Obstacle Course Part III: Green Surfaace

A group of very serious-minded course raters tests the surface of a green at Empire Ranch.

The most often-heard criticisms of a golf course have to be “the greens are too slow” or “the greens are too fast.”  Do we even know what it is about the greens that we are criticizing?  Since the putting game is so important to women players – no, to all players – we really should pay more attention to green surfaces and the problems they produce.

First, green speed is measured by a medieval-looking instrument known as a Stimpmeter.  It is designed to uniformly roll golf balls across a green.  Choosing a level area of a green, a course rater rolls several balls using the Stimpmeter and measures the average length of the roll.  If greens are “stimping” at 10, balls are rolling 10 feet.  Greens in our Sacramento Valley Area generally stimp faster than 10 – closer to 11 feet on average.  Greens are considered on the slow side at less than 10 feet and faster above the 10-foot measurement.

Secondly, the severity of the slope or tilt of a green and its contour also determine how difficult it is to putt.  The slope or tilt is measured by comparing Stimpmeter readings for downhill versus uphill putts.  Raters also consider the contour of a green – the number and severity of knolls and swales that will cause a ball to break.  One of the biggest mistakes we golfers make is to look at a relatively flat green and think that it will not be fast or difficult to read.  Many courses in our area have greens that slope severely from back to front (think about the old greens at North Ridge or mountain greens like Cold Springs), making for extremely speedy downhill putts and extremely slow uphill putts.  Mother nature (or over-zealous greenskeepers) can also put a literal damper on putting speed.  Rain-soaked or over-watered greens will slow everything down, including putts judged at normal green speeds.

Golfers will always complain about or comment on green speeds.  Knowing a little about green surfaces in general might help us to cope with those 40-putt rounds and maybe even avoid them in the future.


Obstacle Course: Part III – Rough

High grass, rocks, thick bushes and trees in this rough – no wonder Mary looks so discouraged.

The third hole on your “obstacle course” is infamous for its nasty rough.  Several players are rumored to have walked into this rough never to have been found again.

How often do you think about rough on a golf course before you tee off?  I know the idea of rough seldom crosses my mind because I plan never to be in it.  Usually I find myself up to my fetlocks within one or two holes, however, and I am struggling to get out.  Perhaps I should have paid attention to the characteristics of the course’s rough before I started my round.

Course raters call the evaluation of rough “Rough and Recoverability.”  I like that title; it sounds so positive.  Raters judge the probability of missing the tee shot landing zone and the green, as well as the difficulty of recovering if a player misses either or both.  The 3 main factors that affect a hole’s “R&R” rating are the difficulty of the green (see “Obstacle Course II: Green Target”), the type of grasses used in the rough, and the height of the rough.  Personally, I believe that rough is a more difficult obstacle for women players because we do not have the arm or wrist strength that a man has to dig the ball out of heavy rough.

We should ask before we play what type of  grass is found in the rough.  The first type, cool season grasses, includes ryegrass, Kentucky bluegrass, and poa annua.  The second type, warm season, includes bermuda, zoysia, kikuyu, buffalo, and bentgrasses.  Cool season grasses are not as tough and sticky as warm season, but they are often left at much higher lengths and are mowed less often than warm season grasses.  For example, a one-inch high bermuda rough is considered the same difficulty as a two-inch high ryegrass rough.  If you ask about the height and type of rough in the pro shop, you will know what you’re in for.

If the green is small or highly sloped so that it will not hold an approach shot easily, the player may very well land in the rough.  Watch out also for rise and drop or mounds around the green.  And what about the golf architects new pet feature – shaving green surrounds to keep the ball rolling off the green and into the rough?

In addition, rough is not necessarily composed of grass only.  Other conditions such as sand dunes, waste areas, brush, hard pan, tree roots, rocks, desert, and even ice plant may lie in wait for the unsuspecting golfer, making rough even more difficult.

If you are at all skeptical about rough affecting the difficulty of a course, take the case of Del Paso Country Club as an example.  In order to host the 2015 US Senior Men’s Open, Del Paso under USGA direction was required to narrow its fairways and raise the height of its rough.  For a year before the event, players had to negotiate the extremely high and dense rough, an almost impossible task for most women players.  Course raters did a temporary emergency rating.  The normally 132 slope back tees became a 140 slope and the front tees went from a slope of 120 to 130 – significant differences.

Finally, rough is meant to be rough.  Sometimes it may be more prudent to take our punishment and get out however we can rather than trying to pull off a Jordan Spieth or Lexi Thompson miracle shot.  I know I am always happier on shorter grass.  Mary is happy on any grass.

Obstacle Course Part II: Green Target

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A beautiful but diabolical green at Martis Camp. So many factors make this green difficult.

Welcome to hole #2 of your obstacle course.  You have hit two really good shots on this long par 4, and you are ready to approach the green.  If you hit your ball about the same as what raters call a “bogey” player does, your drive traveled 150 yards and your second shot 130, leaving you with a 70-yard approach on this 350-yard hole.  Good for you!  A 70 yard shot is right in your wheelhouse.  What could go wrong?  The numbers for the “green target” obstacle will tell the tale.

