Listed: Golf Digest’s latest world ranking is an epic failure

Kingsbarns is one of the world's greatest. It dropped 19 spots on Golf Digest's latest course ratings list.

Kingsbarns is one of the world’s greatest. It dropped 19 spots on Golf Digest’s latest course ratings list.

“By all means screw their women and drink their booze, but never write one word about their bloody awful golf courses.”

  • Henry Longhurst

Though it has a Dec. 15 tag on it, Golf Digest’s world course ranking hit the web yesterday. It didn’t take long for the list to be eviscerated by pundits online.

I love these kinds of lists. Heck I’ve participated in a lot of them, Golf Digest included. I thoroughly enjoy the process of picking a course apart and debating the merits of great courses. But all too often these lists can be picked apart over a cup of coffee. This one is perhaps more guilty of shortcomings than any I’ve recently seen.

It is worth noting that Golf Digest is now going to charge $250 per rater for the privilege of ranking courses for their magazine. I actually think the magazine has placed itself in a capitalist quandary that will likely hurt its ratings, but who knows? Maybe those remaining panelists will be more committed because they’ve spent some cash.

I’ll note that I wrote Ron Whitten about the list, trying to determine why it is such a mess. He responded that while he wrote the opening, he wasn’t directly involved in the ratings, which used different systems and ratings from GD’s foreign editions. Say what you like about GD’s American and Canadian ratings, but they are very detailed and filling out a single course can take some time and consideration. The international ones seem to be far less nuanced. If you then take one system and try to mix those results with that of another system, you basically get a mess. That’s where this list is.

I could nitpick a million things with the list. In fact, while Cabot Cliffs, surely one of the best courses to open in recent memory, debuts at #19, which is great for their marketing, it is discounted by the volume of strange rankings found throughout and the wild swings from the debut year of GD doing this list to the current year.

Do I care that Royal County Down moved to the top of the list? Nope. It is a course one could legitimately argue is the best in the world. In fact, I’d say you could argue the same for most of the Top 20 on most lists. These are, without question, great courses. I’ve played or toured 18 of the Top 20 on this list. They are great courses, without question.

But did someone fall asleep at the wheel here? Take, the strange case of Ballybunion, usually regarded as the second or third-best course in Ireland. It isn’t even on this list, though Golf Magazine has it at 17 in the world.

Those kind of strange quirks abound on the GD list. Courses fall dramatically (Cabot Links, for example) or jump dramatically for no real reason (did Portmarnock do something dramatic to explain a rise of 58 spots?).

In all it is sloppy enough to be basically invalid.

In a Canadian context there are five courses on the list—both Cabot courses (Cliffs at 19, Links at 93), St. George’s (41), National (66) and strangely, Memphremagog, which is odd because I’m surprised there are enough people who have seen this super-exclusive course to rate it. It came in at 78. I’ve played it. It’s a good Tom McBroom course. But Top 100 in the world? Hardly.

In the greater scheme of things I wonder if this is the list that really and truly invalidates the course rating process. After all GD is now charging to have people rate. Critics of ratings lists inevitably say that payment of some form–usually advertising–influences how these lists come out. When I participated in Score’s list, which I have issues with, but is well done, online pontificators would regularly say the ratings could be bought, and then also complain that their were too many private courses, none of which advertised in the magazine.

But now you have GD making ratings part of their business model. I doubt Golf Magazine will follow — that one is led largely by a small group of industry insiders. In fact, I think Golf Magazine really sets itself apart now as the only ratings list outside of Canada worth discussing. It has well-traveled, thoughtful (pros, architects, etc) debating the merits of the best in the world. The list rarely has significant changes from one to another. It is reliable.

One of my email correspondences is with a fellow from Toronto who is trying to play the Top 100 in the world. His comment on the GD list sums it up: “I’m not attempting this list.”

Nor would I.

In the end if these lists aren’t done with some structure that gives them some legitimacy, then they are no better than clickbait. Any a magazine like Golf Digest should aspire to better than that.

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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.

4 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Agree wholeheartedly Robert. As a proud Aussie I love where Cape Wickham has debuted but anyone who thinks Lost Farm is better than Ballybunion, Waterville or The European is nuts in my opinion. I also question how many of the panel would have played Ellerston

  • Agree that latest list does not indicate truly the best courses on the planet. Don’t know why Machrihanish has been downgraded by 34 on the Golf Digest list as it has never been in better condition as 2015. Furthermore, photo supposedly showing Machrihanish on list is actually Machrihanish Dunes.

  • The new top 100 list is another example of how the quality of GD has degraded over the last several years. I won’t even consider buying it now. It is baffling how the rankings change so much or how some courses are no longer even on the list. I’m sure there are others but for instance Cruden Bay went from #70 to not even being on the list. But then again what should we expect from a magazine that puts Paulina Gretzky on the cover and calls it a fitness issue.

  • Mostly agree. On the other hand, there are a few curious courses on the Golf mag list. Can anybody explain Ayodhya links? Trump Palm Beach? Is Golf mag heading down the same path as digest?

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