Don’t Put Your Trust in Course Rankings

It’s fun to read course reviews and rankings. When done well, they offer valuable insights and can point you toward your next golf vacation. But remember, they’re not infallible, and the best judge of any course’s merits is always you.


(Last updated February 2019.)

I don’t take course reviews and rankings too seriously.

I’ve met enough of my fellow golf writers to know that very few have done much reading about the origins and evolution of golf course architecture, topics that would seemingly be a prerequisite of the occupation. The subtle nuances of an artfully molded bunker or, say, a fairway painstakingly carved to point the golfer toward a distant mountain peak, goes unappreciated by most. In my experience, golf course critiques are highly subjective and, all too often, highly suspect.

Even among golf writers of wide experience, there is often disagreement about the merits of a particular course or an individual hole.

North Berwick Golf Club 16th Hole (Image: North Berwick Golf Club)

Brilliant or a dud? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder
at North Berwick’s 16th hole. (Image: North Berwick Golf Club)

In the spring of 2013, I played Scotland’s famous West Links at North Berwick Golf Club in the company of a group of mostly American writers. The West Links is home to one of golf’s most seminal holes, the 15th, known as Redan. Copied by golf architects around the world, this long par three plays to a plateau green that is set at an angle to the line of play and guarded by a deep bunker at the front left.

But the hole that sparked a heated clubhouse debate after our round was the 16th, known as Gate, a par four featuring a raised and extraordinarily narrow green dissected by a deep-sided gully. The day we played, the pin was evilly placed at the gully’s edge, and many of us, myself included, ruined our scores by taking two or more putts up and back down the hill.

A highly regarded former editor of a national golf magazine weighed in by calling Gate the stupidest hole he had ever played. Meanwhile, the architecture editor of another national golf publication thought it brilliant, saying that golf needed many more such eccentrically memorable holes.

I could appreciate both sides of the argument. Anything so out of the ordinary is bound to be polarizing.

But sometimes I can’t help shaking my head in wonder at the opinions of other writers. Not long after that Scotland trip, a well-known writer and I teed it up at the Dormie Club in Pinehurst, North Carolina. Designed by the acclaimed design team of Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore, who at the time were in the news for their masterful re-do of Pinehurst No. 2, the Dormie Club is, at least to my mind, a minimalist masterwork that plays across a thrilling Carolina sandhills landscape of rolling and wooded terrain. I don’t know if Crenshaw and Coore have ever done finer work.

“I would never play that course again,” my well-travelled partner said with a shrug. “I guess it just doesn’t suit my eye.”

Like I said, I don’t put much store in most golf course reviews and rankings—and neither should you.