Supporting and promoting golf in Northern California

Course Rating

The NCGA typically re-rates courses every six years, and sooner if the course has undergone significant renovations. Anywhere from 12 to 16 of the NCGA’s more than 90 volunteer course raters will participate in a rating.

A group of raters compares results.

When you pick up a scorecard at the golf course, chances are you take a peek at the course layout, par, yardage, rating and slope. Some might think these numbers are somewhat arbitrary and are derived at random. While, in fact, these figures are part of a larger nationwide methodology of the USGA Course Rating System.

One of the many benefits of the NCGA is maintaining an official USGA Handicap Index. Those course rating numbers you glanced at are the standard upon which the USGA Handicap System, and therefore your own Handicap Index, is built. Indeed, they’re more than arbitrary figures – so take some time to appreciate how these numbers are arrived at and what goes into the course rating process.


So what exactly is the course rating process?

Taking measurements is an important part of course rating.

A course rating team from an authorized golf association goes on location to take measurements, adjust yardages and locate and rate 10 obstacles on every hole on a scale of 0 to 10. In Northern California, that duty falls on three associations – the NCGA for men’s tees, the Pacific Women’s Golf Association for women’s tees at public courses and the Women’s Golf Association of Northern California for private courses. The USGA dictates that courses be re-rated every 10 years, but the NCGA typically re-rates every six years or after significant renovations have been completed.

The team of about a dozen or so volunteers arrives at the course early, ribbing each other over the last outing’s friendly golf wagers and looking over the current course rating information that they’ll need to take into account like prevailing winds and green speeds. Sometimes the green speeds are measured ahead of time with a stimpmeter, coming up with an average green rating to factor into each hole’s calculations.

If you happen across a course rating team, you’ll see them frequently using the tools of their trade – binoculars, measuring devices, clipboards and the all-important Form 1 to record their findings. Working in pairs from each tee that is going to be rated, yardage measurements are taken off the tee. Then, the real hard work begins – evaluating each of the 10 obstacle factors from the standpoint of both the bogey (approximately a 20 handicap index) and scratch (zero handicap index) golfer at each landing zone for each hole.

The 10 obstacles taken into account are:

A pair of raters analyzes conditions from a fairway landing zone.

• Topography

Topography is a factor if the stance or lie in the landing zone is affected by slopes or mounds, or the shot to the green is uphill or downhill, making club selection more difficult.

• Fairway

Fairway is an evaluation of the difficulty of keeping the ball in play from tee to green. Fairway ratings are based on fairway width in all landing zones, hole length, and nearby trees, hazards, and punitive rough.

• Green Target

Green Target is an evaluation of the difficulty of hitting the green with the approach shot. Primary considerations are green size, approach shot length, and green surface visibility, firmness, and contour.

• Recoverability and Rough

Recoverability and Rough is the evaluation of the probability of missing the tee shot landing zone and the green, and the difficulty of recovering if either, or both, is missed. The Green Target rating drives the Recoverability and Rough rating value.

• Bunkers

The team discusses bunker depth.

Bunkers is the evaluation of their proximity to target areas and the difficulty of recovery from them. The Green Target rating also drives the Bunkers rating value.

• Out of Bounds/Extreme Rough

OB/Extreme Rough is the evaluation of the distance from the center of the landing zone to the OB/Extreme Rough. High grass, heavy underbrush in trees, and other extreme conditions are rated in this category because a ball in such “extreme rough” is likely to be lost or virtually unplayable. Such areas may also be rated under Recoverability and Rough.

• Water Hazards

Water Hazards is the evaluation of a water hazard and its distance from the landing zone or green and, in the case of a hazard crossing a hole, the problem involved in playing over the hazard. The Water Hazards rating is applied on any hole where there is a water hazard or lateral water hazard that exists on the hole.

• Trees

Trees is the evaluation of the size and density of the trees, their distance from the center of the landing zone or green, the length of the shot to that target, and the difficulty of recovery.

• Green Surface

Green Surface is the evaluation of a green’s difficulty from a putting standpoint. Green speed and surface contouring are the main factors. The size of the green is considered irrelevant in evaluating putting difficulty. A Stimpmeter™ is utilized to measure the speed of the greens based on midseason conditions.

• Psychological

Psychological is the evaluation of the cumulative effect of the other obstacles. The location of many punitive obstacles close to a target area creates uneasiness in the mind of the player and thus affects his or her score. This value is purely mathematical and is added after the on-course rating is complete.

Filling out the Form 1.

Each of these obstacles has its own shorthand language, with abbreviations you might not otherwise hear on a golf course. The Form 1 is full of superscript letters – you’ll see designations for i(nconsistent), s(urrounded), r(ise), d(epth), b(ounce), c(arry) and t(iered) on the form. You’ll also see positive and negative adjustments for recoverability, elevation, forced layups, wind and altitude.

After analyzing each hole, the groups meet at the green to discuss their findings and figures to ensure that every appropriate factor was taken into account when filling out their Form 1. After every hole on the course has been rated in this manner, with each hole taking 15 to 20 minutes to complete, the work isn’t done. The pairs of raters sit down and start doing math. There are tables that have to be referenced for each adjustment for both the bogey and scratch golfer, which takes another 15 to 20 minutes per hole.

A rater tees it up to test his measurements.

After the Form 1 is complete, there is still more work to do by the course rating team. The group plays a round at the course to determine if any of their calculations or obstacle adjustments need revision before turning in the information to the NCGA.

At that point, the actual course rating number is tabulated. The rating is the evaluation of the playing difficulty of a course for scratch golfers under normal course and weather conditions. The difference between the course rating and the bogey rating times a constant is how the slope rating is determined. Slope is a whole number between 55 and 155, and the higher the number, the more difficult it will play for the bogey golfer as compared to the scratch golfer.

So next time you see that course rating and slope number, know that a group of highly-trained and dedicated volunteers carrying clipboards and binoculars used their sharpened pencils and sharpened minds to carefully arrive at that number with you in mind.

To find out more about the USGA course rating system, click here.