Understanding USGA 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 are certainly justified for the low handicap players in the group, but for the average 18 handicap golfer—not necessarily so, because unless he makes an additional handicap adjustment based on the slope, odds are he’s going to end up losing a few bucks (and absorb a number of battle scars while he’s at it).

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 higher slope does not mean tougher for everybody—only for average and higher handicap players. And course characteristics that increase slope, such as an abundance of trees and steep faced bunkers, certainly tend to make a course nicer—but also require heavy maintenance and may strain the ability of 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 basis by using their USGA Handicap Index. The Handicap Index is derived from your average score when applied to a course of “Standard” difficulty. To determine your “Course Handicap” you will need to know the actual difficulty of the course you are playing—so the USGA rates each course to provide the other piece of the equation (USGA Course Rating and Slope Database). And because the characteristics that make a course harder for an average golfer are not necessarily the same as those that make it tough for a highly skilled golfer, the USGA provides both a “Course Rating” and a “Bogey Rating.” The Course Rating reflects the average score that a scratch golfer (0 Handicap) would be expected to shoot, while the Bogey Rating refers to the score an average golfer (18 handicap) would be expected to shoot—and “Slope Rating” is the differential between the two.

TPC Sawgrass

If the USGA determines that on a course of standard difficulty the scratch golfer would average 72 and the 18-handicap golfer would average 90, the Course Rating is set at 72.0, the Bogey Rating is set at 90 and the Slope Rating is 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 average player to shoot higher scores, but have less effect on the scratch golfer, 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 normally clear the water with ease and leave a short iron 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 key to Slope Rating is that it is primarily used for adjusting the handicap of average golfers when playing a match against a low handicap golfer, not as a measure of over-all course difficulty. Whenever the Slope Rating of a course is higher than 113, the low handicap player gains an advantage. The higher the Slope, the bigger the advantage. To adjust your handicap for slope on a Par 72 course with a Course Rating of 72.0, divide your Handicap Index by 113 and multiply by the Slope Rating—it’s as easy as that (or visit the USGA website and use the “Handicap Calculator”).

(Handicap Index ÷113) × Slope Rating = Slope Adjusted Handicap

If you are an average golfer with a Handicap Index of 18, playing against a scratch golfer on a track with a Course Rating of 72 and a Slope Rating of 147, your handicap should adjust to 23 while the scratch player’s handicap remains at 0. Without the Slope adjustment, you are giving your opponent a 5 shot advantage—and likely forking over some cash.

The USGA has put in a great deal of thought and effort toward evening up the playing field for golfers of all skill levels, so be sure to use the Slope Rating when you are 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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