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The ranking and rating conundrum

12 November, 2018

The ranking and rating conundrum

Over the years, many people have written in asking us to explain our ranking and rating process. We direct interested parties to our ranking and rating page, which provides a summary: a) quality of design and test (40%), b) visual appeal and enjoyment (30%), c) presentation (30%).

Quality of design and test

The most important element of consideration is design. All great golf courses should combine good design with sufficient challenge to test golfers. However, we all know there are golfers out there that are better players than us. Should a great golf course test every category of golfer, and if the design does not test the elite players does this mean the course is less good?

All top ranked golf courses should have one thing in common, regardless of whether the scorecard length is 7,500+ yards or 4,500 yards: The common denominator is excellent putting greens or, to be more precise, green complexes.

In Scotland’s Gift – Golf, Charles Blair Macdonald said: “The right length of holes can always be adopted; after that the character of the course depends upon the building of the putting-greens. Putting-greens to a golf course are what the face is to a portrait.”

One of the reasons why The Old course at St Andrews is considered by many pundits to be the world’s best course is the fact that the old girl’s greens are peerless. Tom Doak eloquently sums up the putting surface in his architecturally insightful book The Anatomy of a Golf Course:

“Putting is golf’s great equalizer; indeed, it is so different from tee-to-green play that some of the most accomplished ball strikers have wished that putting were banished altogether. Yet getting the ball in the hole is the very object of golf… Just as the tee-to-green game would be dull without topography and hazards, the putting game would be lifeless if greens were compelled to be flat.”

Returning to the point of explaining our ranking and rating process, putting greens are front and centre when it comes to good design. Of course there are many other important elements to consider, otherwise we may list the course of the St Andrews Ladies’ Putting Club, The Himalayas, as the best in the world.

Further criterion within the category of design and test includes: Variety of holes – short and long par threes, fours and fives. Presentation of hazards – water, ditches (or burns), out-of-bounds and bunkers. Course routing – nobody likes long walks between greens and tees and crossovers are less than ideal. All these elements must come together as coherently as possible to create a world-class golf course. However, there are sometimes exceptions to rules.

When given a confined parcel of land, most architects struggle to find perfect sites for all holes. Some lucky architects are commissioned to disregard routing and are given carte blanche to locate eighteen holes on a property that extends to thousands of acres. We actually list a course in our World Top 100 that was designed for the golf cart. I like to carry my own bag, but I wouldn't choose to walk Ellerston’s 2.5 miles between greens and tees while also attempting to play a hilly 8,000-yard course. I’m not a masochist.

The reason Ellerston is the exception to the rule is that Bob Harrison and Greg Norman built a course with eighteen very good holes, any one of which would grace and improve most golf layouts. By way of contrast, Ellerston’s Argentinean little sister, Ellerstina, is laid out on a mere 32 acres so it’s the antithesis of the Packer family’s course in Australia.

Visual Appeal and Enjoyment

This is where subjectivity plays its role. Aesthetics is personal. Whether a course is appealing to the eye varies from one person to another. An attractive golfing environment to my eyes is likely to be different to another’s taste.

For many golf course raters, visual appeal and enjoyment is the most important factor when it comes to assessing golf courses. Quickly seduced by ocean or mountain backdrops they forgive and forget the fact that the architecture is less exciting than the background canvas. Most golfers, including myself, prefer to play in beautiful locations surrounded by kindly Nature. But beauty is only skin deep. The land on which a course is routed defines the personality of the golf course.

Charles Blair Macdonald’s arrogant attempt to build the ideal golf course, National Golf Links of America, succeeded because he found the best possible site with near perfect topography fronting Peconic Bay. In 1902 he made his first of several trips to Europe to study and sketch Britain’s best golf holes. His plan was not just about copying the holes, but also improving them so he could construct “The Ideal Golf Links”. Almost a decade later NGLA opened for play. More than one hundred years later it’s still as close to perfection as a golf course can be.

Undeniably NGLA is an attractive course, some would argue that the Old Course is not. “Doe surpass the fields of Montrose or St Andrews” was how Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstoun described Dornoch in 1630. If I had just one round left to play before shuffling off this mortal coil, I’d choose Royal Dornoch. The Highlands Mountains as the backcloth, the pure white sandy beach that divides the links from the Dornoch Firth, the gorse in bright bloom and, of course, a par on Foxy, stirs my soul. However, I recognise that Dornoch is not everyone’s cup of tea. Some would much rather their swansong was played out with the sun shimmering on glistening lakes where the fairways are verdant and pristine.

