The few of you who were around at this point last year might remember our feature, “Golf Digest’s Top 100…And What YOU Hate About It. A Statistical Analysis of The ‘Best’ Courses.” You may remember a few things about it…for one, it had nothing to do with statistics, and everything to do with looking at simple numbers and noting trends (they’re different). Secondly, it focused specifically on three major services’ Top 100 U.S. golf courses. Due to the overwhelming lack of readership we had last year, we are unable to provide solid evidence that there’s a demand for the same feature highlighting the Top 100 golf courses in the world.
So we’re doing it anyway…and then you can tell us “never again.”
As a reminder, the three most certifiable rankers we’re looking at are Golf, Golf Digest, and Top100GolfCourses.com—three offerings that base their rankings on a panel of some scope, and not simply a roundtable.
The purpose of this exercise is, perhaps only aspirationally, to help you figure out which one of the three is the best option for forming your own bucket list. We see all sorts of Instagram posts indicating “truly passionate golfer striving to play _____’s Top 100 Golf Courses,” but rarely any justification as to why they chose that particular list for adherence. Thus we’re breaking the rankings down by three conversational/argumentative statements you can use to figure out which Top 100 ranking is in your corner…and perhaps travel accordingly.
- That designer has way <too many / too few> entries on the list.
- That region has way <too many / too few> entries on the list.
- That course is ranked way <too high / too low / not at all>.
One big clarifier: Although both Golf and Top100 have released updated Top 100 lists during 2020, Golf Digest’s current World Top 100 list goes back to 2018. And, as we saw at Golf’s rankings, trends may be inching in a new direction under new management (Ran Morrissett). Derek Duncan’s recent hiring as Associate Editor at Digest may (or may not) indicate a shift on the horizon.
So let’s figure your life / their rankings out!
I. THAT DESIGNER HAS WAY <TOO MANY / TOO FEW> ENTRIES ON THE LIST
We’ll handle this section by noting if a particular publication has an unhealthy obsession—or an unspeakable loathing for—the architect in question. We’ll note in advance that Golf Digest opened its arms to the most architects (47) while Golf was the most exclusive (41). Again, all relative.
UNHEALTHY OBSESSION: We’ll get this out of the way before we deep dive (eh, “medium dive”) into the numbers: Despite the exaggerated titles, few of these divergences from the norm are truly what the kids would call “epic.” For example, the architect that Golf most “heavily” preferred over the other members of this analysis was A.W. Tillinghast, for whom they included six courses (Digest and Top100 kept our namesake’s father for four courses, respectively). Although the latter sources didn’t match one-to-one in terms of the Tilly they selected, there were two courses that set Golf apart: Winged Foot East (No. 62) and Quaker Ridge (#74). Some love for Westchester County out of Golf’s Manhattan headquarters.
UNSPEAKABLE LOATHING: The closest thing to “loathing” we can see in Golf’s rankings—despite their deluxe treatment of his 80th birthday this past week—is Jack Nicklaus. He only merited one mention in Golf compared to two for Top100 and 3.5 for Digest (Sebonack merited a half-vote). That’s not a dramatic difference, obviously, but it’s worth noting that Muirfield Village dropped 26 spots in the past two years…the highest drop of any course on Golf’s list. Morrissett ended his essay on Nicklaus’s design career with “ultimately, you’ll be the judge,” as if acknowledging some “woke” architecture followers have a distaste for Jack. All that said, Golf has still partnered with Nicklaus Design for an amateur design competition.
UNHEALTHY OBSESSION: If you were hoping for shock and awe…the answer here won’t provide it. Tom Fazio. But perhaps the extreme rate at which Digest prefers Fazio will shock and awe you. Golf gave The Faz no love, Top100 gave him their No. 98 spot and Digest…gave him seven entries! That’s more than any other architect, aside from Alister Mackenzie. Those woke architecture fans are melting like Indiana Jones Nazis right now. This hints at the oft-commented “formula” that Digest panelists are asked to adhere to, which include “Resistance to Scoring,” “Aesthetics” and “Ambience.” Fazio makes tough courses, and he creates far more privates than publics (we’d argue “fewer players” leads to “better ambience”) and, to be fair, he makes some good-looking golf courses. These three factors are the main arguing points about the value of golf course between differing parties.
