The Rankings Game

This weekend, I was approached by our club president asking about how we could get one of our courses to be considered (more favorably) by the various course rankings.  It made me recall the first version of this post from 2014 and while I don’t typically “recycle” posts, I thought it appropriate in this case.

​Golf course rankings are an important element in the ever competitive golf industry and given their subjective nature, I thought it would be interesting to explore the process and elements of the major course ranking sources, and most importantly, how you can make them work for your club or course.

The three major sources of course rankings are:

  • Golf Digest: “100 Greatest”
  • Golf Magazine: “Top 100”
  • Golfweek: “Golfweek’s Best”

There are others, but we’ll focus on these. As a Golf Digest Panelist for 10 years in the 1990’s and a Golfweek Rater since 2000, I’ve learned that not only are course rankings subjective but also there are some differences in how each magazine develops its rankings.

Who are the raters?

Each publication has a different group of raters. Golf Digest’s panel is made up primarily of lower handicap amateurs, some professionals and golf industry people. Golf Magazine’s panel comprises mostly golf professionals (including many PGA Tour players), golf writers and even some architects. The Golfweek group is generally made up of a cross-section of golfers, including low and high handicap, some golf industry people and attempts to replicate the golfing population.

What do these ratings/rankings mean? Some years ago, I was asked by a public relations consultant if I could provide a list of panelists, and he said there would be good money in it for me. Needless to say, I declined but it made me realize that some courses depend on the recognition ratings provide for marketing their facility. While there are many factors, such as hosting an event, who the architect was, personal service, playing conditions and of course, location that contribute to any club’s success, many consider ratings important.

Generally, the rating process involves a panelist visiting and playing the course and then completing an online form which (depending on the publication) asks the panelist to rate each of  the following components and then provide an overall rating for the course:

  • Routing
  • Aesthetics
  • Memorability
  • Conditioning
  • “Walk in the Park”
  • Difficulty
  • Tradition
  • Par 3’s, 4’s and 5’s
  • Shot Values
  • Features

Typically, if you’ve designed or own a course, you are prohibited from rating for that course (for obvious reasons).

No doubt, the course rating game is subjective. What’s better? Merion or Oakmont? That’s like asking if caramel is tastier than butterscotch. There’s certainly a whole lot of personal taste involved, and many raters openly admit that how their game is on any given day influences how they perceive a particular course. I suppose that can’t be completely avoided, but I know I try to wait a few days to complete my ratings in order to let the course “sink in” and see how much I remember.

I’ll often observe how my playing partners enjoy the course, and when my boys were small, I paid particular attention to how the course played for those who can’t hit the ball very far. Now when I play with them, I get to watch how the course plays for players who can hit it a mile. Some raters are very serious and take detailed notes while playing, others simply play the course and take it in visually, along with the experience. Many things can (though not all should) influence a rater’s experience. There are raters who will only visit courses where they aren’t charged a fee and others who expect to be offered food and drink (they don’t last long). Certainly, any golf experience can be influenced by pace of play, the nature of the staff and how they’re treated and even the weather on a particular day.  Course conditioning is one of the elements and I’ve always thought that was a problem.  All types of things can impact course condition, such as heat, cold, rain and even if the course was recently aerified.  Perfect conditions don’t make the course better and the best courses can be fun even if the conditions are less than ideal.  Yes, we all like pristine turf but it’s not always possible.

If I owned a golf course, the first thing I’d want to do is make sure that raters know about your course, and if private (and you want raters) that you welcome raters. Avoid at all costs offering food and drink and any other perks, as that may sour some raters.

How (or not) to charge raters is a tough one.  Many raters go out of their way to visit courses and the cost of travel can be expensive. Many clubs are running a business and need to consider the cost vs. benefit of accommodating panelists. Does being recognized provide the course/club with a marketing benefit?  Some courses “comp” raters while others charge a reduced fee.  Some courses charge the full rate and others require a cart or caddy fee.  Some private clubs welcome raters while others require that they be the guest of a member.  It’s important to have a policy that is consistent with the club’s goals and followed both in accommodating raters and in learning what you can from it. The following are some things courses and clubs can consider when playing the rankings game:

Hosting policy

  • Will fees be charged?
  • Can Raters bring partners?
  • Will club staff/members be required to accompany raters?
  • Is Rater ID required?
  • Will the club provide materials beforehand telling the club’s “story”?

Debrief the rater afterward

  • Ask them what they thought of the course (not their vote or rating)
  • Ask them what they think can be better
  • Ask how you can get more raters to your course (if you want them)

The ranking of golf courses is pretty subjective. As a club/course owner you should have objectives established and understand which publications ratings are relevant to you and which ones are more prominent in the marketplace. There are a variety of classifications, such as Classic and Modern, Private and Daily Fee and a number of “specialty” classes like resort, best in state and even college/university courses. Know which game you want to play and make it your business to understand it. The more you learn, the more you can make the rankings work for your facility.