Some well known magazines adopt the evaluation criteria “ambience”, or “ambiance”, depending on your preferred spelling. The English comedian, Micky Flanagan, has his own take on ambience. I won’t go into that here. St Andrews knows about atmosphere, but on a wet day with a snell wind blowing, you’ll find the best ambience in the Jigger Inn.


Undoubtedly presentation is an important weighting. Nobody wants to perform a full shoulder turn to get the ball to the hole. However, the demand for fast greens has made some top-tier courses virtually unplayable for many golfers. There’s an important balance that must be struck between a green’s contours and speed. Nobody likes to see their putting stroke stripped bare.

Of course, we all find ourselves holed up in the occasional bunker and we marvel at the ease in which professionals splash out of pristine and consistent bunkers while on tour. The reality of poor bunker placement, design, construction and maintenance is a facet that holds many clubs back from achieving a notable ranking position, even at the lower levels of our various tables. However, perfect bunkering alone will never make a top-ranked golf course.

How good is the turf is to play off? Are the greens firm or soft and spongy? Does a well-struck putt run smoothly and is the pace of the greens consistent over all holes? Are fairways well defined, do the mowing lines appear natural? Are the tee boxes uneven and full of unrepaired divots?

Presentation, I believe, is transient across many clubs, especially those with only eighteen holes or less. There will be times when maintenance has left inevitable scars on the course. There will be times when Mother Nature has been unkind. Some of the world’s best courses close for six months of the year while others remain open. Some exclusive private courses have limited play and an army of dedicated green keepers. St Andrews Old course copes with approximately 50,000 rounds each year and on Sunday the course is a playground for non-golfers.

Presentation therefore varies, but we try to balance things out by asking the question: Does the club offer reasonable quality conditions twelve months of the year? It’s impossible for some courses to remain open all year round; some are covered in snow, frozen to their core. Should these courses be penalized for their geography? I don’t think so. I also don’t believe courses should be penalized for remaining open after greens maintenance. Most clubs provide an outstanding service to their members who want to play as often as they possibly can.


Please question our rankings. We enjoy healthy debate. We also acknowledge we have failings. We don’t always get things right. But also accept that opinions vary.

Recognize that the world’s best golf courses are laid out on topographically interesting ground, with the right soil and great turf that enables golf to be played optimally. Embrace interesting green complexes, fair conditioning and, most importantly, compelling architecture.

Accept the fact that it’s difficult to remove subjectivity from the process of ranking golf courses. Some golfers dislike links courses and would rather play in less austere surroundings, preferring bold, modern, water laden designs that are impeccably manicured. Others place a lot of importance on quirky, memorable features. We all have our own personal preferences and there’s nothing wrong with that. Put plain and simply, we like what we like. Period.

We’ve tried various measurement methods down the years in the hope that scientific formulas will provide the answers, enabling us to arrive at the perfect rankings that are widely accepted. We’ve engaged hundreds of well-travelled and knowledgeable golfers to help define our rankings. We even tried a method whereby we inputted every shred of available ranking and rating data and then applied a series of rules and algorithms to form the rankings. All of these methods resulted in some success, but ultimately we’ve concluded that science is not the answer.

There’s a limit to how many courses even the most dedicated golf course rater can play in a lifetime. Opinions of courses seen many years ago are fixed at that point in time and influenced by many factors, even the weather. Assessments become outdated, superseded by course changes, perhaps restoration or renovation. Historical points of view are useful, but not in the present.

We do our utmost to arrive at genuine, honest, informed and current golf course rankings. We’ll admit the process is extremely complicated and we get it wrong from time to time. No golf course ranking is perfect but some rankings are better than others. Naturally the most accurate course rankings or ratings are those in your own head (or spreadsheet).

If you think you can help us to improve our listings, don’t dilly-dally. Join our passionate global network of course raters. Post your personal reviews and share your opinions. We read each review and every comment posted on this platform. Your point of view matters – but don’t go crazy with your course ratings. Save the top rating for the best courses and not your own club, unless you’re a member at Cypress Point – in which case go ahead.

The ranking and rating conundrum explained

The Top 100 Golf Courses platform - top100golfcourses.com – is built around rankings and ratings. Rankings in each category: World --> Continent --> Country --> and Area are defined based on rating data.

Rating data is gathered from a multitude of sources, but our extended network of correspondents, contributors and aficionados supply the data we weight most heavily. We consider review data posted online by our many thousands of reviewers, but we do discount review data posted by irregular reviewers – we like to get to know our contributors.

We keep a watchful eye on the rankings published by magazines, but we don’t use their data or any other third party website data in our ranking calculations. We take pride in our independence, which enables freedom from bias and commercial influence.