First, consider the size of the green.  If it is a large green, you should get on every time.  The smaller the green, the less chance you will have to get on.  And what if you didn’t hit your shots well on this hole?  A longer approach shot could also prevent you from making the green.  The basic classification for a green as an easy target or a difficult target depends on green size and approach shot length.

However, the obstacle fairy does not stop there in her effort to ruin your approach shot experience.  What if a green is elevated and is blind or only partly visible?  Add difficulty points.  What if a giant valley oak tree has chosen to hang its limbs over the green, obstructing your perfectly-hit iron shot?  Add those points (and strokes to your score).  And what about the surface?  Is it like concrete or like mush?  Either condition will prevent your ball from rolling happily toward the hole – more difficulty points, more strokes.  And what if a green is tiered?  I’m so discouraged right now that I will put a discussion of tiers off until another time.

One hint:  Don’t stand over your ball worrying too much about these obstacles.  Grip it and rip it!

Thank You Women Course Raters

Northern California women course raters (and John Erskine) at Martis Camp in Truckee.

Thank you to all the women who have served as course raters over all these years whether you have represented the Pacific Women’s Golf Association or the Women’s Golf Association of Northern California.  We thank you for all the time you devoted to learning your craft, studying the guide books, and attending all the seminars and calibrations.  The many hours you spent trudging around golf courses and writing down all those numbers were not wasted.  The USGA needs women raters, and more importantly, women golfers need women raters.

If you see any of the following raters for the Sacramento Area, please give them a thumbs up for work well done: Sheri Erskine (chairperson), Carol Whitelaw, Jan Levine, Dyan Mart, Lynn Cowan, Leslie Cooper, Mary Stockdale, Karen Price, Mary Deardorf, Codie Powers, Nancy Sartor, Mary Thompson, Claudia Matthys, Cathy Trevena, Donna Tomlinson, Shelly Zeff, Linda Bunker, and Belinda Colville.

Obstacle Course: Part I, Overview and Fairway

What troubles await the golfer on this beautiful, pristine dogleg fairway at Martis Camp?

Did you know that a golf course is really an obstacle course with dangers for our games, seen or unseen, that inevitably will affect our scores?

We are beginning an off-season series of blogs that will discuss the various obstacles on a golf course that cause its rating and/or Slope to be higher or lower.  Of course, the length of a course is its most critical defense, and the length of a course is reflected mostly in its rating number (i.e. 72.3).  Other obstacles including fairway, green target, rough, bunkers, out of bounds, water, trees, green surface and topography – make up the slope number (i.e. 123) that you see on a scorecard or when you post.  This series will take a descriptive trip through these obstacles to reveal why that course you are playing is so darn hard!


You are standing on the first tee of your favorite course.  Let’s say the hole is a relatively short par 4, 310 yards, that you might possibly reach in two shots.  Why then do you always have such a high score on this hole?  As you look at your drive’s landing area in the distance (210 yards for a scratch player, 150 yards for bogey) you see the fairway narrowing appreciably, making it much more likely that you will hit your drive into the rough which immediately adds difficulty to the hole.

And rough is not the only problem a fairway can have.  Its width can be reduced by 1) a dogleg, 2) overhanging tree branches, 3) contour or tilt so that the shot must be played to one side, or 4) severe obstacles on one side (dense trees, deep bunkers, nearby water hazard, out of bounds or extreme rough).  What if your  course is suffering from water grass or bare lies from over-watering in hot months?  Your fairway just got more difficult.  If you are a bogey player, your fairway troubles haven’t ended because you can’t reach this green in 2 shots.  After your drive you have to worry about all the possible fairway troubles all over again; the longer the hole, the higher the fairway rating (and thus the slope rating) might be.  Perhaps we should just skip this hole and look forward to considering “green target” in our next post.

Slope: What is it and why is it capitalized?

If you have been paying attention, Leslie wrote a nice post about what the “rating” number of a golf course means.  I, Mary, am charged with explaining “Slope”.  Just a word of warning; I am less diplomatic than Leslie and have no filter to speak of even in written form.  I apologize in advance if I insult your intelligence or your golfing skills.

I consulted a USGA handbook regarding the handicapping system to get an idea of their definition of Slope.  It said something about higher handicaps vs. low handicaps, etc., but nothing about what Slope is or where it came from, so you will have to rely on me.

The Slope is determined by rating “obstacles” that “come into play” during the playing of a golf hole.  Those two items above are in quotes because they are defined terms with specific meaning which we will discuss later.

Basically, when a golfer stands on the tee looking down the fairway, she is likely to see a few problems between her and the flag.   The higher the slope numbers for that hole, the more golf balls she is likely to need!  In fact, if a golf course has a high slope (average slope is 113) grab a few range balls for later.

