It Takes a Team – Understanding Golf Course Ratings

In my last post I wrote about how important the rating of a golf course is to the calculation of a player’s handicap. So how do golf courses get rated?

I knew that state golf associations managed the process for rating golf courses but I did not know they have volunteers that do course ratings. Of course, it makes sense when you realize that golf associations depend on volunteers for so many activities. For example, they have volunteers as rules officials, scorers, and other various roles for golf competitions.

What do volunteer course rating teams do when they evaluate a course? If you want a quick understanding here is a great video called “Go Inside A Course Rating” from the USGA. If you want more insight, read on!

The state golf associations have programs to train volunteer golf course raters. Teams (4 to 6 members) rate a course. They do the following activities:

(1) Measurement – “Each hole is measured from every tee from the middle of the tee box to the middle of the green.” This is the number we see as the “permanent” distance on scorecards and on the tee box signs or plaque on the tee box. And of course measurement also includes the full yardage of the course from each tee box.

(2) Rate Obstacles – There is a rating manual but there is still a human “decision” to be made during the rating process.

(note: I don’t have access to the actual manual so I used information I found in various articles online)

Obstacles are rated on a scale of 0 to 10 with 0 being “non-existent” and 10 being “impossible to avoid.” For me zero is fairly obvious (there are no visible obstacles on the hole) and I assume 10 rating is fairly obvious (e.g. a forced carry). If you watch the USGA course rating video you will see that team members have a lot of discussions on what to rate various obstacles.

I read a number of state golf association articles and they all listed the obstacles in the same order. Also, it was noted in one article that the obstacles are evaluated from landing zones for both the scratch golfer and bogey golfer from each tee. The obstacles are:

Topography: “A player’s stance or lie in the landing zone, and whether the player has an uphill or downhill shot to the green.” This was the definition I found but I wonder (and would have assumed) that how the balls lands (rolls severely in one direction) would be an important part of topography.

Fairway: “The width of the fairway from which a scratch and bogey player will play his shots.”

Green Target: “The difficulty of hitting the green with the approach shot. The size of the green and the length of the approach shot are the primary factors.” I wonder if they use the same “landing area” for the male and female scratch and bogey golfers? This interests me as a female golfer because (as noted in many articles) women often have a longer club in their hand for an approach shot.

Recoverability” and Rough: “The difficulty of a shot from the rough measuring how difficult it is to recover.” I wonder how they really measure this? Do they measure the depth of the grass?

Bunkers: “The number of bunkers, depth of bunkers, and placement of bunkers.” I assume placement would be fairway bunkers vs greenside bunkers; as well as feet/yards from the green.

Crossing Obstacles : Basically I think of forced carries (water, waste areas, etc.) but various articles also mentioned out-of-bounds (which I found very odd) as crossing obstacles but perhaps OB would be used for a hole that has an actual road (not cart path) cutting across the fairway.

Lateral Obstacle: “Lateral Obstacles include penalty areas extreme rough and out of bounds that come into play laterally on the hole.” With respect to out of bounds (OB), I was surprised it didn’t have it’s own seperate category given that the Rules of Golf have different approaches to how they treat OB versus red stake (lateral) penalty areas; but I assume each obstacle within the “lateral obstacle” category is rated independently.

Trees: I found this definition interesting, “The rating for trees depends on the size, density and distance from the center of the landing zone and green. The probability of recovering from various locations within a group of trees is also considered.”

Green Surface: “The speed and contours of the putting surface.”

Psychological: “The mental effect on play based on the number and magnitude of above-average ratings in other obstacle categories.”

The obstacles are not all equal. Each obstacle has a weight factor applied for both the scratch and bogey golfer. I don’t have access to the weights but this makes sense given the variety of obstacles being considered in a course’s evaluation. Now, since so many articles listed the obstacles in the same order, I would assume that Topography is weighted significantly more than the psychological obstacle.

Of all the obstacles above the only one that surprised me was the “psychological” obstacle. We all know that “Golf is a mental game” but I had no idea the governing bodies (USGA and R&A) actually included the psychological aspect of a hole in the rating of a course.

I also found it interesting to learn the “landing zone” is used to determine difficulty which means the “assumptions” for how far golfers hit their drive is a significant factor. The governing bodies (USGA and R&A) released a distance study in 2020 and I assume the guidelines for the course rating teams come from the distance study (or years of data collected by the Handicap departments at the USGA and R&A).

Lastly, one area that is always open for debate is how many tees are rated for both genders. I often see tweets or other social posts from women (usually scratch players that hit it long) highlighting this issue. There is an FAQ on the USGA website that addresses what to do for tees not rated for your gender.

Researching information for this blog post has me pondering the idea of looking into becoming a volunteer. If I do, you know I will write a blog post.