Yardage Guidelines for Par-3s, Par-4s and Par-5s

Golf hole sign for a 465-yard par-4
This sign tells us the 18th hole is 465 yards and has a par of 4. Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

Most golfers know the typical par lengths of golf holes instinctively. We've played enough holes that we can usually be told a hole's length and, based on that length, know whether the hole is a par-3, par-4 or par-5, or, rarely, a par-6.

But are there are rules within the golf world for exactly what lengths a par-3, par-4, par-5 hole can be? Or must be?

There are not hard rules about that - what par to call a hole is up to the hole designers and golf course personnel.

But there are guidelines. The USGA has periodically issued guidelines for the par-ratings of holes based on their lengths; e.g., if a hole is 180 yards, it is a par-3.

Those guidelines have changed over the years, and the way they are used has changed, too. Let's take a look.

Current Yardage Guidelines for Par Ratings

Keep in mind what, exactly, par represents: A hole's par is the number of strokes an expert golfer is expected to need to complete the hole. And all pars (3, 4, 5 or 6) include two putts. So a 180-yard hole is called a par-3 because an expert golfer is expected to hit the green in one stroke, then take two putts for three strokes total.

With that in mind, these are the current yardage guidelines for par ratings per the USGA:

 MenWomen
Par 3Up to 250 yardsUp to 210 yards
Par 4251 to 470 yards211 to 400 yards
Par 5471 to 690 yards401 to 575 yards
Par 6691 yards+576 yards+ 

Current Guidelines Represent 'Effective Playing Length'

It's important to note that the USGA guidelines cited above - the current recommended par yardages - are not, in fact, based on actual, measured yards, but on a hole's "effective playing length." Effective playing length is one of the factors taken into account when a course is given its USGA course rating and USGA slope rating.

The easiest way to understand "effective playing length" is to picture two golf holes of exactly the same measured length. Let's say 450 yards. But one of those holes plays uphill from the tee to the green, while the other plays downhill.

Which is the easier hole? Everything else about the holes being equal, the downhill hole will be easier than the uphill, because it will play shorter.

Even though both holes measure 450 yards, the downhill hole's "effective playing length" is shorter than that of the uphill hole (everything else being equal).

How the Par and Yardage Guidelines Have Changed

Prior to the introduction of effective playing length into course ratings, the yardage guidelines for hole pars were based on actual, measured yards. It's interesting to see how they've changed over the years. We have three examples below; in each case, the yardages listed are for men:

1911

(Note: The USGA adopted the use of "par" in 1911, which makes these its first-ever guidelines on par yardages.)

  • Par 3 - Up to 225 yards
  • Par 4 - 225 to 425 yards
  • Par 5 - 426 to 600 yards
  • Par 6 - 601 yards or more

1917

  • Par 3 - Up to 250 yards
  • Par 4 - 251 to 445 yards
  • Par 5 - 446 to 600 yards
  • Par 6 - 601 yards or more

1956

  • Par 3 - Up to 250 yards
  • Par 4 - 251 to 470 yards
  • Par 5 - 471 yards or more