Handicaps, Part 2: Course Ratings and Slope

If you understand course ratings and slope you are well on your way to understanding the handicap system and what the changes in the new system are accomplishing, so this post is a review of course ratings and slope. But before I get into the weeds, I think a word from a math guy and handicap expert is in order. And this guy is a real critic of the system.

“The major lesson in all of this is to not take handicap ratings too seriously.  They are not precise, but “good enough” and probably as good as can be done. Errors in ratings can cause you to lose and win a match.  Things should even out in the end.”

(From On Golf Handicaps, Laurence Dougharty, December 19, 2019. www.ongolfhandicaps.com/2019/12/)

The explanation of the system and the changes you will see from me are just that: an explanation, not a claim that the system is perfect. As Dougharty said, don’t get too hung up in the precise numbers. The system makes a decent effort at handling a very difficult problem. If you start debating decimal points and rounding errors, you’ve missed the point of what the system is about.


As with last week, this first page hits the high points. Follow this link or the link at the end of the page for more details. Both links go to the same place.

Imagine you are playing someone for the first time and they don’t have a handicap. They say they usually shoot “about 90.” Is this good enough for you to decide the terms of the match, or do you want to know more? Do you what to know the course where they usually shoot 90 and what tees they play from? Do you want to know what tees they’ll be playing from when they play against you? If you get all that information from them and make your best guess about what it means for your match you’ve done a subjective job of what the handicap system objectively does.

The core of the handicap system answers the questions of what course a score comes from and the tees played by comparing a player’s scores to the course rating and slope.

The course rating tells you what a scratch golfer would be expected to shoot when playing the course from a particular set of tees. It’s expressed as a golf score rounded to the nearest tenth. For example, the men’s rating from the gold trees at the Flying L is 67.3 and the women’s rating from the red tees is 67.1.

The slope is another indicator of difficulty level, but it gives you an idea of the relative difficulty of the course for a bogey golfer as compared to the difficulty for a scratch golfer. This is important because difficulty generally affects higher handicap golfers more than lower handicap golfers. If you put a bunker across the fairway 150 yards out from the tee on any hole at the Flying L, Joe Arredondo’s game won’t suffer too much. We mere mortals will suffer much more.

Slope is confusing because of the math and the scale it uses, but it is simple in principle. A course of standard difficulty has a slope of 113. Higher numbers indicate greater relative difficulty for bogey golfers. If you divide the slope of a more difficult than average course by 113, you’ll get a number greater than 1. For example the slope of the men’s white tees at the Flying L is 123, and 123/113 = 1.09.

Your handicap index is for a course of standard difficulty, or 113 slope, so if a man plays the white tees at the Flying L his index is multiplied by 1.09 to account for the increase in difficulty. The index is multiplied by a smaller number for a man from the gold tees, because the gold tees are closer to standard difficulty. The gold tee slope is 115, and 115/113 = 1.02, so the index is multiplied by 1.02. For women from the red tees, the slope is 114, and 114/113 = 1.01, so the index is multiplied by 1.01.

Also, notice that the higher someone’s handicap index is, the more their handicap is affected by the slope adjustment. A scratch player gets no benefit from the Flying L white tees, because 1.09 X 0 = 0. An 8 handicap index player gets 1 stroke benefit because of the slope (8 X 1.09 = 8.7, rounded to 9) and a 20 handicap index player gets a 2 stroke benefit (20 X 1.09 = 21.8, rounded to 22.) Arredondo gets doesn’t get help but the rest of us do, and some of us get more than others.

That “I usually shoot about 90” player you are talking to could be what you think of as a 15 or so handicapper, or they could be more like a 25. It really depends on where they shoot that 90. The course rating and slope information in the handicap system makes possible a more accurate assessment of their ability and tells you what that 90 really means.

Next week’s post will get to the biggest change in the new handicap system and how it deals with the problem of competition from different tees. I apologize if some of this about ratings and slope seems redundant to some of you, but it’s important for everyone to have a good grasp of the concepts to understand what the new system is doing when it alters handicap based on the tees you are playing.

Have a Merry Christmas, and follow this link for more about ratings and slope.

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