Handicapping and the U.S. Open at Oakmont

Posted June 14, 2016 - By Terry Teasdale, Executive Director

The "church pews" at Oakmont

(Note: The teeing ground referred to in this article is the “Championship” tee as published on the USGA National Course Rating and Slope Database™ and calculated by the WPGA.)

Oakmont Country Club is widely known as a difficult golf course. It is also known as a fair one. It is straight-forward, and everything is right in front of you. The only holes that aren’t straight away are the par-5 4th and the par-4 17th.

We in western Pennsylvania like to say that the green speed is decreased when the U.S. Open comes to Oakmont. It’s a point of pride that we have arguably one of the most difficult golf courses in the world in our backyard.

Leading up to the 116th U.S. Open Championship this week, there has been much discussion about how difficult the golf course is.

So how difficult is Oakmont?

To answer this question we need not look any further than the USGA Handicap System™. It provides us information and procedures needed to understand what can be expected.

Of course, there is much that can’t be predicted. But if scoring conditions are as expected, and the many obstacles that comprise the USGA Course Rating System™ remain relatively constant, we can at least develop an understanding of what to expect.

The USGA Course Rating and Slope Rating for the Championship tee at Oakmont, as published by the United States Golf Association, is 77.8/148. The WPGA has issued these ratings to Oakmont for score posting purposes for anyone who would like to play the U.S. Open course. They have been in effect for a month.

If only the top players in the world maintained a Handicap Index® and posted every acceptable score for peer review, we would be able to more accurately predict what each would be expected to post this week.

The concept of “target score,” or “playing to one’s handicap,” is outlined in Section 3-5 of the USGA Handicap System™, and is “the player’s potential ability for a given round.” The target score is calculated by taking the player’s full Course Handicap and adding it to the rounded Course Rating of the tees played.

If someone were to match Johnny Miller’s 63 in the 1973 U.S. Open this week, the handicap differential would be -11.3.

If a player played at Oakmont this week with a Handicap Index® of +11.3 he would have a Course Handicap of +15.

One notable player would have a corresponding number around +10 at Oakmont if it were calculated based on his last 20 rounds on the PGA Tour and publicly available information. (Note: This is not a Handicap Index®, nor a Course Handicap, since we are unable to gather the last 20 rounds played, and the actual ratings reflective of the scoring conditions.)

If a player showed up this week for the U.S. Open with a Course Handicap of +10, his target score would be 68. He would be expected to shoot this score a little less frequently than once every four rounds. This would be the best round, since the “player’s average score is generally two to four strokes higher than his Target Score.”

A scratch golfer’s target score would be 78, and his average scores would be in the 80-82 range.

So where does this leave us?

We could reasonably expect a player with a Course Handicap of +10 to shoot rounds of 68-70-71-72 (if any order) under normal playing conditions this week if “playing to one’s handicap.” That would leave the player at 1-over par 281 for the championship.

Angel Cabrera’s winning score in the 2007 U.S. Open at Oakmont was 5-over par 285.

A view of the 14th green at Oakmont

How we got here

As the U.S. Open approached, the WPGA gradually raised the ratings for all sets of tees incrementally as the rough height increased. All scores played at Oakmont were acceptable for handicap purposes and score posting continued.

Since the ratings are temporary, the ratings for each set of tees have been published with the letter “T,” and will be reverted back to the original ratings upon completion of the U.S. Open.

Oakmont is not just difficult during U.S. Open week or the months leading up to the championship. The Championship tee ratings prior to preparation for the U.S. Open are 76.9/142.

This tells us the course conditions for the U.S. Open are only 0.9 strokes and 6 slope points higher than under normal course conditions.

A scratch golfer’s target score is 77 and his average scores are in the range of 79-81.

Regardless of who wins the U.S. Open this week at Oakmont, he will have played exceptionally.