An Interview With Course Rater Doug Sullivan
Doug Sullivan has been involved with course rating and handicapping for more than two decades, starting in 1988 when he was hired by the United States Golf Association. He has since moved on to serve in a course-rating capacity at various state and regional golf associations, including the Golf Association of Philadelphia, the Chicago District Golf Association, the Washington State Golf Association and in his current role as director of course rating for the Southern California Golf Association the past three years. “I have a lot of coasters with crests on them,” said Sullivan with a laugh.
USGA staff writer David Shefter, during a trip to Phoenix for the Western Calibration Seminar in late February, sat down with the 44-year-old Sullivan to discuss his involvement with course rating.
Doug Sullivan has been involved with course rating and handicapping for more than two decades.
USGA: How did you land a job at the USGA without any previous experience in the golf industry?
Sullivan: Our mailroom at the hotel – I was at the Stamford [Conn.] Marriott – was downstairs in the sales office. I was on the p.m. shift from 2 to 12. I was always playing golf in the morning as a single before my shift. I would come in at 2 and there was a guy in the sales department who would see me every day and I would tell him about my golf game. And this guy hated golf. He didn’t want to hear it and didn’t want to listen to me. His parents [lived in Basking Ridge, N.J.] and one Easter he saw an ad in the local newspaper about this position for manager of handicap services at the USGA. He cut it out and handed it to me and said, “Will you do me a favor, go apply for this job so I don’t have to hear your golf stories anymore?” And I did. I didn’t know what the job was, but I knew what the USGA was all about. Three weeks later I found myself in [Executive Director of Rules and Competitions] P.J. Boatwright’s office with Dean Knuth [then the head of the Handicap department] being interviewed. Dean will tell you the reason he hired me was because I attached a photocopy of a caricature that I did in seventh grade at Kings Island amusement park outside of Cincinnati. It was a big head of a picture of me golfing. They thought this is a guy who loves the game. We can teach him how to rate. But we can’t teach someone to love golf. That’s what he picked up from my caricature and he told me about two years later that’s why he hired me. It worked for me. He made me happy.
Were you given a crash course upon arriving at USGA headquarters in Far Hills?
Sullivan: I was. I went to see Ann Walling down in South Carolina. I went to see Warren Simmons in Colorado when he was the executive director. I spent a week with him. I spent a week in Michigan with Joe Luyckx. I went to Indianapolis and Chicago. It was basically 21 courses in 21 days. It was intense, but it was fun. I loved every minute of it.
How many courses do you rate in a year?
Sullivan: We do about 70 a year in southern California. And I go on every one of them. It’s nice because I have a volunteer – his name is Bob Osborn – and he goes on every one, too, on his own dime[SS1] . We rate very similarly to each other. It’s nice because we split up our nines, so four guys will rate the back nine and four guys will rate the front nine. Then when we do the playing part of it. We switch paperwork and try to critique each other and we get very good results that way.
So raters do get to play the course?
Sullivan: Yes. The USGA recommends that we do play the course to gain greater insight. I could count on my fingers the number of times we didn’t play the golf course. If a course has [undergone] reconstruction, sometimes the club won’t let us play it because they are saving it for the members. But the course has to get rated before the members show up and start playing.
Do you find that playing the course is a key component for your final numbers?
Sullivan: I think it’s huge, especially when you are rating something like trees or green surface. You are standing there looking at a green without a ball or a putter, while you are trying to determine if it’s relatively flat, moderately contoured or steeply sloped. You are just guessing. Then when you are out there playing and actually putting on it, oh, my goodness, you see it’s really steeply sloped. I’ve never done a rating where we didn’t go back and check on something based on how it played.
I understand the SCGA has gone high tech by using GPS devices in measuring a golf course.
Sullivan: Yes, we use GPS to measure our golf courses now. We’re in the middle of a five-year project to re-measure every golf course in southern California. We’ve got about 100 left, which sounds like a lot, but you can do two or three a day by yourself in about 2½ hours for each.
How much has that improved the quality of the rating? Are your numbers more exact?
