Course and Slope Ratings Explained

By Bradley Turner Keiser University College of Golf Director of Online Golf Instruction – MBA, PGA

This past week I watched tennis great Serena Williams beat the number two ranked player in the world in this year’s US Open. The women played brilliant tennis throughout, and Serena showed why she might be the greatest female tennis player of all time. As an occasional tennis player, I thought I would have no chance to play against the best tennis players in the world. Even if Serena gave me a one-set lead and a 5-0 lead in the second set, she would still win. The same applies in most other sports; the average sports enthusiast cannot compete against world-class athletes without getting crushed like a bug on a car windshield. However, there is a way in golf that will provide an equitable and competitive match against any player in the world.

USGA Handicap System

Since golf is a game where players control their ball without influence from a competitor, it is one of the few games where you can have a competitive match against Rory McIlroy or Nelly Korda. The USGA Handicap System is a wonderful aspect of the game of golf, so any player at any skill level can have an equitable match. Rory is probably a +6-handicap golfer. What does that mean? If Rory came out to play your home golf course and shoots a 64, his handicap requires that Rory adds six more strokes to his score, equaling a net score of 70. If you were playing with him and your handicap is a ten, and you shoot a score of 79, you subtract ten from your score, equaling a net score of 69. Rory is buying lunch for you!

Most golfers have not established an official handicap. It is estimated that only 10% of golfers use the handicap system when they play the game. According to the USGA, the average handicap of a male golfer in the United States is about 14.2, while the average for a woman is 27.2. There are very few scratches or plus handicap golfers, with less than 2% of men and 1% of women achieving this skill level. Most men (49%) have a handicap range of 10 – 19. Women majority (37%) will have a handicap ranging from 20 – 29. The USGA handicap system may appear complicated, but it is relatively simple to understand and use in golf matches. Clarity on a few terms can help alleviate many golfers’ concerns about establishing a golf handicap.

Course Rating Explained

The course rating estimates the score a highly skilled amateur would likely shoot on the golf course. A highly skilled amateur from the USGA’s perspective is that of an amateur playing in national championships. That means a good amateur! Assuming your golf course rating is 71.0 from the back tees, a top-ranked amateur golfer would likely average about 71 over ten rounds of play. The USGA has enormous data on player performance over the past century, and I am confident their course rating procedures are reliable and produce accurate golf course ratings. Course ratings over 75.0 are challenging golf courses, while courses under 69.0 are much easier.

Slope Rating Explained

The slope rating was created to reflect the golf course’s difficulty from a bogey golfer’s perspective and skill. Golf courses that may be relatively easy for a skilled amateur can be challenging for a less experienced golfer. For example, if a tee shot requires a forced carry of 150 yards over a penalty area, a skilled amateur would not even notice this challenge. On the other hand, a bogey golfer is in jeopardy of losing a ball with a poor strike. Bunkers can be a big problem for the average golfer, but a bunker shot is not much of a concern for accomplished golfers.

The USGA established a slope rating of 113 as the average difficulty level for a bogey golfer. The highest slope rating is capped at 155, and the lowest rating is 55. The course and slope rating values are used in the USGA handicap index formula.

USGA Handicap Index Formula

The USGA has fine-tuned the handicap formula with the most recent changes in 2020. It is possible to calculate a handicap with as little as three rounds. However, once you have played 20 rounds of golf, your handicap index will be calculated using the most recent 20 rounds of golf that you have played.

The USGA Formula is the adjusted gross score – the course rating x 113/the course slope rating.

The first step in the formula is to determine the differential scores of each of your rounds played. What is a differential score? You calculate the differential by subtracting the course rating from your adjusted gross score. Assume your adjusted gross score is 85 and the course rating is 71.5. The differential would be 13.5. The following calculation will input the slope rating values into the handicap formula.

If the course’s slope rating is 125 (more complex than an average course), you multiply 13.5 x (113/125) = 12.2 differential.

If the slope rating is 113 (average difficulty), the same procedure applies 13.5 x (113/113) = 13.5 differential.

If the slope rating is 100 (easier than average), the result is 13.5 x (113/100) = 15.2 differential.

The differential outcomes should make sense since shooting an 85 on a more difficult slope-rated golf course of 125 is a better performance than an 85 on an easy slope-rated golf course of 100. The average of your eight best differential scores from your most recent 20 rounds played establishes your USGA handicap index.

Establish a Handicap

Most golf facilities provide a handicapping service to their patrons. If you do not have a home golf course, you can still establish a handicap through local or state golf associations. In Florida, you can establish an official handicap through the Florida State Golf Association for a nominal fee of $30 annually. There are plenty of golf apps available that provide this service as well. It is very simple for golfers to use; input your adjusted gross score, the course rating, and the slope rating, and the app will do the rest!

If you’d like to study with Bradley Turner and other PGA Master Professionals, contact the College of Golf today.


  1. Course ratings are very accurate! Slopes are not. I play in Ohio and Florida, a course in Florida with the same slope as in Ohio is much harder, hazards sometimes on both sides of fairway!!! Not even close !!

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