Golf course rankings - the good, the bad and the ugly
We’re a nerdy bunch here at top100golfcourses.com. We spend many hours discussing rankings and we spend many more hours analysing third party magazine ranking data. We do this because we believe golf course rankings are important, not only as a guide to help our readership to decide which courses to play next, but also as an independent service to the many thousands of golf clubs we feature on this platform.
We try and recognise where course developments and improvements are going well and we also attempt to reflect some of the problems that inevitably occur. It takes a great deal of time to keep up with everything that’s going on at every golf club around the world, so we rely on feedback from many quarters as well as direct feedback from local contributors.
Analysis of third party magazine ranking data always throws up more questions than answers. One magazine has thousands of panellists who pay for the privilege of being on the panel; other magazines have very few contributory panellists. It doesn’t matter how many (or how few) panellists input to the ranking process, what ultimately matters is the output.
Every magazine attempts to convince its readership that it is: “The most authoritative ranking by the most widely travelled panel”… “The most comprehensive, diligent and up-to-date ranking list”… “The ultimate guide to the finest courses you will ever play”… “The definitive list of the best places to play”…
There are flaws in every ranking process, including our own. We don’t claim to be “definitive,” “authoritative” or “ultimate”, we simply aim to be trustworthy. We all make mistakes – we’re human. Our point of difference is that we are not a golf publishing company that sells general golf magazines; we’re an organisation that focuses solely on golf courses. Our core purpose is to be as honest as possible.
One year ago, I published an article in an attempt to explain “The ranking and rating conundrum”. I said: “It’s difficult to remove subjectivity from the process of ranking golf courses”… “We all have our own personal preferences”… “Put plain and simply, we like what we like”… “We do our utmost to arrive at genuine, honest, informed and current golf course rankings.”
Top 100 Golf Courses was born in 2003 out of genuine frustration with magazine rankings. In those days many top golf clubs didn’t have a website, rankings were confined to the pages of magazines. Only like-minded geeks cared much about golf course rankings back then. For many years prior to 2003, I’d pin the latest magazine lists on my office wall and highlight the courses I’d played, then I’d target the courses I hadn’t played. I kept a spreadsheet and analysed magazine data, waiting patiently for the next Top 100 list to be published.
It soon became apparent that rankings differed wildly across various magazines. I genuinely couldn’t fathom why one magazine ranked a course highly when another magazine didn’t rank the same course at all. It was immensely frustrating when some of my favourite courses were demoted from lists, so I decided to do something about it.
If a course dropped out a Top 100 magazine ranking, I figured that the course would still be worth playing. So I decided to build a website that listed every course that had ever appeared in a Top 100 ranking list. Initially the website focused purely on courses in Britain & Ireland. Two years later we went global. Since then we’ve stayed true to our original ethos, whereby we list every course that appears on any reputable ranking list. However, we disregard the actual magazine ranking numbers because we feel these often have some kind of bias.
Since 1985, Golf Magazine in the US has published what was once the most respected World Top 100 ranking. In the early days, when Tom Doak was in charge, I considered GM’s rankings to be gospel, in no small part due to the fact that GM was the only magazine publishing a World Top 100 ranking list. Pine Valley has always headed their chart and Cypress Point has been their No.2 since 1991.
Fast-forward to the new millennium and the gospel according to Golf Magazine is being questioned. The inclusion of some courses that maybe should not have been listed in the World Top 100 caused many analysts to doubt GM’s authenticity. So a new broom (Ran Morrissett) was called in – farewell Joe Passov.
Golf Magazine’s 2020 World Top 100 heralds sweeping changes, including a transparency statement.
The new brush has certainly been doing some hefty sweeping… Merion (East) down 7, Augusta National down 4, Ballybunion (Old) down 4 (despite John Bambury’s “hard work”), Ballyneal up 29, Diamante Dunes down 34, Nine Bridges down 53, Trump International Scotland down 54. The following courses are no longer listed: Shanqin Bay (was #39 in 2018), Oitavos Dunes (was #55), Ayodhya Links (was #76).
There was a brave and recent post on Ran Morrissett’s online forum – Golf Club Atlas – by a Golf Digest panellist, who bared his soul by calling out their ranking shortfalls. Tom Doak responded as follows: “They probably won't realize they have risked the reputation of their rankings, until it is too late. But, to be honest, I'm not sure there is such a thing as reputation in that part of the business anymore: golf courses will post on the wall the best ranking they've got, no matter how dubious the source and no matter what favors they handed out to get it.”
Clearly Golf Magazine realised that they too had risked their own reputation. Ran is now busily trying to remedy the situation. He even managed to include his own superlative: “GOLF’s world list is the most esteemed in the game."
Here at top100golfcourses.com, we spend far too much time trying to remove biases, which come along in all shapes and sizes. Of course, nobody – not even Ran – can remove subjectivity, no matter how it appears: “Any ‘best’ or ‘greatest’ list is, at its core, a study in subjectivity, our Top 100 Courses in the World ranking being no stranger to the whims of human taste.”
One thing is certain, ranking lists are important. They are interesting to those who care, especially those whose livelihoods may be impacted by negative forces.
One of our knowledgeable reviewers, Mark White, commented on the subject of rankings in his recent Tralee review:
“In looking at the Top 100 in the UK & Ireland of the three major golf publications in the UK, Tralee is on all three lists which is a nice accomplishment. On one list is it in the top 50 while on the other two lists it is #95 and #96. That does not make a lot of sense to me given a few of the courses above it… I cannot yet claim Tralee belongs in the top 50/60, but being in the nineties does seem low. Then again, Rye Old is around 55/56 on these three lists, yet Golf Magazine raters just named it one of the Top 100 in the World. I guess it depends on the criteria used as well as personal bias.”
