Golf Course rankings, absurd as they are, are a staple of golf media. Whatever your motivator for using them, it is the discussion they prompt that I feel is their most valuable contribution to golf. The worst part? It has bred a group of punch list tickers who miss the likes of Painswick and Minchinhampton because they need to get from Westward Ho! to Walton Heath. Herein, I stand on my soapbox regarding rankings and offer a superior (in my opinion) alternative.
(Caveat: From 2023, The Fried Egg has also begun ranking golf courses with a similar system. I reached out to Andy Johnson to explain we had been working on a similar concept but they beat us to press. As most of their content will focus on the USA, it would seem we are on a similar journey in a different lane. Just as there is no monopoly on Top 100 Ranks, we hope a different approach to mostly UK&I golf courses will be welcomed.)
The Absurdity of Top 100 Rankings
How is it possible Trump Turnberry is the best this year, Muirfield (The Honourable Company) was the previous year, and St Andrews Old Course will be again next year? What about Royal Dornoch and Royal County Down? With no real movement in or out of the top 3, 5, or even 10 golf courses, it feels as though most rankings simply are shuffling the deck.
The transient nature of rankings, with no real correlation to what’s happening on the ground, is also curious. To be fair, sometimes a golf club will make big changes and it is reflected in the rankings. Princes Golf Club in Kent, England is a good example. Having dropped off most Top 100 Lists, it has seen a relisting and resurgence due to recent investment and improvements.
Recently, a golf club with three parkland golf courses in middle England wished to be unranked. One leading rank has all three courses firmly in the Top 100 in GB&I. None of the other rankings included one of the three. Curious. It must be said, however, that from about 75 onwards there are about 50 clubs that have a legitimate chance of ranking.
The Touchstone of Rankings – St Andrews Old Course
There is no stronger case against the absurdity of rankings than The Old Course at St Andrews itself. If the Old Course is not Number 1, can you really take the rank seriously? The notion (from an architectural perspective anyways) that there is anything more complete than The Old Course is an indictment to those who purport otherwise. It stands above all others and has earned the right to be held in such high regard it transcends being weighed and measured against others. If you disagree, perhaps we just don’t see or celebrate golf the same way. For me, St Andrews will always represent the pinnacle of strategic golf course architecture.
With that said, maybe this is a good time to address the issues surrounding the Old Course. It has been lengthened and in doing so, the new teeing grounds have altered or lost strategic playing lines and angles. Mowing lines have shrunk and consequently, the options have been reduced. It is, however, the most strategic golf course in the world. Recently, world-class golf course architect, shaper, and long-time St Andrews resident Clyde Johson remarked that the strategy of the hole changes in a matter of just a few yards. Even as it stands today, The Old Course still represents the best of strategic golf and architecture.
Still disagree? Bobby Jones wrote: “If I had ever been set down in any one place and told I was to play there, and nowhere else, for the rest of my life, I should have chosen the Old Course at St. Andrews.” Tiger Woods stated: “My favorite course that I have been on is St. Andrews. That’s my favorite course of all time.” Additionally, both players and golf course architects are singing from the same hymn sheet. Read any of the golf course architecture sacred texts written by Harry Colt, Alister Mackenzie, and Tom Simpson and you will quickly realize they all revered the Old Course and held it as the greatest of all time…
Why Only 100?
Another bone to pick with ranks is the arbitrary number of 100. A Top 100 for most countries or regions is entirely irrelevant. Depending on the region or criteria, 100 could be too few or too many. To use the Michelin Star example, France has 758 Michelin Star Restaurants, Japan has 554, Italy has 432, Germany has 384, and the USA has 276. Until recently, Canada had none. Does that mean the culinary experience in Canada was non-existent? Far from it!
The point I am making is this: Once you get past the truly elite, why should a club’s future be maligned for being 101st when there is probably no real significant difference between the 35 to 50 that supposedly proceed it or follow it? The limit of 100 is an arbitrary number that seems too clumsy and unfit for purpose.
