Q&A With Eric Lahman On Course Rating, Part II April 10, 2011 By Ken Klavon, USGA

Course raters compare notes during a recent rating. (David Shefter/USGA)


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. This is part two of the interview.  

Read part one here. 

Does the time it takes to complete a rating vary much from course to course? 

Lahman: On average it should take about the time it takes to play. So it should take three to four hours. Some of it depends on the association’s resources and availability. Are they able to go out and visit the course ahead of time and measure it? Measuring is first and foremost the most critical aspect of the rating. Associations definitely need to make sure that the measurements are accurate. Some associations will be able to measure in advance and collect preliminary information such as green widths, depths, bunker coverage – things that are determined in the rating process that can be hashed out with a prior visit.  

How are teams made up? 

Lahman: The minimum to comprise a rating team is three team members. I would say in general you’ll see three to five raters that make up a rating team. And if they can split their rating duties up to each nine, we’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback on that, too. If a team goes out and rates all 18, by the time they get to those last couple of holes, and they’re rating multiple tees, they could be pretty exhausted.  

What is a Bogey Rating™? 

Lahman: When the System was conceptualized in 1911, we only rated from the perspective of a scratch golfer all the way up until the Slope System® was introduced on Jan. 1, 1987. That’s when we introduced the bogey golfer – to rate from the perspective of the bogey golfer in addition to the scratch golfer. That’s also how we derive the Slope Rating®. So the bogey golfer is our Bogey Rating; our scratch golfer is our USGA Course Rating™. The difference between those two numbers multiplied by a constant factor is the Slope Rating. It’s a number that tells us how fast scores are rising between the bogey and scratch golfer.  

One thing we get a lot of questions on is when someone looks at a particular set of tees and they see a Slope Rating that is high. And they automatically associate that with it being a difficult course. Not only do we need to look at Slope Rating, but we need to view USGA Course Rating, too. Because two tees could have a Slope Rating of, say, 140, but one set of tees could have a 72.0 USGA Course Rating and another could be 75.0. In this example, the 75.0 is obviously going to be more difficult than the 72.0. But if you look merely at Slope Rating and they’re the same, and you think that’s the absolute difficulty, it’s a little misnomer that’s out there.  

What is Slope Rating? 

Lahman: It relates to a mathematical term of rise over run of a line. So we have a Bogey Rating, which is obviously going to be higher than a USGA Course Rating, and we draw a line between those two numbers – 91.3 and 70.8, for example. Then the greater the disparity between those two points, the greater the slope of the line, hence Slope Rating.  

Do you receive a lot of feedback from golfers when they look at Slope Rating? Do you feel the public is educated adequately on the subject? 

Lahman: I think one thing is that we’re not posting scores for handicap purposes to a Bogey Rating. As an everyday golfer, we don’t see the impact of where the bogey golfer fits into the picture. Because like I said, if you have a Handicap Index®, when you go to post your scores for handicap purposes you’re asked for the USGA Course Rating and Slope Rating® for the tees played. Many may not understand what the relative difficulty concept means. However, it has improved in recent years whereby we’ve added a national USGA Course Rating and Slope Database™ on our website. And we do publish the Bogey Rating and it’s also available for Certification Posters sent to clubs with finalized ratings. There is a USGA Course Rating Program made available to authorized golf associations by the USGA, which is used by associations to calculate ratings.  

I think by the USGA and authorized golf associations publishing the Bogey Rating – that has really helped the understanding of how all three of these terms – USGA Course Rating, Bogey Rating and Slope Rating – relate to each other.  

The associations are issuing the ratings. And I think a lot of what they do is making sure they have an objective perspective. And they have raters who are well educated on the system, who are going out and applying this system by the book. The System can be viewed as a boilerplate to put over every single course and is tweaked to that course’s difficulty. Accuracy is the main thing that ties into course rating. Meaning, do you know the book? Can you apply it well? Do you know everything there is to know about it? And, on the other hand, are you consistent from rating to rating? If you rated Course A today and Course B tomorrow, are you applying the procedure the same way and not letting any personal bias come into play? 

I’ve heard many times while I’m teaching a rating seminar, ‘Well, these golfers play this hole a certain way.’ And you kind of have to remove yourself from that. That’s why one of our 10 rules for course rating is you can’t rate your own home golf course, for that reason. We don’t want that personal bias to influence a rating, but a club representative is encouraged to come along as a narrator.  

How do you know when to rate? 

Lahman: If the course is new, we state that it should be rated every three years for a period up to nine years. The mandatory re-rate is once every 10 years thereafter. It depends on the association for their re-rate schedule. I would say, by and large, every golf association re-rates before the 10-year minimum re-rating requirement. They might have a little quicker re-rate schedule, say eight years. Some things that could trigger a re-rating are trees mature, fairways may shrink or get larger along with rough height, depending on maintenance practices, and greens may change size, just to name a few examples of changes. There are subtle nuances that change on the course each year. Then there are minor policy changes to the system that also are accounted for with the re-rating. The club may ask, ‘Why are we getting re-rated, nothing has really changed on the course?’ These changes are so minor from day to day that one may not notice, but over a period of several years it could change quite a bit.  

Does it matter if you’re a public or private course? In other words, are there private clubs out there that don’t want to be rated? 

Lahman: I don’t think there’s any general trend, be it public or private, where courses have put off a rating or refused a rating, because to use the USGA Handicap System™, you have to have valid ratings. So once those ratings expire, they’re no longer valid and scores can’t be posted to those ratings. We have a lot of things in place for a club that has lapsed; the [regional] association or the USGA can work with them to get them in compliance. 

What happens after a rating? 

Lahman:When on ratings, associations will have the paper Form 1s and may have multiple tees to rate. When they are finished rating, they’ll usually meet in the clubhouse to discuss the on-course rating values, and finalize them. The rating team leader’s decision is final. So his or her master Form 1, whatever they decided to be the final rating values, will be turned in to the authorized golf association and the association will punch in the numbers. From that point, they may need to go through a course rating review committee, or depending on how the association is run, they may hold off on issuing those ratings until some date where all ratings for a certain period are released at once. Or the association may issue ratings to the club right away. It depends on the circumstances and if there is a change to one tee, for example.  

We receive a fair number of questions on ratings and we’re available to answer any questions associations may have on any ratings. We have decisions on the USGA Course Rating System, much like the Rules of Golf has decisions. The association may have a special situation whereby they send us a picture – and we render a decision and help them decide what their rating should be for that particular situation. Those situations are what lead into each four-year cycle for changes to the System. Suggestions from one-day rating seminars, course rating calibrations, annual Course Rating Committee meetings, and the special situations that are brought to us are what lend themselves to making changes from each four-year cycle to the next. We’re in the last year of the current cycle, so the next four-year cycle will be from 2012 through 2015. We’re running concurrently to the Rules of Golf.