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How Tough Is Augusta National?

Twenty years after going undercover to rate the course, our guy does it again

April 2010

Nearly every golf course in North America, Asia and Continental Europe has been rated for handicapping purposes using the USGA Course Rating and Slope Rating system that I developed more than 30 years ago. Notably, all but a handful of the courses among Golf Digest's list of America's 100 Greatest have been rated officially by authorized regional and state golf associations. So it seems curious that the No. 1-ranked course, Augusta National Golf Club, doesn't have an official USGA rating.

The reason? Despite the fact that almost every member has a USGA Handicap Index from another club, Augusta National maintains its system for members only.

As Golf Digest Contributing Editor David Owen wrote in his book, The Making of the Masters, the system developed by co-founder Clifford Roberts is based on the number of pars a player ordinarily makes in a round, with a small adjustment for birdies. If you average six pars per round, for example, your handicap would be 12. (Think of it as 18 holes minus six pars equals a handicap of 12.) The club also uses Roberts' method for allocating handicap strokes, using yardage as the criterion.

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Consequently, Augusta National has, for decades, forbidden the Georgia State Golf Association from rating the course. In 1990, I assisted the late Ross Goodner, then a Senior Editor at Golf Digest, in putting together a team of USGA Course Rating experts to surreptitiously rate the course during the Masters. Then-chairman Hord Hardin wouldn't allow it to be done officially. "Our members already know each other's games," Hardin said.

"This was like telling Edmund Hillary he couldn't try to climb Everest," Goodner wrote in April 1991, when he reported the first unofficial Course Rating of the championship course: 76.2. That put Augusta National among the top-10 toughest courses in the United States.

Before last year's Masters, Golf Digest asked me to form a team to reassess the rating after the course had been lengthened more than 500 yards during multiple transformations over the past two decades. A rating team consists of four trained volunteers. I contacted the golf associations in and around Georgia, but they all held to the club's wishes that it not be rated, so I embarked as a team of one to determine an unofficial rating. Because I invented the rating system, taught golf associations worldwide how to use it and have rated more than 1,000 courses, I could handle this assignment on my own, despite having to stay outside the ropes, as was the case in 1990. (Word of our plan had preceded my arrival.)

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Tim Clark demonstrates why we rated Golden Bell as the most difficult hole for "recoverability" at Augusta.

I walked the course multiple times during three days of practice rounds, including following players and even walking the course in reverse from the 18th green to the first tee to capture the nuances. I measured landing areas by stepping off the crosswalks. I counted paces of the players walking on the greens to measure their width and depth. I estimated the green speed at 12 feet on the Stimpmeter, based on my experience at 25 U.S. Opens (16 in the employ of the USGA). Conditions change from day to day, of course, and Augusta National can be dramatically different later in the week.

COURSE RATING VERSUS SLOPE
USGA course rating is a measure of a course's difficulty level for a scratch golfer: someone who plays to a zero handicap on golf courses. It doesn't have any relationship to par: A short and easy par 72 could have a low Course Rating in the 60s, but a monster like the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island has a rating of 79.7 and a Slope Rating of 153 from the rarely used 7,873-yard tees (versus 77.3 and 144 from the regular back tees of 7,356 yards).

Slope Rating measures the relative difficulty of a course for Bogey Golfers and other players of "varying abilities" when compared with the Course Rating. Though there are no limits for a Course Rating -- the par-73, 8,325-yard Pines Course at The International in Bolton, Mass., has a Course Rating of 80.0 -- Slope Ratings range from 55 to 155. Standard playing difficulty is 113. The TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course has a Slope Rating of 155 from the back tees because it's extremely difficult for Bogey Golfers when compared to the already high 76.8 Course Rating for scratch players.

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