How are “short” golf courses rated? An expert explains

If you're one of the more than 3.2 million golfers in this country who keep a handicap, you know how simple the process is: you add up your strokes, post your score, and the World Handicap System (WHS) tracks it all for you. (Don't have a handicap? You can get one here.)

You can do this for almost any round you play almost anywhere in the world, whether it is 9 or 18 holes or any number of holes in between.

You can even do this on par-3 and executive layouts, which are becoming increasingly popular these days.

All of this was made possible by updates to the WHS that went into effect earlier this year. Not only do the revisions allow the system to better handle shorter rounds (if you can't make it all 18 holes), but there's also a new way to handle shorter courses: the length requirement for inclusion in the WHS has been significantly reduced, with courses as short as 750 yards and 1,500 yards for 18 holes being included in the system. The result of these changes is that the WHS is more accurate than ever and better reflects how the game is played today.

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That's good news for golfers. They can rejoice. So does Scott Hovde, even if it means more work for him. Hovde is the USGA's director of course evaluation and handicapping research, which means he's responsible for – you guessed it – evaluating golf courses, a term that often causes confusion.

“When we say 'rating,' many people assume we're talking about quality,” says Hovde. “But we're not. We're talking about difficulty.”

Quality is subjective (course ratings are a matter of opinion). Difficulty is not. Difficulty can be measured. The tool for this is the Course Rating System, which assigns two numbers, a Course Rating and a Slope Rating, both of which are listed on the scorecard.

What do you mean?

Simply put, the course rating indicates how difficult a course is for a scratch player, while the slope rating indicates the relative difficulty of the same course (compared to a scratch golfer) for a non-scratch player.

Coming up with these numbers requires a lot of math (not Einstein-level, but more than many of us have done since high school) and many hours of careful observation, hence the extra work Hovde currently has to deal with.

Because a course must be rated before it can become part of the WHS, one of Hovde's most pressing tasks is to have all of the country's short courses rated (about 300, or about half, have been rated so far; the rest are due to be completed by the end of next year). He's not doing it alone. He's joined by about 1,200 course raters from local golf associations across the country. For months now, these experts have been following a rigorous process, inspecting every nook and cranny of the courses they visit, measuring distances to hazards, the size and shape of greens, the width of landing areas, and so on.

Hundreds of variables are taken into account for each hole, from the firmness of the turf to the severity of the prevailing wind. Hazards are divided into categories (bunkers, trees, water, rough, etc.) and assigned a difficulty rating on a scale of zero to ten. Judges consider not only the severity of a hazard (such as the depth or steepness of a bunker), but also its location in relation to the intended target for scratch and bogey golfers.

In short, it's the same as championship course evaluation, just on a smaller scale. And the more you learn about it, the clearer it becomes.

But don't take our word for it. Listen to Hovde.

Last month, we accompanied him and a team of experts as they evaluated the 3s, a par-3 course in Greenville, South Carolina, and asked lots of questions along the way. The result is the video (above) explaining the course evaluation process.

Josh Sens Publisher

Josh Sens, a golf, food and travel writer, has been a contributor to GOLF Magazine since 2004 and now writes on all GOLF platforms. His work has been published in The Best American Sportswriting and he is the co-author, with Sammy Hagar, of Are We Having Any Fun Yet: the Cooking and Partying Handbook.