Keith Baxter

Appendix – The Perfect Golf Course

Dr Alister MacKenzie’s “13 General Principles of Architecture” and Charles Blair Macdonald’s seven “Essential Characteristics” for the ideal golf course go a long way towards spelling out the key characteristics for the creation of a great golf course.

Tom Doak’s Anatomy of a Golf Course is an important title that every golf course student or rater should read at least once.

Masa Nishijima’s Analysis of a Golf Course is excellent for Japanese readers.

Some Essays on Golf-Course Architecture by H. S. Colt and C. H. Alison is still relevant in the new millennium.

There are also a number of other titles that cover the art form of golf course architecture, including Grounds for Golf by Geoff Shackelford.

Alister MacKenzie’s 13 General Principles of Architecture

Originally published in his 1920 book The Spirit of St Andrews

1. The course, where possible, should be arranged in two loops of 9 holes.

2. There should be a large proportion of good 2-shot holes, two or three drive-and-pitch holes, and at least four 1-shot holes.

3. There should be little walking between the greens and tees, and the course should be arranged so that in the first instance there is always a slight walk forwards from the green to the next tee; then the holes are sufficiently elastic to be lengthened in the future if necessary.

4. The greens and fairways should be sufficiently undulating, but there should be no hill climbing.

5. Every hole should have a different character.

6. There should be a minimum of blindness for the approach shots.

7. The course should have beautiful surroundings, and all the artificial features should have so natural an appearance that a stranger is unable to distinguish them from nature.

8. There should be a sufficient number of heroic carries from the tee, but the course should be arranged so that the weaker player with the loss of a stroke or portion of a stroke shall always have an alternative route open to him.

9. There should be infinite variety in the strokes required to play the various holes - viz., interesting brassy shots, iron shots, pitch and run-up shots.

10. There should be a complete absence of the annoyance and irritation caused by the necessity of searching for lost balls.

11. The course should be so interesting that even the plus man is constantly stimulated to improve his game in attempting shots he has hitherto been unable to play.

12. The course should be so arranged that the long handicap player, or even the absolute beginner, should be able to enjoy his round in spite of the fact that he is piling up a big score.

13. The course should be equally good during winter and summer, the texture of the greens and fairways should be perfect, and the approaches should have the same consistency as the greens.

Charles Blair Macdonald’s Ideal Golf Course

Originally published in a 1907 issue of Golf Illustrated

Reprinted in The Evangelist of Golf by George Bahto

  1. Course
    1. Nature of the soil 23%
    2. Perfection in undulation and hillocks 22%
  2. Putting Greens
    1. Quality of turf 10%
    2. Nature of undulation 5%
    3. Variety 3%
  3. Bunkers and other hazards
    1. Nature, size and variety 4%
    2. Proper placing 9%
  4. Length of hole
    1. Best length of holes 8%
    2. Variety and arrangement of length 5%
  5. Quality of turf of fair green 6%
  6. Width of fair green of the course, 45 to 60 yards 3%
  7. Nature of teeing ground and proximity to putting greens 2%

H. S. Colt and C. H. Alison Design Principles

Originally published in the 1920 book Some Essays on Golf-Course Architecture

In this publication, Colt and Alison laid out in detail in Chapter II “The Modern Course – Framework” – Two starting points, sites for putting greens, the blind approach, length of individual holes and range of teeing grounds.

In Chapter III the architects cover “The Placing of Bunker” – Compulsory carries from the tee, optional carries, compulsory carries for the second shot, other bunkers, short holes and protective hazards.

Chapter IV focuses on “Construction” – the golfing point of view, putting greens, gradients, freak greens, the entrance to the green, the nature of the hazards, artificial sand bunkers, Landscape, what to avoid, an open view, artificial hazards, nature the model and economy.

In 1923, Alister MacKenzie left the partnership of Colt, Alison and Mackenzie. Some Essays on Golf-Course Architecture was published in 1920, the same year as MacKenzie’s The Spirit of St Andrews was printed.

The Doctor’s 13 General Principles of Architecture are not dissimilar to Colt and Alison’s design principles. MacKenzie wrote Chapter VI “Labour-saving Machinery and the Cost of Construction” within Some Essays on Golf-Course Architecture, so we suspect his 13 Principles are a possibly a summation of the more detailed work published by Colt and Alison.

Grounds for Golf by Geoff Shackelford

The author lists six key elements that drive golf course design, summarized below:


Routing describes the sequencing of the holes. It is the infrastructure to any golf course. Routing is the architect’s way of creating variety and a mixture of looks. It is also how the architect initially takes advantage of the canvas he is given and is the most important step in the design process. The best routings show hints that an architect decided to take a few chances, to use the features that others might not have thought of using.


