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Architects’ Surprising Picks for “World’s Best Golf Courses”

by Craig Better

Jul22013

architects-choiceI normally wouldn’t alert you to another top-100 list, but the one about to be published by Golf Course Architecture magazine is interesting for two reasons:

1. Its 240-person ratings panel is composed only of golf course architects (a group that might know a thing or two about the subject)…

2. From what I’ve seen so far, their list is making some pretty bold statements.

For example, here’s what jumped out at me regarding the courses they ranked 91-100:

100. Woking Golf Club (Surrey, England)
I never even heard of this course before, and it does not appear on Golf Magazine’s or Links Magazine’s lists of “world’s best” courses. (Golf Digest’s list focuses only on, “best outside the U.S.,” but it’s not on there, either.)

99. The Honors Course (Ooltewah, Tennessee)
This one I have seen, but only on lists of “America’s best,” not “world’s best.” Is it truly this underrated?

98. Shadow Creek (Las Vegas, Nevada)
Same here, although I’m guessing this one received extra credit for its early architectural feat of turning desert into a stunning oasis.

92. Fishers Island (Fishers Island, New York)
This one cuts the other way: Links Magazine’s readers ranks this Seth Raynor classic as the 16th best course in the world. Golf Magazine has it 28th. Ninety-two? Yeah, I’m going to have to go-ahead and disagree with you…

91. Capilano (Vancouver, B.C., Canada)
This 1937 Stanley Thompson design is another potential “find” that doesn’t appear on Links’ or Golf Magazine’s lists.

Now, I realize every list has its own methodology, biases (and potential statistical shortcomings), therefore making them totally subjective, so I’m not saying this is gospel.

But it is interesting to see golf architects’ opinions of “the best” and how much they differ — often wildly — from what we’re usually told by the major magazines.

Granted, this is only the final 10 of their top-100. The rest of the list will be released, ten at a time, over the next two weeks, culminating with the architects’ world-No. 1 on Friday, July 12.

While we wait, I’d love to know what you think:  when it comes to ranking the world’s best golf courses, whose opinions do you value the most: golf course architects, golf magazine ratings panels, or golfers like you and me?’

Please share your thoughts or read what others are saying below.

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Brad T. July 2, 2013 at 1:33 pm

Thank you SO much for bringing this up — I’m tired of seeing the same courses from the jock-sniffing magazine raters who clearly value difficulty over everything else. Maybe the architects will have some new names for us to play where enjoyment — gasp — is important, too.

2 Bill Coe July 2, 2013 at 1:36 pm

Whose opinion do I value most when ranking the world’s best courses? Golfers like you and me.

3 Ed July 2, 2013 at 1:40 pm

I have to go with the magazine raters. They see more of the “best” courses and have the means to compare them fairly. Golfers are a flawed group for rating courses because they don’t see nearly as many but, more importantly, are influenced too much by how they played the course themselves.

4 Doug Roberts July 2, 2013 at 1:57 pm

I tend to agree with much of the rankings of courses that I have played. Typically the primary disagreement I have is many private courses that just don’t get enough play so they aren’t included. This specific situation tends to slightly elevate public courses vs privates. I believe after the recent US Open Merion will ascend on most lists. Having had the opportunity to play it and Pine Valley in the same week once I came away favoring Merion. Although both are spectacular. I have always taken exception to Fishers being so highly rated. Yes there are 14 spectacular holes, but there are a few actual duds. My view would be more like the architects rating at 92nd. Well probably more like top 50…I’m interested to see the whole list. My guess is they pull out the political fluff and give merit where it is due. So maybe the best list. Thanks for sharing this.

5 Herschel Hoffmann July 2, 2013 at 2:08 pm

Woking is one of the “3 W’s” — West Hilll and Worplesdon are the other two. Set in leafy Surrey. Americans come to the UK and want to play the Open courses and don’t realise how many wonderful courses are in and around London!

6 Keith Drevets July 2, 2013 at 2:11 pm

I played Capilano years ago. It was a great track with fantastic views of my favorite city, Vancouver BC. As to Fisher;s Island, I am going with the architects in that I think Raynor’s courses, while pleasant to play, are over rated in terms of being great.

7 Hans Berntson July 2, 2013 at 2:11 pm

It is my understanding that it is easier to gain access to a private US course the nearer the tail end of a top 100 listing it appears, and since I would love to play Fishers Island I fully endorse this list :-).

8 Van July 2, 2013 at 2:28 pm

I totally agree with Ed…we filter these sometimes through our playing glasses. We played Carnoustie, North Berwick, etc, they were all great, but I could not fairly rate them based solely on one round. (The courses were tough and I did not really spend a lot of time/energy on the aesthetics of the course.)
I think the architect ratings would be interesting to see, but not the end-all course rating…

9 Tom July 2, 2013 at 2:30 pm

You’re ignoring the basis for these ratings — any ratings — in the first place: Publishers like Adam Lawrence at GCA understand that they’re simply irrestible to readers. In addition to debating the merits of various courses, often over a couple of beers, we can now debate the merits of which rating panels — architects, magazines, or golfers — are more likely to come up with the most accurate results. Meanwhile, your observation about never even having heard of Woking reinforces a more important point, namely that it’s inconceivable that every rater, whoever he/she is, has played or seen all the candidates. And as Ed points out, what if you play a given course and really stink it up? Wouldn’t that affect your appraisal? If you find the whole rating thing fun, that’s fine; if you think the ratings (by whomever) mean much, you’re mistaken.

