what is a golf course rating

What is a Golf Course Rating? (10 “Obstacles”)

Many golfers are unaware of an important golf metric known as course rating.  Course ratings have been around for over 100 years and appear on every golf scorecard. But what is a golf course rating? In simple terms, a course rating can tell you if your home course is actually as brutal as you think. It could could also help you find an easier course if you are searching for a more relaxing round.

So what is a golf course rating and how is it determined? Golf course rating is a way of numerically describing the difficulty of a golf course. The higher the course rating relative to par, the more difficult the course. The lower the course rating relative to par, the easier the course. The course rating aims to identify the average score a scratch golfer would shoot in their top 50% of rounds played at that course.

Scratch golfers are extremely talented, and they average scores very close to par when playing well. Therefore, the course rating number will usually be similar to the par of the golf course. On a typical par 72 golf course, most course ratings will be between 70-74. A course rating of 72 on a par 72 would signify a golf course of exactly average difficulty. If that course rating was 70, it would mean the course plays on the easier side. A course rating of 74 would mean a tougher challenge.

The United States Golf Association (USGA) is the group that assigns course ratings in America. They have developed a complex formula that identifies 10 different categories of obstacles on the golf course. Their system has been adopted by most other golf organizations around the world.

Let’s take a close look at the 10 obstacles the USGA uses to calculate course rating.

1. Topography

The style of the terrain can definitely impact the course rating. Mounds, slopes, and elevation changes all add challenge to a golf course.

On the other hand, a flat course takes away unpredictability and eases depth perception.

2. Fairway

Fairway width is the most important measurement here.

golf course rating fairway width

Narrow fairways are harder to hit and lead to higher scores. Some fairways have varying widths, requiring extra strategy and precision off the tee.

Overhanging trees or forced carries to reach the fairways can also affect this category.

3. Green Target

How easy are the greens to hit from the fairways?  Tiny greens are hard to hit and can cause lots of frustration.

Firmness also plays a role. Softer greens are generally easier and lead to target golf.  Firmer greens demand more planning and execution on approach shots.

4. Recoverability and Rough

Simply put, how punishing is it to miss the fairway?  Long rough can snag golf balls and make hitting quality recovery shots nearly impossible.

Big slopes in the rough or around the greens also cause trouble.  Hitting a false front on a green and having the ball roll 40 feet backwards would be an example of tough recoverability.

5. Bunkers

Some courses have so much sand that they look more like a beach than a golf course.

what is a golf course rating - bunkers

Greenside bunkers and fairway bunkers both add intimidation and make it harder to go low.

The number of bunkers, depth of bunkers, and placement of bunkers are all taken into account here.

6. Lateral Obstacles

How much trouble is there off the tee? Penalty areas and out of bounds have ruined many great rounds.

The difficulty of a hole shoots through the roof when these lateral obstacles are tightly hugging the fairway or surrounding the green.

7. Crossing Obstacles

Penalty areas, extreme rough (including desert), and out of bounds when they must be carried to play the hole.

8. Trees

Trees add beauty and character to a golf course, but they sure add a lot of difficulty as well.

golf course rating trees

They can swat down tee shots, approach shots, or shots around the green.  Tree height, location, and leaf density are all considered.

9. Green Surface

Putting is a big part of the game, and this category focuses on that. The speed of the green is weighed heavily, as faster greens are generally tougher to putt on. 

Slopes or mounds on the green also make things hard.

10. Psychological

This component helps to identify the fear factor of a course.  Shots with harsh consequences (penalty area or out of bounds) for poor execution add pressure to the golfer.

After all, many of us know that mastering golf is as much mental as it is physical.

Conclusion: Golf Course Rating Explained

A panel of multiple raters trained in the USGA methodology will provide ratings in all ten categories above.  A committee then reviews and approves these ratings, at which point the course rating can be calculated.

The most practical use of course ratings is for normalizing course difficulty in handicap calculations.

For example, let’s say you shoot identical scores of 74 two days in a row, both of par 72 courses.

On the first day the course you played had a course rating of 70. The second day course had a course rating of 74.

Your scores may have been the same, but your round on day two was far superior! On the first day your score of 74 would have pegged you as a 4 handicap. But on day two, you played like a zero handicap (scratch) golfer!

The course rating number found on every golf scorecard isn’t just a number pulled from thin air.  It is a very important metric used in golf and much work goes into calculating it.

Course rating helps to quickly identify the difficulty of a golf course.  It is also used to perform official handicap calculations. The specific formula is complex, but the USGA has outlined ten different obstacles of a golf course that are used to calculate course rating.

The next time you play a round of golf, think about these ten obstacles and then check the course rating.  Understanding how they relate will help you to develop a practical understanding and appreciation of golf course rating.