Too many course ratings?

The National appears at the top of a new course rating list by Fairways Magazine.

Yes, two more Canadian course ratings are out — one by, an upstart publication, and a new Ontario list by Peter Mumford’s Fairways magazine. Add this to SCOREGolf’s established Top 100, Golfweek’s Top Canadian classic and modern list and Golf Digest’s recent Canadian list. That’s a lot of ink spilled when I truly think there are maybe five or six great golf courses in Canada.

What’s that you say? Five or six?

That’s my take — Highlands Links, Hamilton, Cabot Links, Jasper, Banff, and St. George’s could be considered on a world scale. There’s lots beyond that that are very good — but not great. Even Hamilton could use an overhaul — right now it has horrible grassing lines and the bunkers are as plain as dry toast. But it has the essence of greatness — it is there in the bones. I love places like Westmount, Toronto GC, Eagles Nest, Muskoka Bay, Capilano and Devil’s Paintbrush — and though they have individual great holes, I can’t really conclude any of these courses are great. Not great like Winged Foot or Shinnecock. Not great like Royal St. George’s or Ballybunion.

What’s different at Not much, frankly. It has a nicely defined criteria — though if even one panelist can explain what a “course/land plan” is I’d be surprised — and apparently an expert list of panelists. I say “apparently,” because though goes to great lengths to talk about how its panel is different, it misses the basics of offering transperancy. No comps, but lots of “industry” people (who likely haven’t paid for a green fee in a long time), no prior notice of visits (which I always think is funny since how does one change a golf course for a rater anyway?) and “basically [golfers] asked for a ranking where raters do not receive any sort of special treatment.” Problem is the magazine won’t identify those raters — which strikes me as a real problem when you are seeking credibility. Why not identify them? There’s no real explanation given. I can’t imagine taking any list seriously that doesn’t tell you who is on it, that’s my perspective.

Still, the magazine list they compile is fine. No revelations. The National sinks to No. 5, Cabot Links is 10 spots too low at No. 10, nice to see Kawartha at a deserving No. 41, etc.

Check their list out here. Editor Frank Mastroianni has done a nice job with the publication, though I wonder how long it can continue without much ad support. I also wonder if I’m one of six people in Canada interested in a magazine that heavily slanted to golf design. We’ll see….

Fairways Magazine takes another swipe at it, this time using Ted McIntyre, the former editor of Ontario Golf, to run the ratings. That means unlike Canadiangolfmagazine, Ted offers full disclosure on not only who he used for the Ontario rating, but what they voted on. Credit to Magna’s Danny King for having the strangest No. 1 pick — Osprey Valley. I applaud that sort of thinking — and it certainly provides a different perspective than the standard National/St. George’s debate.

So what wins then? The National. Yawn.

By my count there are now six ratings of Canadian courses in various magazines (including one done by the BC PGA last year.)

What can we conclude?

  1. That some American magazines can’t distinguish a classic from modern course (Golfweek).
  2. That like Score and Fairways, some American pubs love the National. (Golf Digest) 
  3. That if you tweak your criteria, more classic courses will appear (Canadiangolfmagazine)
  4. That some lists offer very little new perspective for debate (Fairways) and that Ontario doesn’t have enough quality to rank 100 courses if Innerkip Highlands AND Seguin Valley makes the list
  5. That rater love for Royal Montreal is slipping (all lists)
  6. That Highlands Links conditioning issues have caught up with it (all lists)
  7. That no one has played Goodwood, which is the only explanation for the reason it hasn’t appeared in any lists. Lorne Rubenstein ranks it ahead of St. George’s, which is strange, but it does suggest it is very good. Very good indeed – but not better than St. George’s, regardless of what Rubenstein suggests.
  8. That Cabot Links hasn’t come out of the gates quite the way many, myself included, expected (all lists have it around 10 in the country).
  9. Very few new courses have entered any of the list in the past few years, making them quite static. Considering how few changes have been made to many, that’s probably as it should be.
  10. Maybe it is time for fewer courses rating lists all saying versions of the same story using different criteria.

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

11 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Don’t forget that Cabot Links opened around July 1 so it has only been open for four months of golf. Therefore many raters have not had the chance to get there yet, especially since few raters live nearby and it isn’t easy to get to. Has any course moved up so highly so quickly in the past.

    Give it a couple of years and it will find its rightful place in the top 5.

  • I would have to agree with you as far as the use of raters. For the most part they are all in the industry, and like myself and other industry people, we usually call ahead out of respect for fellow Club Professionals and Superintendents. It is in a lot of our Associations “Code of Ethics” for those who follow them. Most call just for the booking and free golf though.

