As part of a USGA website series on Handicapping, Eric Lahman, manager of course rating and handicapping for the USGA, sat down with the USGA’s Ken Klavon to discuss course rating.
Why is course rating important?
Eric Lahman: First and foremost, it’s married to the USGA Handicap System™, so without an accompanying USGA Course Rating System™, you’re not going to have a Handicap Index® that travels well and is portable from course to course.
When did course rating come in?
Lahman: We adopted and established the first USGA Course Rating System in 1911. The concept preceded that, with its origins in the British Isles. The major change to it was in 1987 to include Slope Rating.
How does one become a course rater?
Lahman: I would say by reaching out to your local authorized golf association. Most raters are, by and large, volunteers who are already doing something else with an association, be it volunteering for tournaments or junior programs and all of a sudden they get into a course rating volunteer position. And in most associations, it’s seen as prestigious because they don’t have that many raters. And one of the advantages of rating a golf course is you’ll probably be able to play it before or after the rating.
How do course rating calibrations differ from course rating?
Lahman: We mainly conduct two styles of seminars for the associations to provide them with educational assistance. One is in the form of a one-day course rating seminar where we’ll go to a region and an association or multiple associations will converge on a club and we’ll go over the course rating system, what’s in the book, and then we’ll go out on the course and rate a few holes. And that’s a one-day deal.
The national calibrations are a requirement of every golf association to attend once every four-year cycle. And they are at different venues each year. Generally speaking, we’re rating four holes on one course as the USGA/Course Rating Committee members. Then we have the representatives from the golf associations rating the same four holes and we’re comparing our numbers, sort of the master numbers, what they should be, to how the association raters rated the same four holes. And then we look for any disparities.
Do you find a lot of disparities?
Lahman: Sometimes. Sometimes there are just clerical errors. Or sometimes it’s a difference in how they rate trees, for example. They may have a different philosophy on rating trees and how they recover from trees. We try to take a system that is maybe seen as subjective and make it as objective as possible so it is equitable for everyone who plays the game with a Handicap Index. By having these calibration seminars we ensure that everyone is on the same page from a rating perspective.
How many seminars do you oversee a year?
Lahman: It varies. Probably a dozen one-day course rating seminars and two to three calibration seminars per year. And we conduct handicap seminars too.
Where are they generally held?
Lahman: Throughout the country and, on a rare and special occasion, we may get a request from an international golf association that utilizes the USGA Course Rating System and they may come to [Golf House]. We typically have a set schedule the first five months of the year.
When you rate a course, what are the types of things you’re looking for?
Lahman: Generally speaking, it boils down to 15 items. There are five effective playing length correction factors. They are: roll, elevation, dogleg/forced layup, prevailing wind, and for courses 2,000 feet or more above sea level, altitude. There’s a “paper grid” called a Form 1 that each rater utilizes on the golf course. It looks like a Microsoft® Excel spreadsheet. They’re filling in appropriate numbers for these five EPLs (Effective Playing Length) factors and 10 obstacle factors, nine of which they are actually responsible for filling out on the golf course. Psychological is one of the 10 obstacles and that is calculated automatically with a course rating program utilized by authorized golf associations.
Can you take me through a psychological rating?
Lahman: The psychological obstacle is an accumulation of the other nine obstacles, so as those get to a certain number, generally if they get high, it may kick in a psychological rating, so some additional points will be added into the psychological rating. So as those obstacles start to compound and become a bigger issue, we get an additional bump to a psychological rating.
Does psychological rating come into play a lot?
Lahman: It depends on the golfer we’re rating for, scratch or bogey. For example – a water hazard – there is potentially a bigger psychological rating for the women bogey golfers. Any time you have obstacles that are rated extremely high, they’ll get a pretty good bump. So if they’re rated at 10, which is maxing out the system – generally obstacles are rated on a 0 to 10 scale – so once they’re getting up toward that 10, that’s going to increase the psychological rating.
So when the raters go through and evaluate all the other nine obstacles, that psychological element is automatically getting factored in. If you have three obstacles rated five or greater, it may kick in a psychological rating. And we do assign a couple of points to the first and last holes on the golf course because when you’re starting out or finishing a round, there’s a little bit of a psychological impact as well.
When you rate a course, are you rating every hole or is it only a segment of holes?
Lahman: You’re rating every hole. There’s a two-part answer to that question. Not only are you rating every hole, you may have every single set of tees to rate on that course, and for both genders. On the other hand, we have procedures that are built into the system that make the process easier. In other words, for women if tees are within 20 yards of each other, we say you can go ahead and rate one tee and apply those obstacle rating values to the set of tees that are within 20 yards for each hole this is applicable. For men, it’s within 25 yards. That prevents us from having to rate every single set of tees that are very close to each other, because what we found, they’re coming up in general with about the same obstacle ratings. So the only difference between the two tees would be the yardage rating. They would inherit those obstacle ratings.
Another procedure that helps speed up the rating process is for extremely long tees and tees that are on the shorter end of the spectrum. They don’t have to be book rated if you have one set of tees that are rated because we’re rating for a scratch and a bogey golfer. That’s what golf associations are rating for, by mathematical distances that we have determined for each golfer. In other words, to have a rating team go out and rate that extremely long set of tees, 7,000-plus yards for a men’s rating, for example, it wouldn’t make much sense. We found to rate that from a bogey golfer’s perspective, how often does a bogey golfer play a 7,000-plus yard course? Just applying those obstacles to the far back tee gives us a good linear increase in the USGA Course Rating and Slope Rating.
Since we’re rating for scratch and bogey – obviously scratch hits the ball farther than bogey – how often does scratch go out and play, say, a 4,500-yard set of tees [or, say, 3,500 for women]? We can apply those obstacle values from a set of tees that are within the most commonly-played set of tees – the middle set of tees, for example, and apply the obstacle ratings and not have to book rate the extremely long or short tees. This helps speed up the rating process and keeps ratings on a nice, linear fashion.