The Slope numbers come from the following obstacles that exist (or not) on golf courses.  In general, the more obstacles that “come into play”, the higher the slope.  Before I go on (and on) I must clarify the term “come into play”.  If there is an obstacle that exists but is greater than 50 yards from your landing zone, it is not in play.  Any obstacle within that distance is factored into the Slope number.


Trees – The more trees close to the line of play and in your “landing area” the higher the number will be for trees.  Also, if the trees are hard to get out of (e.g. grow all the way to the ground or grow close together) or are between the player and the target (e.g. green) the number will go up farther.  If you stand on the tee of a hole and look toward the green, the difficulty of the trees is relatively obvious.

Water – Pretty obvious here.  Out come the old golf balls!  Lots of water? Close to my line of play?  I have to carry over it!!!?  How far for God’s sake?!  Anyway, you get it, big water, big Slope number.

Out of Bounds and Extreme Rough – Out of bounds? The stroke AND distance rule puts these two categories together.  Bottom line, Extreme Rough is an area that is so dense that you are unlikely to find your ball.  Generally, these areas are unmowed and are EXTREME.  In either case, if they are close to the line of play, the Slope will increase.

Bunkers – These pesky pieces of sand get their Slope number from several characteristics: whether they are close to the line of play, how deep they are, and how much of the green is surrounded by bunkers.

If I hit a good shot, in the fairway or on the green, how does Slope impact me?

Fairways – In the Slope number for the golf course, the areas that are determined to be the “landing zones” for scratch and again for bogey are analyzed.  The slope number for these landing zones is determined by the width of the fairway and the nature of the fairway in those areas.  For example, if the fairway is very narrow where you are trying to hit your ball, that added difficulty becomes a factor in the Slope number.  Also, if the fairway is downhill, sidehill, or otherwise uneven, that awkward lie will impact the Slope number.

Greens –  Size matters!  The greens are given their slope numbers based on the size of the green, the shape of the green, and obstacles near the green.  In addition, the surface of the green is analyzed for speed, tilt, and contour.   If the greens are fast (11 or so on a stimp meter) then the greens will be deemed more difficult and receive a higher slope number.  In addition, the uphill and downhill tilts of the greens are analyzed.  Finally, if the green is oddly shaped or has a tier or some other issue that golfers must deal with, that is also factored into the greens’ Slope number.

HEY, NOT FAIR, STOP!!! I am Betty Bogey and Sally Scratch never hits her ball where I go. These obstacles are worse for me!

Yes, Betty, that is why many of the Slope numbers for Betty are much higher than Sally’s. In fact, some of these obstacles impact your Slope number if they EXIST anywhere!  For Sally, the obstacle has to be close to her line of play or her landing zone to impact her Slope numbers. The Slope allows Betty and Sally to compete against each other more fairly because the Slope adjusts their “home course” handicap to account for the higher (or lower) Slope.

So What?  Why do I  care about Slope?

The USGA explains that the Slope is part of the ratio that…. (nevermind). Let’s do the handicap arithmetic together to see how slope impacts your handicap and makes appropriate adjustments (don’t be afraid):

Score – Rating = Index;  Index  x  Slope/113 = home course handicap.  For example, if Betty and Sally average 90 and 76 (gross) respectively on their regular golf course, their indexes would be as follows:

90 – 72.1 = 17.9

76 – 72.1 = 3.9

Their home course handicap would be their index X slope/113.

If they go play golf at Ancil Hoffman, Hoffman is their home course for the day.  To compute their handicaps for the day they must find Ancil Hoffman’s Slope on the card for the tees that they have decided to play.  Hoffman’s Slope is 125 from the Black tees (front combo tees).

Index X Slope/113 = home course handicap for the day.

17.9 X 125/113 = 19

3.9 X 125/113 = 4

The higher handicap will vary more than Sally Scratch as a result of the Slope number. This has a mathematical proof but I am sure that your eyes would roll back in your head and you would look like agitated trouts.  If these same players play the front tees with a Slope number of 117, the 19 handicap will change to 18 but the low handicap will remain at 4.  Don’t forget to recompute your handicap when you go to a different course from your own.  You don’t even need the chart now, only a calculator.  Surprise and impress your friends with your new golf handicap knowledge.

Why is Slope Capitalized?

Mostly because the USGA says so.

Course Rating – an Example

We played Del Paso on Saturday, and I have a perfect example of how to learn from a course rating.  (See previous blog “Course Rating – Part 1”)  We were a foursome of fairly long hitters although all our handicaps were in the low “teens”, nowhere near scratch.  You would think we would do well from the forward Magpie tees at the course; the yardage rating was 70.4 and par was 71.  Why then on a nice warm day with little wind, did none of us break 85?  Because of excruciatingly long rough, bunkers so deep you need a stepladder to climb out of them, and greens with the firmness and speed of an airport runway, the slope which measures a course’s obstacles was a whopping 130.  Del Paso does not need length to defend itself. Its obstacles wreak havoc on all but the best of players.  We left the 18th green suitably humbled.  (Players’ note: the course is beautiful, and we had a great day.)