When golfers and golf fans watch the US Open, many are shocked to see 500-yard or longer holes playing as par 4s for the national championship. They can't fathom how a golfer could make par on such a hole, and they're probably left wondering how the USGA, or the PGA Tour, R&A, or PGA of America determine the par for each hole during a golf tournament. How is a 300-yard hole sometimes a par 3 (like at the 2016 US Open at Oakmont) but is typically a par 4 for most golfers? When is a par 4 too long and should become a par 5?
The USGA rates par for a hole based on distance and the expected number of strokes an expert player would require to complete the hole, assuming a two-putt once reaching the green in regulation.
Under the Rules of Golf and USGA guidelines, there are pretty clear regulations for determining a par on each hole. Par is determined for each hole simply by distance. or what's called the Effective Playing Length of the hole. For example, if a hole typically plays downwind, and it goes downhill, then the hole is not going to play the length on the scorecard. All of a sudden, a 500-yard hole may play more like 440 yards, putting it squarely into a par 4.
These are the USGA guidelines for the par on each hole based on length. There's a minimum yardage and a maximum yardage for a hole to be considered a par 3, par 4, par 5 or even a par 6. Let's take a look at the distance guidelines from the USGA.
USGA yardage guidelines for determining par
|Par 3||0-250 yards||0-210 yards|
|Par 4||251-470 yards||211-400 yards|
|Par 5||471-690 yards||401-575 yards|
|Par 6||691+ yards||576+ yards|
Of course, there are exceptions to these guidelines. We've seen par 3s longer than 250 yards and certainly have seen par 4s of longer than 470 yards. When those decisions are made, particularly for major and near-major championships, the presenting bodies do so in part because they feel the yardage alone does not reflect the difficulty and strategy of the hole.
Since the idea of par was adopted by the USGA in 1911, the yardage guidelines have changed for determining par 3, par 4, par 5 and par 6 holes. Over the century-plus the USGA has issued these guidelines, the distances haven't changed much -- approximately 25 yards on par 3s (from 225 yards to 250 yards), and that playing out through the rest of the par designations.