Explaining Golf's 'Course Rating' and the USGA Course Rating System

What the course rating number means, what it is used for, how it is calculated

General view of a golf course bunker and green
How difficult is a golf course for a scratch golfer? That's what Course Rating, part of the USGA Handicap System, attempts to measure. Glow Images, Inc/Glow/Getty Images

USGA Course Rating is a numerical value given to each set of tees at a golf course to approximate the number of strokes it should take a scratch golfer to complete the course.

Course rating is a very important part of the USGA Handicap System and is used in calculating a golfer's handicap index.

A course rating of 74.8, for example, means that scratch golfers are expected to post an average score of 74.8 from that set of tees on that course.

A course rating of 74.8 is pretty stiff, but there are no hard-and-fast parameters for how high or low course rating can go. Most course ratings range from the upper 60s to the mid 70s.

Course Ratings Are Used Outside the USGA's Territory, Too

Course rating systems are in use around the world by many different golf authorities. For example, in the United Kingdom and Ireland, the handicapping authority known as CONGU issues "Standard Scratch Scores" as a degree-of-difficulty rating for golf courses.

But "course rating" is usually taken to mean the USGA Course Rating system, and the USGA's course ratings trace back to the establishment of the first such system in 1911.

Establishing a common, globally used system for course ratings is something golf's governing bodies and handicapping authorities frequently discuss, and it may someday happen. For now, the USGA Course Rating system is licensed in many countries outside the USGA's typical governing area, including (but not limited to) Canada; China; France, Germany, Spain and many other Continental European countries; India; Malaysia; and much of South America.

In what follows, we'll specifically be talking about USGA Course Ratings and the role of course rating in the USGA Handicap System.

How Is Course Rating Calculated?

Golf courses that participate in the USGA Handicap System are rated for each set of tees at their course (front tees, middle tees and back tees, for example).

At least a few of a course's tees should be rated separately for men and for women, because men and women will post different scores playing from the same set of tees. For example, the forward tees might be rated 67.5 for men and 71.5 for women.

The ratings are determined when a golf course requests to be rated (and pays the fee). A "ratings team," usually from a state golf association, visits the golf course and makes various measurements and notes and observations about how "easy" or "difficult" the course plays from the perspective of scratch golfers. (The ratings team is establishing such things as a course's "effective playing length" and "obstacle stroke value.")

For a more in-depth discussion of the ratings process, see:

USGA Course Ratings should be updated (through a re-rating) every 10 years (or in five years for a newly built course), and when a course undergoes renovations that result in significant changes.

How Course Rating Is Used in the USGA Handicap System

Rating golf courses is the key to the whole handicap system, the USGA says:

"The USGA Course Rating System is the standard upon which the USGA Handicap System is built. It affects all golfers in the calculation of a Handicap Index. Players 'play to their handicaps' when their net scores (gross score minus handicap strokes) equal the USGA Course Rating."

When the USGA refers to the "Course Rating system," it is talking about the process that results in both USGA Course Rating and USGA Slope Rating. (Think of them this way: course rating views the golf course from a scratch golfer's perspective, slope rating from a bogey golfer's perspective.)

As for the actual number that represents USGA Course Rating: That number is used in the math behind the USGA Handicap Index calculation. So to know your handicap index, you have to know the course ratings (and slope ratings) of the golf courses you've played. See:

How to Find a Golf Course's USGA Course Rating

Every golf course that has a USGA Course Rating should include those ratings on its scorecard. If it doesn't, a golfer can:

  • check in the clubhouse/pro shop, where the ratings may be posted, or to ask one of the professionals on staff;
  • call and ask staff for the rating(s);
  • visit the course's website, which, ideally, will list the course ratings.

Or visit the USGA's National Course Rating Database, which allows golfers to search online for a golf course's course/slope ratings.