UNSPEAKABLE LOATHING: Just to continue on from what we just described and further infuriate the woke, Seth Raynor and C.H. Allison are the losers on Digest’s rankings. Those two both receive 4 votes and 3 from Golf and Top100 (one prefers Raynor, the other Allison), but earn only one each from Digest. Although Raynor also tends to be associated with private clubs, his courses tend to emphasize “shot values” (as Digest puts it) compared to “resistance to scoring” and (outside of Fisher’s Island), Raynor had few real “lookers.” Allison’s absence may be due to Golf Digest’s apparent distaste for Japan’s classic courses (more on this later…it’s more complicated than it sounds).
UNHEALTHY OBSESSION: What makes Top100GolfCourses different than its “competition” here? It’s based in the UK, and the others are based in New York. This may explain several differences across this examination. In this case, it means they gave Englishman James Braid his due, while Golf and Digest saw fit to omit. Braid created two classic piece of links golf for this Top 100 list, in St. Enodoc and Royal Cinque Ports.
UNSPEAKABLE LOATHING: Really nothing notable.
II. THAT REGION HAS WAY <TOO MANY / TOO FEW> ENTRIES ON THE LIST
This is, theoretically, where comparing lists of the Top 100 Golf Courses should get really interesting. Old World purists? Oldish World purists (New England)? Or New World hippies? Let’s take a look at where some publications consider to be a hidden Xanadu, or maybe a meaningless void.
HIDDEN XANADU: There really aren’t too many to note. They had one more Scottish entry than Top100, but not enough to suggest a bias.
MEANINGLESS VOID: Two countries stand out in particular, for having zero entries: China and Wales. China is a toss-up on several levels. It’s got several courses that float on the edges of any Top 100 list, but it may not be unreasonable to exclude them. Wales rubs this Welsh separatist supporter the wrong way, however. Both Digest and Top100 include Royal Porthcawl, a links course held in high esteem by many…and we’re a little disappointed that Golf didn’t agree.
HIDDEN XANADU: Man, where didn’t Golf Digest consider a relative golfing hotspot? On the China front, it included three courses, compared to a combined one from the other rankers. We kind of hinted that Digest may have a Japan problem, but it certainly doesn’t have an Asia problem, as it included eight courses…the same as the other two rankers combined (all of Golf’s Asian entries were Japanese). Digest was also the only ranker to include an African course (South Africa’s Fancourt), as well as the only to include a Middle Eastern route (UAE’s Yas Links). So this brings up two questions: The first is obviously whether these courses truly deserve Top 100 consideration. The second is whether Digest’s algorithms are better suited for bringing golf to an international audience. It’s easy for you or I to get excited about a list that features 49 courses from our homeland (that’s the United States total for both Golf and Digest). But what about the kid in Vietnam? At least Digest has one relatively near him (The Bluffs at Ho Tram Strip). So some PR advice for Digest from a professional marketer: Sell your Top 100 as “growing the game.”
MEANINGLESS VOID: So if Digest is spreading the love worldwide, and has the same number of American courses, where it is cutting numbers from? And here’s another jab to make the “woke” readers writhe: the UK. Digest included 10 fewer courses from the Isles than Golf. That’s a relevant stat. One other European nation took some abuse from Digest. While the Netherlands tallied two entries from our other rankers, Digest took the populist route and downplayed the power of Der Haagsche.
MEANINGLESS VOID: So we’re strategically beginning with what Top100 lacks in its Top 100…and—you may have guessed this from our allusion to its UK homeland above—it’s the United States. While both Golf and Digest included 49 members of the Red, White & Black, Top100 only saw fit to include 42. “Heresy,” you cry. “If those British dogs had seen fit to feature less than 60 of their links obscurities than…”
HIDDEN XANADU: …well, they did. Top100 featured 30 UK courses among its Top 100, only one more than Golf. So where are they laundering those other votes? All over, if not in any specific country of note. An extra vote for Japan, and extra vote for New Zealand…it adds up. One course / continent of note is that Top100 chose the only South American course featured in this analysis, the relatively obscure Santaparienza (which was also its only Fazio vote, in case you wondered earlier).
