The main three publications with ratings are Golf Digest, which does an American list and a best new course in Canada, Golf Magazine, which provides a world list, and Golfweek, which does a Top 100 modern and classic in the U.S. That list is out today.
Of course, several things haven’t changed. Pine Valley in New Jersey is still the country’s best golf course, according to all three publications, with Golfweek putting it at the top of its list. The reality is that the “classic” portion of the list (as with most lists) don’t really change. In Golf, courses like The Old Course, Pine Valley, Royal Melbourne and the like are always at the top. Golfweek’s classic list is much the same — Cypress, Shinnecock, Augusta, etc.
The truly interesting part of any list is the inclusion of golf courses that have opened in the last decade. The modern list on Golfweek is where the debate takes place. The best modern course in the U.S., according to Golfweek is Sand Hills in Nebraska, a rural jewel created by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. It was also the best modern in the last list. Similarly Pacific Dunes, Tom Doak’s masterpiece in Oregon, is at No. 2 for the second straight year, while its sister course, Bandon, falls two places to No. 5.
Fights among golfers usually break out over new courses — is Shadow Creek really worthy of a Top 10 spot (No); where is Tom Fazio (answer, No. 12 with Wade Hampton); how good is Sutton Bay (very, apparently. It is No. 13 in its debut).
What’s the value of these lists? For some clubs, especially those seeking public resort play or members, the value is high. Rankings become marketing vehicles that sell memberships and travel packages.
I participate in three ratings panels (Score Magazine and Ontario Golf in Canada, Golf Digest in the U.S.) and take all three responsibilities seriously. I’m not sure everyone on these panels do — just look at my stories from last year about The Rock winning best new course in Canada from Golf Digest.
In the end, ratings are simply subjective observations of the comparative merits of golf courses. The reality is you can’t go too wrong by playing any course that appears on one of the lists of the three major golf mags. You may debate the finer points of these courses — and their places on each list — but the experience will likely still be tip top.