From time to time the USGA and regional golf associations publish
articles explaining the USGA Slope System.
More often than not, the articles get it right. On too many occasions, however, the articles
demonstrate a lack of understanding of the Slope System. Such articles tend to confuse rather than
inform their readership. The latest
example comes from
Fore Magazine, the
publication of the Southern California Golf Association (SCGA).
The article is entitled “Slippery Slope:
Comparing Course Difficulty” and was written by Doug Sullivan, the Director of
Course Rating for the SCGA. The article
contains three major errors. First, the
suggested criterion for measuring course difficulty is not adequate for many
situations. Second, the article incorrectly
describes how the Slope Rating is determined.
Third, the article’s explanation of why a player gets more strokes is
not consistent with the theory behind the Slope System. Each error is reviewed in turn
.
Error No. 1 – Misleading advice on measuring course difficulty
Sullivan follows in the footsteps
of several other articles that claim the Course Rating is the dominant
criterion for ranking courses by Course Difficulty.
Sullivan is more adamant, however, and claims
the Course Rating should be the sole criterion is measuring course
difficulty. He writes:
… Slope Ratings should not be used to compare the difficulty of
different golf courses. Instead a Course
Rating is generally a better indicator in determining the difficulty of one
course compared to another.
To make the case for the Course
Rating as the measure of difficulty, Sullivan creates a straw man. He describes two courses. Course A has a Course Rating of 68.5 and a
Slope Rating of 130. Course B has a
Course Rating of 71.8 and a Slope Rating of 120. Sullivan asks which course is more
difficult. Sullivan argues your answer
should be “Course B because Course B has a higher Course Rating.” Sullivan never defines a “difficulty.” For the sake of argument, difficulty is
defined here as the score a player needs to play to his handicap (i.e., Diff =
Course Rating + Course Handicap). Because
of Sullivan’s fortuitous selection of ratings, a player’s Diff will always be
higher on Course B. Sullivan used this
faux example as definitive proof the
Slope Rating should not be used to compare the difficulty of courses.
Sullivan concludes:
So the next time someone asks you which course you think is more
difficult, compare the Course Ratings, not the Slope Ratings. Not only will your answer be more accurate,
but your friends will be more than a little impressed with your knowledge of
SLOPE.
Sullivan is wrong. While the Course Rating may be the dominant
factor in measuring difficulty, it is not the only factor.
If the definition of difficulty shown above
is accepted, then:
Diff = Course Rating + Index∙Slope
Rating/113
If there is a large difference in
Course Ratings (e.g., 3 strokes), the course with the highest Course Rating
will also have the highest Diff. If the
difference in Course Ratings is small, then Diff will be influenced by the
Slope Rating and the player’s Index. To
demonstrate how Sullivan is wrong, two fantasy courses are constructed. Course A has a Course Rating of 70.0 and a
Slope Rating of 69.0. Course B has a
Course Rating of 70.5 and a Slope Rating of 155. The vast majority of players would score
higher (i.e., have a higher Diff) on Course B since it has both a higher Course
Rating and Slope Rating. But what if a
player’s Handicap Index was +4.0? Course
A would have a Diff of 67.6 while Course B would have a Diff of 65.0. This
player would find Course A more
difficult. In essence, Course Difficulty
for an individual player cannot be determined by simply comparing Course
Ratings as Sullivan suggests.
Since Sullivan did not acknowledge the
importance of Index and Slope Rating in determining difficulty, his knowledge
of SLOPE should not impress his friends.
Moreover, though left unstated in Sullivan’s article, course difficulty
will vary by a player’s characteristics (hooker, slicer, short hitter, etc.). If you really want to determine which course is
more difficult, you should play them and draw your own conclusion. To try to determine the most difficult course
solely by USGA Ratings that are prone to error will only yield answers of
little reliability and even less consequence.
Error 2 – Incorrectly describing how the Slope Rating is determined
Sullivan demonstrates a lack of
understanding behind the derivation of the Slope Rating when he writes:
This is the type of graph (shown below) that is created to compare
scores of golfers of different abilities.
As you can see, scores increase as a player’s Course Handicap
increases. A line is created to connect
as many scores as possible. The steeper
the line, the higher the Slope Rating.
The flatter the line, the lower the Slope Rating. The concept of SLOPE simply refers to the
slope of this line – that bit of trivia should help you make a few bucks on
your next friendly bet.
Sullivan is simply wrong. Since the advent of the Slope System, the
slope of the line relating average scores to handicap is the
same for all courses. After all, that was the purpose of the Slope
System. To be correct the horizontal axis in Sullivan’s graph should have been
labeled Handicap Index and not Handicap.
If you
followed Sullivan’s advice and placed a bet—you lost!
Sullivan makes a technical error
when he writes the “line (shown in the graph) is created to connect as many
scores as possible.” Connecting as many scores as possible is not
the appropriate criterion for determining the slope. The line is typically determined by linear regression techniques where connecting the
scores is definitely not a requirement.
Error No. 3 – Confusing the reader on how Course Handicaps are
determined
In trying to explain how and why the
Slope System assigns additional strokes, Sullivan writes:
In simple terms, SLOPE is designed to make sure a golfer receives more
strokes when playing a more difficult course and fewer strokes when playing an
easier golf course compared with the USGA Course Rating.
This sentence is so poorly
constructed it is hard to discern what Sullivan means. Since Sullivan has just proclaimed the Course
Rating is the measure of difficulty, he seems to be saying a player should
receive more strokes at the course with the higher Course Rating. This would be incorrect. The handicap player does not receive more
strokes because the Course Rating is higher and the course more
“difficult.” Handicap strokes are given
as a function of the difference between the Bogey Rating and the Course Rating
at a course. Even in Sullivan’s own
example, most players will get more strokes at the course Sullivan has declared
to be the easiest (Course A).
So why do articles such as Sullivan’s continue to be
published? It’s probably because neither
the SCGA in this case nor the reader are sticklers about accuracy. The SCGA is looking to fill its magazine and
assume the Director of Course Rating must know what he is talking about. And if he doesn’t, it doesn’t really matter. SCGA members can be divided into three groups.
The first will pass on any article about
the Slope System so the image of the SCGA will not be harmed. The second group will assume the article must
be accurate since it came from the experts at the SCGA. The third group that recognizes the article
as nonsense is a very small subgroup of the SCGA membership (i.e., approximately
1) that can easily be dismissed.
It is not clear why the authors of
these articles have chosen peculiar Course and Slope Ratings to make their
point. Jim Cowan of the Northern
California Golf Association, for example, used a course with a Course Rating of
72.8 and a Slope Rating of 114. Since
Course Ratings are highly correlated with Slope Ratings, it is very likely such
a course does not exist. Real courses
could have been selected to demonstrate how difficulty is measured, but no
author has taken that path.