Par may have more influence on a golfer’s mental well-being than any trick an architect can produce. There is no easy answer to what par is... it is meaningless yet all-powerful in determining how golfers manage or view a hole.


Similar to par, length is overrated in golf architecture. Just as the size of a meal indicates little about the quality of the food, the mandate to reach 7,000 yards strips some of the most interesting short holes from an architect’s repertoire.


Strategy is the element of thought in golf. It is the designer’s way of asking the player to figure out the best way to the hole, and then allowing that player room to take their chosen route.

If the architect has done his job, the avenue to the hole that leads to a lower scoring possibility should be more dangerous than the longer, safer route. Otherwise, without having to take a risk, there is little decision-making required and, thus, no strategy.


While the land is the architect’s canvas, hazards are his paints. Bunkers, water, “waste” areas, ground contours, trees, boundaries and all other assorted golf course features foster interesting designs… wise golfers are able to acknowledge the hazards before them, then do their best to manoeuver around or over the hazards.


The putting surface is the final tool the architect has to inject each hole with an individuality. Both the green and hazard placement have to work together or else the hole will not function.

Greens are like fingerprints in that no two are alike, and interesting green design wil always provide golf architects the opportunity for original design ideas. Size, shape and contouring have limitless possibilities… (and) many of the best strategic holes are dictated by fascinating “pin placement” possibilities.

The author also lists six design “schools”:

The Natural School

Golf’s early designers were influenced by the Old Course at St Andrews and little else… when early figures like Allan Roberston or Old Tom Morris were commissioned to create new golf courses outside of St Andrews, they allowed the natural or existing features to influence the design.

Without any predecessors to refer to, there were no “rules” for designing a course, so they simply placed holes around or on top of whatever existed. This unrefined approach maintained the spirit of St Andrews and the concept of using existing attributes to create memorable holes.

The Penal School

The early turn-of-the century designers were thinking of their on-course livelihood when pacing hazards and greens. These player-architects placed an emphasis on rewarding those who hit their ball down the middle by eliminating features such as contours or bunkers in the line of play. Features that might actually ask the player to think of an alternative line to the hole.

Random unpredictability was found on the natural school layouts and revered by most when they discovered that a round of golf was a constant adventure amidst a natural setting. The early player-architects sought to reverse this style and introduce predictability and order.

The Strategic School

As the Roaring Twenties hit their peak, the desire for natural, spontaneous, adventuresome art found its way to golf course design. Several architects created more daring, sometimes incredible-looking golf holes. They did so by creating imitation sand dunes (Pebble Beach) or intricate waste areas that appeared completely natural (Pine Valley).

Contrary to many myths fostered by modern architects, the effort to create a subtle, natural-looking design often required earthmoving and expense. But it was carried out so beautifully that today’s experts are unable to detect where man’s hand was prevalent and where nature’s work was kept intact.

The Heroic School

During the post war years, the world saw a focused age of immense growth and reconstruction, with little time for artistic touches, in all forms of architecture. There was little time to take in natural features that made a site interesting (and) design strategy took a back seat to what at times became an assembly-line approach to course construction.

Players were shooting low winning scores on many courses from the 1920s and thus, golfing administrators felt that the old courses needed to be updated and modernized to “defend” themselves. Unfortunately, many of the most intriguing and natural design features were eliminated in the name of creating tougher and less charismatic golf courses.

The Freeway School

With no inspiration or demand from the public for higher architectural standards, the “freeway” design mentality picked up speed during the 1960s golf boom. Leaving golf with courses that had little or no architectural features of interest, freeway design continued until Pete Dye came along during the early 1980s and proved to golfers that architecture needed a fresh perspective.

The freeway era also saw televised golf influencing maintenance and design more than ever. Architects created elements such as lakes or contrasting white sand that translated well to television. Green grass and excessive length continued to be a fetish for golfers (and) the trend of flashy, sometimes garish “championship” courses flourished.

The Framing School

Golfers rely heavily on the stamp of a big-name architect who may have visited a project only twice and couldn’t remember any of the holes if you interviewed him today. This is a far cry from the days when an architect would spend hours debating the placement of one bunker or questioning whether his green contours complemented the hole’s strategic purpose.

The belief that PGA Tour professionals are more informed about true character of design may be the most interesting notion of all in modern golf. Like his peers from the early 20th century, the modern professional golfer’s philosophy is often driven by how a design fits his game and whether the course seems fair. Some pros even state that if the course is conditioned nicely during a tournament and it is conveniently located in relation to their hotel, they love the place.


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