10 Dennis July 2, 2013 at 2:32 pm

I’ve played Fisher’s Island a few times and while 16th in the world seems a little high, I wouldn’t rank it lower than 30-40th.
I’m very surprised that these are architects’ ratings because I found it to be a very wonderful course from an architect perspective, challenging, subtle and beautiful.

11 Ian July 2, 2013 at 2:42 pm

Too many of the conventional rankings reflect history. Woking as an example is a world class course that is far superior to its highly ranked near neighbour Wentworth.

12 Jim July 2, 2013 at 2:47 pm

Interesting debate might be made of this news. On the one hand you say the architects are the one’s who should know, on the other are players. Think that players are our best judges, after all without a player what course would be needed. Thinking there are many fine courses this world over, doubt any one group is able to judge what is our “best”. Go out and enjoy!

13 Peter Graae July 2, 2013 at 2:47 pm

I think if you take a combination of all three categories you will be pretty well off.

14 Scott Martin July 2, 2013 at 2:59 pm

Having been a member of a regional, then a national ratings panel, I think that magazines get it mostly right…with a few notable exceptions. I was on the North Carolina Magazine panel and the panelists routinely named Old North State Club as #2 behind Pinehurst #2. Craziness: ONS wasn’t even in my top 40.

One of the best guides to golf courses is Tom Doak’s “The Confidential Guide.” A bit dated now, but proof, perhaps, that architects can point you to a great golf course. I once asked Rees Jones what he thought about Doak and the answer will not appear in a family blog like this one.

Having architects rate courses presents a fun approach. It will be political, for sure. I’ll be shocked if any of Doak’s courses make the list.

Glad to see a track from the heathland courses to the south and west of London get a shout. If you plopped Pinehurst #2 in among Sunningdale, Swinley Forest, etc., then I’m not sure anyone would pay #2 much attention.

15 Steve July 2, 2013 at 4:33 pm

There is a course that is local to me that was a “top-100 you can play” for a while. It hovered between 80-100 if I remember right. Once the course stopped advertising in that magazine it suspiciously disappeared from the list. I think there is consensus on what is say top-30 and not top-30. Beyond that it is way to subjective to trust any list.

16 Brandon J July 2, 2013 at 4:54 pm

I would trust a friend with a 8 handicap who knows his stuff over any major publication. Simply put, the rankings do not take into account the majority of golfers and whether they would enjoy playing those courses. I understand that is not the point of the rankings…but in terms of figuring out whether I’d rather play Sandhills or Shinnecock, I’d trust a friend who was similar to my skill level.

I think the rankings are highly subjective, especially if we are talking pure enjoyment of playing (aesthetics, conditions, playability). I know each publication has it’s own formula, but I’d love to see the handicaps of those who are ranking the courses, with the assumption being most are highly skilled players. Ive never played Pinehurst #2, but reading about the US Open that Payne Stewart won there, even a 15 handicap would be miserable trying to hold irons on those greens, and the pitching back and forth.

With so much attention being paid to pace of play, each publication would do their readers a huge favor to either incorporating a handicap index enjoyment factor or suggested tees, and then how that effects the rankings. Or maybe just rank a top 50 for 10+ handicaps.

Great read and perspective as usual…I’m looking forward to seeing the others on the list, because any rankings that differ that much from the norm, intrigues me.

17 Peter July 2, 2013 at 5:17 pm

I think the golf magazines are the best source because what they are really measuring is whether you would go back and play there again. I’m not an architect but they might be measuring how much land was moved and other tasks that only they can appreciate. I just care whether it’s good enough to spend my money on. As for Fishers Island, having played there once, I’d drop everything and play there if I got an invite. To me, that’s the measure of a golf course.

18 t morris July 2, 2013 at 8:06 pm

Woking is one of the great classic heathland courses in Surrey. It has to be in the top 10-15 courses in the London area and was the first course I played in England when planning a trip to play the best English heathland courses.

19 Aview July 3, 2013 at 7:29 am

Ranking a golf course is subjective there is no scientific right or wrong. So I think the ideal panel would include members of every group: players, designers, greens keepers, marketeers, etc. So that each aspect of the “Golfing Experience” is reflected in the list. For me a great day on the links starts as I travel to the course, walk through the doors of the Club, look out over the first tee and ends with a beverage while discussing the highs and lows of the round. So design is a huge feature! Views, playability, challenge, etc. But so is accessibility, condition, service, etc. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and we all have a different point of view.

20 Richard Culhane July 9, 2013 at 2:48 pm

I think one of the most important criteria in rating a course is the natural beauty of the area. I know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but courses like Royal County Down and Pebble Beach should always be at the top of any list.

21 Jonathan July 10, 2013 at 7:27 am

I am a member at Woking and so naturally will be considered biased. However I regularly play many of the bigger named courses in the UK as well, and have played several in the US. I endorse the comments made about Woking on this site. Its condition is usually as good, if not better, than the other more famous and higher-ranked London Heathland Courses such as Sunningdale, Wentworth, Swinley Forest, Walton Heath, and The Berkshire. The concept of heathland golf was ground-breaking when Woking was founded in 1893, but with the various subtle adjustments to the original design over the years, it has remained a tremendous strategic test today – even with modern equipment. However, at the same time and most importantly to most golfers it provides enormous enjoyment for the members and the club’s visitors. As a golf course architect of considerable renown, with extensive knowledge of courses in the UK, Tom Doak reported very favourably on Woking in his “Confidential Guide”.

As a general comment I would respectfully agree with Herschel Hoffman’s contribution above. Whilst I fully understand why visitors to the UK wish to play The Open courses, playing some of the lesser known courses in England (and those in Scoltand, Ireland and Wales), in addition to the more famous ones, will give one a very good idea of the wonderful variety of golf available over here.

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