BB, another of our regular contributors, responded to Mark’s comments as follows:
“You make an interesting point about the differences in various rankings from different sides of the Atlantic – e.g. Rye being a World Top 100 for Golf Magazine but generally languishing lower in the UK publications. I think this is because of US reviewer bias when contemplating UK & Ireland courses. For example, of the 80 or so Golf Magazine raters used to compile their list, I think two are Scottish and maybe 2-3 are English. Despite there being around 35 or so UK courses on their latest list. This lack of representation essentially means they provide a US view (or at least non-UK view) of UK courses. Due to familiarity and knowledge I’d more likely trust US golfers’ views on US courses & UK golfers’ views on UK courses. As examples, Brits may tend to prefer Royal Aberdeen over Cruden Bay, or perhaps West Sussex over Rye. My own view is that this website does a better job of wading though the murky maze of bias in producing the most discerning and credible world Top 100 list. I do still send them regular complaints though that RND doesn’t feature more highly.”
We felt it was unfair to Tralee Golf Club to continue this discussion on their course page, so this web page exists to further the debate. It’s not for me to say that we are more or less credible than any other ranking publication. We do try our best though and hopefully we get it right more often than not.
Mark White responded to BB as follows:
“In reading the thoughts behind the Golf Magazine Top 100 philosophy, I do like that the reviewers were not given criteria such as "resistance to scoring," that they have to use for their ranking as well as justify it. They were allowed to base their reviews on whatever criteria was important to them.
I know and have played with some of the raters for Golf Magazine, Golfweek, Links and Golf Digest. To my knowledge, I have not played with a rater from one of the three UK golf magazines. They are all knowledgeable and know their golf.
In the USA I prioritize Golfweek for three reasons: 1. I do appreciate the separation of modern versus classic courses, 2. I do like that they have separate rankings for USA, UK/Ireland, Canada, etc. 3. In the USA, they actually rank 400 courses in total.
Next I follow Golf Magazine because I do think overall they get it mainly right. I might disagree where some of their courses end up (top ten versus top twenty; top twenty five versus top eighty), but overall their list of 150 in the world is a good list. Their USA list is also better than Golf Digest's. Of their current list, I don't believe about 10 belong in the top 150 while I would have 10 I would put in. But that's the fun of it.
Golf Digest forces their raters into certain criteria. That is not necessarily a bad thing but what I don't like is that they have a 10 point rating scale for their six categories and they can get brow-beaten by the head reviewer for scoring anything a 10, or sometimes even a 9. I don't pay much attention to his point of view anyway as I have read enough of his articles to know I don't agree with almost 40% of his philosophy nor his arrogance regarding courses.
I do not know enough about the criteria the UK magazines use. As I stated, if a course is on all three lists then obviously it is a top course. With regards to Royal Aberdeen versus Cruden Bay, I much prefer Royal Aberdeen.
With regards to your overall comment, while the Golf Magazine writers might have a US base bias, most of them for many years have and do continue to go all around the world. As I said I have met or played with several of them or certainly have talked with them (Doak, Hanse, others) and read their works. I do trust their judgement although some of them have an obvious bias towards minimalism and naturalness. But years from now, will future golfers say the current top architects relied too much on overly contoured greens and wild bunkers because the fairways were too wide to give much strategic thought? The ethos of "I built the hole because that is what the land called for" still might not have resulted in the correct routing or appropriate defenses.
For my own fun I have my own rating system that has 13 categories on a 10 point scale. I admit to a bias towards links or links-like courses but my bias is more towards courses that offer views across a course with holes that capture your eyes but offer strategy and decision for every shot. Like Golf Magazine, I do place an emphasis on a chance of recovery. My rating system can sometimes throw off a "false positive" so then I see where that course fits in comparison to the courses above and below it. If it doesn't make sense, then I change my rating of the course. My personal score never influences my ratings. I typically wait 4-7 days after playing a course so I can think about it, although on my recent trip to S. Carolina/Georgia I posted my reviews immediately (although did wait a week for my own rankings).
I don't pretend to be right, it's my own thing, and I listen more to others when I discuss courses with my friends, but I am firm in my opinion.
Are you referring to Royal North Devon (RND). If so, it's a lovely spot in the world, hard by the beach. We combined that course with the two at Saunton, Burnham & Berrow, St. Enodoc Church on a visit last year. I had played Church before. You will have to wait for my reviews... I have a few yet to post for Ireland and Northern Ireland, then Wales, then I will get to finishing off the courses in England as I have only posted reviews of a few I did earlier this year.
Before I started posting my reviews, I wanted to make sure I had played enough quality courses and an appropriate number of courses. Once I got to 600 different golf courses and playing the top 100 in the USA, I felt more comfortable in writing about them. Before I post on this website, I do read all of the other reviews. I admit to not understanding some of the reviewer's high marks, but as I said, I don't pretend to be right but I am firm in my opinion.”
There are more magazines specifically ranking British and Irish golf courses than any other territory in the world. One might think that there’s no room left for yet another player to step into the ranking fray, but you’d be wrong. Only last week one national UK journal published its first Britain & Ireland ranking list. Golf course rankings sell magazines and make money for publishers.
Maybe ranking fatigue will set in one day, but that’s unlikely to happen any time soon. Of course, the most accurate rankings are in our own heads and what would we do without a healthy debate?
Please feel free to further the discussion by clicking the “Respond to this article” link below.