Sullivan: The GPS is really there to confirm the tee-to-green yardage, which is still the largest mitigating factor to come up with the course and slope rating. It’s a key component, and we are just making sure it’s correct.
In terms of recruiting raters, how difficult is it to attract and retain them?
Sullivan: A lot of people in other associations tell me it’s difficult. I don’t know why. I’ve got a waiting list that’s 15 to 20 people long right now. You get on the committee and it’s such a good bunch of guys that they don’t leave it. So it’s not a problem for me. But I understand for a lot of people it’s hard to retain them because there is a learning curve to it. We try to do a good job in keeping them on board. I don’t let them go rate a golf course unless I go visit with them first. I don’t want to overwhelm them the first time.
Is there a lot of training involved or are some of them well-versed in the terminology?
Sullivan: The first two or three times a new person rates a golf course, I think they are overwhelmed. By the fourth or fifth one, you can see the light bulb go off. It’s really just a matter of repetition on every hole. It’s like the Rules of Golf. Once you learn the definitions and the Rule numbers, you can know the Rules pretty well. It’s the same with the course rating guys.
Do you try to get a good cross-section of playing abilities in terms of having a few scratch players and some that are mid- to high-handicap golfers?
Sullivan: It used to be like that. Most of my guys now were probably low- to single-digit handicap golfers to start out with, but now they are a little older, so they’re mid-teens to 20s. But they were very good golfers at one time. They just don’t hit the ball as far anymore. It used to be more important for a course rater to be a skilled golfer because the process was a lot more subjective. And now with each new book that comes out every four years, the system gets much more objective. If your hole is 450 yards long and your fairway is only 17 yards wide, that’s a number. It doesn’t matter if you are a zero or 20-handicapper to figure that out. That’s the number in the table.
How many courses do you have within the SCGA and how often do you have to re-rate them?
Sullivan: About 440 [courses], and we rate them about every seven to eight years.
When you approach a golf course to rate it, is it sometimes difficult for the members to understand what you are doing out there?
Sullivan: They just think we are out there playing and having a good time. It is fun, but there’s a lot of work to it. And we always go to a course twice; once to do the measuring part of it and then to go back and do the rating. That’s the way we do it. We’re doing a course in about two weeks that I just measured last week. That’s when I bring the guys. When I measure a course, it’s usually just me and the superintendent or somebody from the club to show me where the holes are if I haven’t seen it or [to show me] where the markers are for the tees. Then when we go do the rating part, I’ve got eight to 10 guys.
When the courses see the final numbers, do they sometimes squawk about them being rated too high or low?
Sullivan: Sometimes. A new course, for example, thinks their rating should be really high. They think high ratings are a good thing. If we go out and give them a high rating, what they don’t [understand] is a high rating means their handicaps are going to be lower, and the [club members will] have trouble competing when they go to other golf courses. And then they’ll call us back and say, “Can you lower us a little bit? We need more strokes when we go to other golf courses.” It’s like anything else. It’s just educating these guys that high isn’t good and low isn’t good. The only good rating is an accurate one.
Do people confuse what you do as raters with those from golf publications who are rating courses for ranking purposes?
Sullivan: They confuse us with that. And they also are confused that we are not out there getting their handicap stroke holes. That’s probably the biggest misnomer out there. We’re not there to do that. That’s something the club does. [The club] is supposed to collect scorecards from different groups of golfers and compare the average. It’s more of a mathematical deal. We don’t have anything to do with it, but they think we do.
Do courses have to contact you at the SCGA every time they do a revision?
Sullivan: They should. They don’t always do that. And we don’t have to re-rate the entire golf course. If they blew up one hole and re-did it, I can go out there and re-rate that one hole and put the numbers [into the system] and it will recalculate the ratings.
You rate courses every seven years, but do the numbers change that significantly over that time?
Sullivan: No. The rating guide gets updated every four years just like the Rules of Golf. I would say it’s a very small, minor tweak to certain numbers. The whole idea is to make it simpler and easier for the raters to get the numbers.
Individuals interested in becoming a course rater should contact their state/regional golf association.