Personal Preference Influencing Rank
Pursuing the Michelin Star analogy, Japan has 554 elite eateries. However, if I cannot stomach raw fish, the majority of those will be low on my list. Does that mean they aren’t worthy because my palette won’t allow even the contemplation of Ikizukiri? I may not like Casu Matzu or Pieds Paquets but does that lessen their deserved place in Italian or French cuisine?
If I prefer links does that mean Pine Valley cannot and should not be the best in the world? Rankers or course raters are people and people have preferences. Those tastes influence whether they are told to be objective. (Pine Valley, Royal Melbourne West, and Cypress Point would all be 3 Stars by the way…)
Criterion for Rating & Ranking
When you go into the weeds on what goes into the major rankings, you are presented with a plethora of intangible markers upon which a golf club’s golf course is weighed and measured. What exactly are playability, overall experience, visual appeal, and enjoyment? How does one account for enjoyment or the other factors? Augusta National has a freeway running along its border – does road noise influence ‘enjoyment’? Most great links in GB&I have railways influencing play – do railways, trains, and associated infrastructure affect ‘visual appeal’? The high-profile Cypress Point Club has a popular road bisecting the course. There is also an inexhaustible list of contradictory examples.
What about the tangible criteria of club facilities? Should St Andrews Old be demoted because there is no short game area or driving range in the immediate vicinity? It appears these haven’t been factored in but rather overlooked, in some assessments. If you set the criteria, be relentless in applying them to any golf course no matter where or which one it may be.
The Doak Scale – An Existing Alternative
The only real alternative to the major Top 100 rankings is The Doak Scale. Ratings can be from 0-10 and a brief description to help narrow down where a golf course is best suited. A 10 is described as ‘nearly perfect.’ A 9 is termed to be ‘outstanding’. 7 & 8 are both described as ‘excellent’. 5 & 6 are ‘above average’ or ‘very good’.
Of interest, Tom Doak adds a further description: how far one should travel to see the golf on offer. A 10 is worth an immediate visit no matter where the course is. A 9 is a golf course one should see once in your life. 7 & 8 are both described as ‘worth a special trip to see’. Those rated a 5 or 6 are golf courses you’d add after once you play a 7, 8, 9, or 10.
To put this in context, a 3 Star rating would equate to a 9 or 10 on the Doak Scale. A 2 Star rating would equate to a 7 or 8. A 1 Star rating would be a 5 or 6. To use a relevant example, Royal Dornoch would constituent a 3 Star, Brora a 2 Star, and Carnegie a 1 Star. Being in the vicinity of these three courses, Tain and Golspie would enter as ‘Worth A Visit’.
Michelin Stars & Golf Ranks
Over the next little while, we will be adding stars to the site. For now, we will use Kent as an example that can convey our methodology.
3 Stars – Exceptional – Worth the journey to play on its own. Serves as the anchor of any golf trip or experience. You are richer for having played the course and consider it a truly elite experience that will punctuate your golf course oeuvre for life. If you played only this course on a single trip, it would be worth the journey from Land’s End to John o’Grouts. Probably in the discussion for a Top 100 golf course in the world. To use a Kent example, Royal St George’s would earn 3 stars.
2 Stars – Excellent – Golf of the highest order. This is probably one of the very best golf courses in the area or country. Perhaps in GB&I, the courses found in the top percentile of the respective Top 100 lists of Wales, Ireland, Scotland, and England would be here. To use another Kent example, Royal Cinque Ports would earn 2 stars. Some would even contend it should be 3 stars… (and you wouldn’t have to push too hard to convince me…)
1 Star – Very Good – The supporting cast would provide worthy golf as a second 18 or golf on the 2nd or 3rd day of a trip. While you’re here you would enjoy a round and may like it as much as a 2 Star depending on your own taste and preference. If you’re invited to play, you take the day off work as you just don’t miss the opportunity. To continue the Kent example, Princes firmly sits with 1 star and some may argue for 2.
Worth A Visit – Notable for a worthy reason. For example, historic significance to golf or a truly remarkable architectural highlight. You may come to see a single hole or even green complex. If the Sitwell Green alone was restored, you would go, wouldn’t you? To use the Kent example, North Foreland Short Course would be worth a visit. If you missed it, however, you probably wouldn’t regret it.