Category Archives: golf tournaments

How does a golf handicap actually work – part three?


“The game of golf has a way of embarrassing you until you feel inadequate.” – Ben Crenshaw

By Ian Hardie

In the article How does a golf handicap actually work – part two? I took a look at two of the main components that go towards producing a golfer’s handicap index – which were the course rating and that mythical creature (at least in terms of generating a golf handicap) known as the ‘scratch golfer’

Now, before you start to say “scratch golfers aren’t made up, I know one or I’ve been one”

Let me explain that a little further because when it comes to golf handicapping the ‘scratch golfer’ isn’t the same one that you are thinking about – most commonly defined as ‘a golfer whose average score for a round of golf is par or better’ – giving them a handicap around zero (which is colloquially known as ‘scratch’ in golfing circles)

For golf handicapping a ‘scratch golfer’ is defined as the following:

‘A male scratch golfer can hit his tee shots an average of 250 yards and is able to reach a 470 yard hole in two shots whereas a female scratch golfer can hit her tee shots an average of 210 yards and is able to reach a 400-yard hole in two shots’

Not only that but they also hit every fairway, missing every hazard, then hit every green perfectly in regulation before going on to always two putt each green – which is how you get course ratings that are below the par of the course

These scratch golfers sound a little far-fetched don’t they?

However, in reality using them is the simplest way a golf course can be rated as to how difficult it will be for a good player to play – as there really is no way of guessing how many one putts or great approach shots a good golfer will play on any given day

Just the same as the fact that there is no way of guessing how many three putts or bad shots that an average golfer will play on any given day – which are things that are addressed by the next two parts of the handicapping puzzle

Known as – the slope rating and the ‘scratch golfers’ distant cousin – the ‘bogey golfer’

For golf handicapping the ‘bogey golfer’ is defined as the following:

‘A golfer with a handicap index of 17.5 to 22.4 strokes for men and 21.5 to 26.4 for women who when playing under most conditions – the male bogey golfer can hit his tee shot 200 yards and can reach a 370-yard hole in two shots while the female bogey golfer can hit her tee shot 150 yards and can reach a 280-yard hole in two shots’

The slope rating (which is a term trademarked by the United States Golf Association) is a measurement of the difficulty of a golf course for a golfer that will make a theoretical bogey on every hole that they play – which given the average golf handicap around the world is somewhere around 20 – means that the term bogey golfer

Actually represents what an average golfer would do on the golf course

So where the course rating is used to predict how difficult the course will be for a very good golfer, the slope rating indicates how tough it will be for the average golfer

An even simpler way to express these things is that the course rating tells us how the best golfers will usually score on that golf course while the slope rating tells us how the average golfer will usually score on the golf course

That seems easy enough to understand doesn’t it?

However, as this is a golf handicapping system it’s not quite as clear cut as that – because the minimum slope rating is 55 and the maximum is 155 – so the slope rating number doesn’t relate specifically to the strokes played by the golfer as course rating does

Exactly like course rating though, the slope rating is calculated for each different set of tees on a course, meaning that the same golf course can have a fair bit of variation in the slope rating depending on the tees being played and the hazards they bring into play or exclude

Which you are about to find out more about soon

In reality, the idea behind the slope rating was to try and level the playing field for golfers who play on different golf courses when they go to another one to play

For example, let’s say the a golfer called Fred who plays the blue tees at course A and a golfer called Pete who plays the white tees at course B – both have an average score of around 90 each time they play on their respective par 72 courses

Most people would assume that Fred and Pete would play at a similar level

Until you take a look at the fact that the blue tees on course A – where Fred usually plays is a difficult one with a slope rating of 140 – while the white tees on course B – where Pete usually plays is a much easier course with a slope rating of 105

If golf handicaps were simply averages of the golfers last few scores (which is what they used to be) Fred and Pete would have the same handicaps but as the blue tees on course A where Fred usually plays is in reality a harder and longer course – if a match was played between them

Pete is likely to lose virtually every time if they both play on the same handicap

Which is where the slope rating used in calculating modern golf handicap indexes plays its part – to balance the variation in course difficulty out between golfers

In the example I have given above Fred’s handicap index will be lower than Pete’s as he usually plays on a course with a higher slope rating and so in reality

As he has the same average score on a harder course – he’s probably a better golfer

If both of them then went to play at a neutral course – the slope rating would allow further adjustment of their handicap indexes up or down – depending on how difficult that course was

To put all this into perspective I’m going to use the TPC at Sawgrass course which you will probably know best as the home of ‘The Players Championship’ each year on the PGA Tour – you may have recognised the image of its famous 17th hole island green at the top of this article

Regardless of the tees being played the TPC Sawgrass course stays as a par 72

When its set up for The Players Championship – the course measures 7215 yards, has a course rating of 76.8 and a slope rating of 155 – (the maximum slope rating available)

Which means it’s about as difficult as a golf course can get from those tee markers

Off the blue tees though – it’s a bit shorter at 6661 yards, giving it a course rating of 73.9 and a slope rating of 146

Still not easy but there’s a glimmer of hope there

From the white tees – it measures 6103 yards, has a course rating of 70.9 and a slope rating of 137

Things are starting to look up for the average golfer now!

The shortest tees I could find for it are the green tees at a mere 5019 yards, that give it a course rating of 65.3 and a slope rating of 125 – still not exactly a walkover but playable for most golfers

With the exception of this guy that I wrote about some time back of course!

So there you have a good example of how both the course rating and the slope rating can vary on a golf course even though the par is the same for all of the set-ups

The question is how does that end up helping to generate your handicap index?

I’ll be looking at that soon in the article ‘How does a golf handicap actually work – part four?’ when I cover the last two pieces in the golf handicap puzzle – adjusted gross score and equitable stroke control

Until then

Play well


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