be expected to shoot, while the Bogey Rating refers to the projected score that an “every-day” golfer (18 handicap) would be expected to shoot—and “Slope Rating” is the difference between the two.

TPC Sawgrass

If the Course Rating System determines that on a course of standard difficulty the scratch player should expect to shoot 72 and 18-handicap golfers should expect to shoot 90, the Course Rating is set at 72.0, the Bogey Rating is set at 90—with a Slope Rating of 113. The Slope rating moves up or down based on the difference between Course Rating and Bogey Rating. If a course includes characteristics that would cause the “every-day” golfer to shoot higher scores, but have less effect on a scratch player, then the Bogey Rating goes up while the Course Rating stays roughly the same—which results in a higher Slope Rating.

For example, a course may have a 340-yard Par 4 where the tee shot needs to fly at least 240 yards to clear a water hazard before reaching the fairway (“forced carry”). The scratch player’s tee shot will generally clear the water with ease and leave a short approach, so it’s a pretty easy hole. On the other hand, a high handicap golfer might hit a bucket of balls and never get his tee shot over the water—so for him it’s a nightmare. A hole like this may cause the Course Rating to actually decrease, while pushing the Bogey Rating way up—increasing the spread between them, and making the Slope Rating go higher.

If you don’t Adjust for Slope

Leveling The Field

The purpose of Slope Rating is to adjust the handicap of any golfer who is not a “scratch” (0 Handicap) player, and thus level the field–not as a measure of over-all course difficulty. If Handicap Index is used alone, without adjusting for Course Handicap, the lower handicap golfer will almost always gain an advantage—and the higher the Slope, the bigger that advantage will be. To adjust your Handicap Index for Course Handicap, you can use the formula below–or visit the USGA website and go to the “Handicap Calculator” (in addition, the Course Rating and Slope Database now includes the ability to enter your Handicap Index and see your Course Handicap for the particular course you are playing).  

Course Handicap = Handicap Index × (Slope Rating ÷113) + (Course Rating-Par)

If you have a Handicap Index of 18, playing against a scratch player on a track with a Course Rating of 72 and a Slope Rating of 147, your Course handicap will adjust to 23, while the scratch player’s handicap remains at 0. If you use only Handicap Index, and not Course Handicap, your opponent will gain a 5 shot advantage—and it’s likely you’ll be forking over some cash.

The World Handicap System was implemented to even up the playing field for golfers of all skill levels, so be sure to use your Course Handicap when playing a match. And don’t count on the wily low handicap golfer to volunteer the adjustment—he’s looking forward to settling up at the 19th hole.

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