Handicap Hub: Grillin' Gretchen - A Course Rating Conversation | Oregon Golf Association

Handicap Hub: Grillin' Gretchen - A Course Rating Conversation

By Kelly Neely, Sr. Dir., Handicapping & Course Rating
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If you were urged to narrow it down, what would you think is the single most important thing to the Handicap System, aside from – of course – the honesty of the golfer? Please don’t say the payout amount for Saturday’s Skins game. That has to be MUCH farther down the list; say, jockeying for second.

Truthfully, your handicap wouldn’t mean very much if not for the Course Rating System, so in my mind, it’s right up there near the top. You’ve got to have accurate Course Ratings to post scores to, right? Where would the Handicap System be without its best friend, constant companion and partner in crime, the Course Rating System? I’m telling you: chaos would rein, handicaps would be woefully wrong and you would never be able to assert defiantly, “My course is WAY harder than yours – why is the Slope Rating lower?”

This month I decided it would be fun to interview our Course Rating Guru, Gretchen Yoder, in an effort to peel back more layers of the Course Rating onion. But first, some backstory bullet points –

  • Gretchen has been at the OGA for 12 years. Her prior stint was at Forest Hills GC as a salt-of-the-earth, unflappable bartender. Her first two years in the Handicapping & Course Rating Department at the OGA were marked by her plea: “Can I just go back and pour beer?”
  • We have up to 25 volunteer Course Raters; most are very experienced “enginerds” (sorry, this title never gets old).
  • We rate approximately 35 courses annually, on a 7-8 year rotation.
  • As a successful Course Rating Manager and fellow Gemini, Gretchen uses both her left brain (to analyze obstacle numbers) and right brain (to draw pretty pictures to explain said obstacles).
  • Gretchen may balk at me revealing this, but she has a photographic memory, which makes her an exceptional Course Rater. She can recall down to the smallest detail the physical characteristics of obscure golf holes, and she has rated thousands of them. She cannot recall, however, what she had for breakfast this morning.

Describe Course Rating in 20 words or less (okay, 21)
Mentally exhausting, always interesting. There is always something new at each course. Course Rating makes you look at golf completely differently.

What is the biggest misconception that golfers and others in the golf business have about Course Rating?
The biggest misconception is that Course Rating is subjective. The whole system is built on very specific measurements. It first starts with accurate course measurements. Every landing zone is laser measured using very specific shot lengths, each Obstacle (Topography, Fairway, Green Target, Rough & Recoverability, Bunkers, Crossings, Lateral, Trees and Green Surface) is assessed and assigned a specific chart number. Each set of tees, on each course (Public, Private, Resort and more) for both women and men, is measured and assessed the same way.

If you had to describe a “typical” course rating day, what would that be like?
Our typical day begins with the team of trained Course Rating Volunteers and myself, showing up at the golf course about a half hour before our set starting time. I hand out paperwork to each team member who is assigned either men’s or women’s information. We share stimpmeter (green speed) and rough height information and discuss any potential issues that may be found on the course.

The team splits in half on an 18-hole course (front and back) and begins making our assessments. One person will measure the green and all of the obstacles around it. It typically takes 2-4 hours to get all of our information together. If there are golfers on the course, it tends to take longer since we need to step aside and let them play through. We try our best to stay safe and out of the way!

After rating the course, we get back together, have lunch and discuss any interesting or difficult situations that have come up. We then have the opportunity to golf the course, keeping in mind that we are making sure that we have provided the proper assessments, and make any adjustments necessary.

What makes up the best moments during a CR day? What makes up the worst?
Best: The interactions with golfers on the course where we can help educate people about what we do, what Course Rating really is, how SIA (Stroke Index Allocation) is calculated and how it translates to the individual golfer. Also, each golf course tends to present a unique situation, so it becomes an educational opportunity for the Course Rating Team. When we work together to figure out the problem, it becomes a real sense of accomplishment.