III. THAT COURSE IS RANKED WAY <TOO HIGH / TOO LOW / NOT AT ALL>
So we’ve looked at individual biases toward or against architects, and as well as regionally (and we didn’t play the race card once!). So let’s get hyper-specific…what course or courses seemed to get a raw deal, based on the interpretations of the other rankers? We’re not talking about the Essex County Club, where Top100 ranked it No. 96 and it failed to crack with the other two rankers. We’re talking about serious snubs. And, of course, the courses your ranker of choice has an unprecedented crush on.
BIGGEST SNUB: OK, so we already touched on this up above but…Royal Porthcawl. A club that will, by the grace of Cthulhu, host The Open one day soon. We’re really into this Wales thing.
ARE YOU NUTS?: We already showed Golf’s fondness for Tillinghast via their inclusion of both Winged Foot West and East among their Top 100…but they didn’t simply slip the “other” Winged Foot into the last ten. They brought all the way up to No. 62 (and just think…that thing’s going to be a goddamn parking lot this for the U.S. Open, hosted at big brother West). They were also the only service to cater to Royal Liverpool, bringing Hoylake in at No. 65. Considering the similarity of placements, and that both courses will be hosting majors in the next few years, a cynic might suggest they’re angling for better media opportunities.
BIGGEST SNUB: Oof, where to start? Here are five snubs, in order of mean ranking from the other two services: Somerset Hills (46), Portmarnock (48), Camargo (51.5), California (55), and Woodhall Spa (57). What’s more telling, perhaps, is to note how closely these courses are ranked by the other publications. The highest range in opinion was California, where Golf ranked it 10 spots higher than Top100. California was the easiest omission to predict among this group, however, as Golf Digest also excluded it from its Top 100 in the United States last year (which, believe it or not, also qualified as the “Biggest Snub” in that analysis).
ARE YOU NUTS?: Similarly, there are numerous instances where Digest’s ranking of a particular course is an obvious outlier from the norm. They were a tad kinder to Tara Iti, Barnbougle Dunes, and Cabot Cliffs than the other pair (all relative, of course), but the biggest break from the norm comes right in BPBM’s home state of Ohio. As we alluded to earlier, Muirfield Village took a huge hit in Golf’s esteem, dropping more than 25 spots. It also dropped in the Top100 corner, albeit not as dramatically, to No. 85. Now, again, we need to consider that Digest last updated their rankings during 2018; it’s possible that Muirfield will lose a few spots when new scores emerge. Still…it’s unlikely that the Village will drop 50 spots to be on the same level as Digest’s competitors. (The 2018 publication date is why we’re passing on Digest’s ranking of Shanqin Bay at No. 14; in the past few years, dramatic alterations at government behest have lowered many’s opinion of Shanqin, resulting in its drop from both Golf and Digest’s list altogether. It is quite possible Digest would share that opinion).
BIGGEST SNUB: There were two courses highly valued by Golf—and valued at a slightly lower level by Digest—that Top100 saw fit to omit. The first is Southern Hills, perhaps the most glaring ignore of an American course (the Perry Maxwell route cracked the Top 50 for Golf, and landed at No. 69 for Digest). Again, it doesn’t seem to be (strictly) a case of UK bias. Indeed, Top100 also left out Royal Troon, which Golf ranked as high as No. 51. None of the sites involved included any Weiskopf designs in their respective 100s, but only Top100 left out his only major victory site. A conspiracy theory…if hardly one worth pursuing.
ARE YOU NUTS?: Naturally, Top100 had to make up for its exclusion of Royal Troon by finding another links course to fill the gap. Tom Simpson is another prominent golf writer / designer that Top100 has championed; although all publications included his Morfontaine, and Golf agreed with Cruden Bay’s inclusion, Top100 was the only ranker to include his Royal Aberdeen route. And include it they did, bringing it all the way up to No. 52.