    Too many rankings! Do some of the rankings not have the same people on them? I noticed in Fairways several names that pop up in the Score rankings as well if my memory serves me. What’s the point in that? Would it not be useful to take a whole new group to bring new perspective?

    The ratings I do enjoy seeing are peoples favourite holes (3’s, 4’s and 5’s), Best Bang for your Buck…etc.

    I do like Frank M’s new blog. Very good perspective on golf course architecture but you are right, does the average golfer care at all? Probably not.

  • Robert and Tremor, thank you for your comments. All opinions help us improve.

    Robert, regarding your comments on our Top 100, I’ve addressed some of the reasons as to why we went with an anonymous system in the magazine as well as on my most recent blog post…check it out! To quickly summarize though:

    Regarding credibility, the proof is in the pudding…do you agree with our list or not? We use our ranking to validate our system and raters, we don’t use our raters to validate our system and ranking.

    Human nature is such that people are afraid to deviate from the norm. Anonymous rankings allow for unbiased, non-influenced ratings.

    Courses do change. After seventeen years working at various ranked and non-ranked golf courses, I have done everything from change pin positions to blow gun a green in order to remove leaves while the rater was on course.

    Finally, re: your advertising comment, we are a digital magazine built for the digital world. We don’t work off traditional business strategies. Our choice, from the outset, was to have minimal advertising and maximum content. It is why all our pieces resemble full features and it is the strategy we will continue to use going forward…I wouldn’t expect to see too many more advertisements.

    As always, your comments are appreciated Robert and thanks for taking a look at the magazine.

  • I think everyone and every golf “magazine” has a right to publish their lists – the more the better IMHO. I find them all interesting, love to find things I don’t understand or agree with, glad we don’t have the blinders on like the Republican Party does. Is Royal Montreal slipping because of the improvements? Is there a relationship between the various lists – i.e. Cabot Links keeps appearing, have that many people played it?
    Nice to have new golf things to read. Spring has come to Alberta too!

    • Bravo Mr. Slatter,
      Course Ratings-The more the merrier. Regardless of any publication’s ratings, each golfer on their own will decided which course is best under THIER CRITERIA. You will not have consistency until the selection of the panellists is standardized. I for one would remove ratters who claim they’re a 6, play to 15, cannot be find objectivity (when a course sucks-say so), have limited understanding of course design, construction and maintenance and believe they are authorities without the proper training and background. Until we have ONLY industry experts voting, let’s have multiple ratings from multiple publications. One thing I would like to see each publication produce is list of the raters, their individual ratings and the criteria they followed-

  • Wouldn’t the restriction of not seeking access based on being a rater for a given publication make it damn near impossible to play a broad enough selection of courses to make an educated judgement – regardless of the criteria used? No matter how connected or how wealthy, isn’t it is erroneous to believe that 79 anonymous individuals could make a meaningful assessment of the Top 100 courses in Canada?

    Perhaps a disclosure of how many of the Top 100 each panelist has played – and played in the last 5 years – would either prove my argument wrong or vividly support the claim. Either way, I say kudos on a great magazine and wholeheartedly support any discussion on Canadian golf!

  • Robert,

    You ask: “What can we conclude?” How about:

    Course ratings that include Robert Thompson = good
    Course ratings that do not include Robert Thompson = bad

  • SalesGuru,

    Thank you for the comments. Members of our panel have been selected for their ability to gain natural access to golf courses across Canada as described in our magazine, but we will disclose the number of courses panelists have visited in the last 5 years next time.

    I will tell you that we made it clear that we only wanted ratings for courses raters have played in the last 2 years and the rater with the lowest number of courses visited on the ballot was 27…if we wanted to go back 5 years I am confident it would be more.

  • I always enjoy the rankings, but do agree that with so few courses opening recently the results are getting a little monotonous.

    That is one reason I found the Canadian Golf ranking interesting…finally some movement in the rankings.

    Loved seeing Mt. Bruno, Essex in the top 25. Scarboro, Calgary, St. Thomas, Cherry Hill, Kawartha (finally someone gets it right), Lookout all in the top 50. Royal Ottawa and Montebello getting some love.

    Also nice to see some ‘sacred cows’ get brought down to earth…Royal Montreal, Crowbush, King Valley, Taboo, Fox Harb’r.

  • Your take?? 5 or 6 great courses! Please Robert-Highlands Links, Hamilton, Cabot Links, Jasper, Banff, and St. George’s are your choices. I’ll give you Hamilton, Cabot and Jasper but the other 3???
    It’s your blog Robert BUT to not include the #1 rated course in Canada (again) shows you lack objectivity. The National Golf Club of Canada is the best course in the country. Period-full stop. To call Banff a great course and to leave The National off calls into question your objectivity and overall course knowledge.
    I am surprised you didn’t include Tarandowah in your top courses :).

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