Worst: Just as when we are golfing, we have to deal with the weather. We are occasionally out on the course when it is raining sideways, but we don't have the choice to just walk off. We must continue to gather our information, making measurements under the assumption that it is a normal, sunny summer day. We have occasionally rescheduled ratings when they are close to the Portland/Salem area, but when we have had to travel to a location (including hotels, dinners, etc.) we need to get the work done. Memories of a course where it rained over 2 inches the day we had to rate come flooding back (excuse the pun)!

What is the most surprising thing that you discovered about Course Rating over the years?
The connection between Rules, Course Rating and Handicapping.

Course Rating is complex. What is the most important thing the golfer needs to know without taking too much of a deep dive?
The entire system is built on relative difficulty: allowing golfers of the same or different genders to play against, or with, each other giving respect to their individual level of ability no matter if they are playing the same tees or different tees. No other sport does this!

I often hear people bring up that one course has a slope lower than another course with the comment "but this course is harder". There are four key pieces of information that need to be compared: Slope Rating, Course Rating, Yardage and now Par.

Which Course / Tee is More Difficult?
Looking only at the Slope of 130, a person might think these five tees are the same difficulty. But Slope only gives the golfer the information to find their Course Handicap in relation to Par. Without knowing the specific courses / tees listed below, which would you think would be the most difficult? (email gretchen@oga.org with your answer, and you’ll be gifted with a Gold Star!)

Course Rating Slope Rating Yardage Par
69.7 130 6,176 71
73.6 130 6,765 71
72.4 130 6,816 72
71.0 130 6,526 72
68.3 130 5,749 72

What has been the most significant change to the Course Rating system since you’ve been doing this job?
Over the 12 years I've been performing Course Ratings, there have been several significant changes in the processes: the biggest being how we rate ‘Trees’, and the obstacles ‘Out of Bounds and Water’ changing to ‘Crossing and Lateral’ due to Rules of Golf updates.

This year, however, the biggest change happened with Stoke Index Allocation (SIA) being added as a function to the Course Rating System. Previous to the changes involved with the World Handicap System, the only way that a course would determine where their handicap strokes would fall would be by collecting hundreds of scores from their own members, and running an analysis on their own, which is very labor-intensive. Deriving SIA from the Course Rating System simplifies the process for the course.

What is the most unusual golf hole you have dealt with, from a Course Rating perspective?
There are so many, but Tetherow hole #2 comes to mind. Typically with split fairways , the golfers would choose one side or the other to play (for instance, #9 on Stone Creek we don't even rate the right side of the fairway). With #2 at Tetherow, the left side of the fairway has a pretty steep uphill followed by downhill lies, and the right side has a fairly even slow downhill fairway.

We determined that depending on which tee was being played, and how far their tee shot is, the golfer might take the left fairway since they would hit over the top and get extra downhill roll (reducing their shot length to the green). Alternatively, if the golfer would land on the uphill and lose yardage, they would instead take the right side of the fairway. This had to be assessed per each tee, for Scratch and for Bogey individually.

You have served on the USGA’s national Course Rating Committee. Quite an accomplishment! What was that experience like?
It was an honor even to be asked to be on the Committee. Just as Rules and Handicapping are updating regularly, Course Rating must be updated as well. I was part of the process of changing and revising the CR System from the first steps. We would assess what needed to be changed, decide how to proceed and how much time should be allotted to research. We also helped to be sure that all Associations were rating using the same parameters by conducting yearly Calibrations.

Between the Rules of Golf update in 2019 and the WHS taking effect in 2020, the system was revised to reflect the changes. Obstacles and how they are assessed became a major modernization. Since the USGA’s CR System was agreed upon to be the system that all countries would use going forward, we needed to update the verbiage to include a more international feel. Sadly, due to the launch of the WHS, the Committee size was slightly reduced, and several U.S. Members including myself were asked to step down to include input from folks from multiple countries not previously represented.

And so I’ll end with just one more thing: Way back in her childhood when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, Gretchen surprisingly did not say “I want to rate golf courses.”

But we’re glad she does.

Questions? Contact Kelly or Gretchen in the OGA Handicapping & Course Rating Department at (503) 981-4653 x226 or Click Here to Email Your Question

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