What Are Golf Course Ratings? – Explained!

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If you’ve never been to a golf course that you’re about to play, how do you work out how difficult it is?

While most of us look at the par score and check out reviews, it’s actually much better to look for the official golf course rating, as this provides us with an objective measure of its difficulty.

But how is a golf course rated? And how do you know if you’re about to play an extremely difficult (or easy!) golf course?

To answer the main question of what are Golf course ratings and more, we provide you with a comprehensive guide, so you never have to turn up to a golf course without knowing what to expect ever again!

What Exactly is a Golf Course Rating in Golf?

A golf course rating is a score that is established by a USGA official in order to ascertain the difficulty of a particular golf course. In America, golf courses are rated in regard to their difficulty for scratch and bogey golfers, and a slope rating is then expressed.

This indicates how tough a course is on a scale of 55 – 155.

Although it might seem a little confusing, we explain everything you need to know about golf course ratings below.


How is a Golf Course Rating Calculated?

The rating of a golf course is calculated by taking into consideration the various aspects, hazards, and layout of the course in question. Once the various factors are calculated, a numerical value is attributed to the course based on the overall difficulty of the golf course.

Specifically, a golf course rating is determined by the following 5 factors:

  1. Measuring the fairways.
  2. Measuring the contours and size of the greens.
  3. Ascertaining the distances to (and between) hazards and out-of-bounds markers.
  4. Inspecting the bunkers.
  5. Reviewing the tee boxes.

Overall, there are 26 evaluations that need to be conducted on each hole in order to calculate the final rating of a golf course. Back in the day, the rating process was done manually and would take a long time.

But today, golf course designers and officials can utilize GPS and various other tools to make the readings more accurate and to save time.

The course rating is then given to one decimal place – 69.8, for instance – and reflects what a scratch golfer is expected to score when playing the course.


What is Considered a Good Golf Course Rating?

Describing a golf course rating as ‘good’ is a bit of a misnomer, as the measure is concerned with determining the difficulty of a particular course, not necessarily the quality. As such, you should treat golf course rating as a measure of how easy or difficult the course will be for you to play.

You should be mindful that there will be several ratings for each course, as there will be a different rating for each of the tee boxes.

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For instance, if a golf course is par 72, its overall rating might be 71.2. But on the scorecard, you may see various numbers relating to the different tee boxes, for instance:

  • Ladies (Red): 73.3
  • Men’s (White): 71.0
  • Men’s (Blue): 72.8

Remember, the rating given is what scratch golfers are expected to score on the golf course. So, for recreational golfers, the higher the golf course rating, the more difficult it will be based on the various determining factors that have been measured.


What is Considered a Difficult Golf Course Rating?

The higher the golf course rating, the harder it will be but anything over a slope rating of 120 is considered difficult. To explain further about difficulties on courses, if you play two golf courses that are both Par 72, the course that is rated 71.8 will be more difficult than the course rated 71.2.

While this is a basic example, you get the point.

But the rating isn’t the only thing you need to consider when trying to understand how difficult a golf course is.

There is also the slope rating, which also considers the expected score of a bogey golfer (someone who averages 1 over each hole).

The slope rating is quite difficult to get your head around but is an easier metric to consider when you’re working out the difficulty of a golf course.

According to the SCGA, the slope rating of a golf course can be anywhere between 55 & 155.

For a bogey golfer, a course that has a slope rating of 55 should be extremely easy, while a course with a slope rating of 155 will be exceptionally tough.

So, when you see the course and slope rating listed side-by-side, you can get an idea of how difficult the course is for both scratch and bogey golfers by considering both ratings simultaneously.


Is a Higher Course Rating Harder?

Yes, the higher a course is rated, the harder it is. The responsibility for rating a golf course falls with a team from the golf association within a particular area. This is important, as the team follows the stringent monitoring format expressed by the USGA.

This ensures that consistency is achieved throughout the country and that all courses are rated to the same standards.

The USGA stipulates that every golf course should be rated every ten years, as the course can change significantly over time, which ultimately affects its difficulty.

If you want to test yourself at one of the hardest rated golf courses in America, you can test out the following five courses, each of which scores a max slope rating of 155:

  • Castle Pines Golf Club.
  • Clear Creek Golf Club.
  • Pine Valley Golf Club.
  • Promontory Ranch Club.
  • Rich Harvest Farms.

One of the toughest courses regularly played on the PGA Tour is TPC at Sawgrass, as it also boasts a 155-slope rating.

If you’re a recreational golfer, it’s undoubtedly worth trying out the toughest rated courses, but it’s best not to make a habit out of it, as it can certainly dampen your morale and confidence!

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Is Course Rating the Same as SSS?

Course rating has replaced SSS as the official metric and is now the primary measure of what a scratch golfer is expected to score on a golf course. In the handicapping system, SSS (Standard Scratch Score) was used as the expected score of scratch golfers under normal weather conditions.

Ultimately, the course rating is a much more comprehensive way of calculating the expected scratch score on a particular course, and when used in conjunction with the slope rating, it offers golfers of all abilities a good insight into how difficult a course is likely to be.

But to answer the question directly, Course Rating and SSS measure the same metric – how difficult a golf course is for a scratch golfer.

Given that the USGA adopts the course rating as its preferred metric, it’s best that the rest of us follow suit and consider a course’s rating when we’re trying to establish the difficulty of a course.


What is the Difference Between a Course Rating and Slope Rating?

The main difference between a course rating a slope rating is the calculations used in the overall formula of deciding how difficult a golf course is rated at.

We’ve already introduced slope rating, but we want to explain it in a little more detail and show you how it’s different from course rating. Firstly, when a course is rated by a USGA official, the person ends up with two numbers:

  1. The expected score of a scratch golfer.
  2. The expected score of a bogey golfer.

Once the official has these figures, they plot them on a graph, which then produces a sloped line.

This slope indicates how much harder a particular golf course is for a bogey golfer than it is for a scratch golfer.

The slope is then given as a score between 55 and 155, with 55 being easy and 155 being hard. The average slope in the US is 113.

Thankfully, we don’t need to worry too much about how an official arrives at the slope rating!

All we should be concerned with is what the final number is.

And unless you’re happy to lose a tonne of golf balls, recreational golfers shouldn’t play courses with a slope rating of 140+ too often!

If you’re a beginner golfer, look for courses in your area that have a slope rating of less than 100, as you can be sure you’re playing at a track that is easier than the average American golf course.


Now You Know How They Rank Golf Courses

While you might not pay too much attention to the course and slope rating, it’s undoubtedly worthwhile having a cursory glance at the numbers on the scorecard.

After all, if you’re new to the game and find yourself playing at a course that has a slope rating of 155, then it’s not likely to do your confidence much good over the long run!

Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of what are golf course ratings and how they are ranked, and you can look to the figures in the future to find a course in your area that you can enjoy, depending on your ability and handicap.