Old Town Club in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, ranks as the #27 Classic golf course in America on Golfweek's list, but doesn't appear on Golf Digest's list.

The Best List of the World's Best Golf Courses

This article originally appeared on GolfVacationInsider.com

What are the best golf courses you've ever played?

What's your criteria?

These are two questions that get debated at practically every 19th hole in the world on a given day, and they tend to heat up a few times each year when the big magazines release their lists of "best golf courses."

Just ask Golf Digest, whose recently released "America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses" set off quite the firestorm of criticism among my fellow architecture nerds enthusiasts.

(The other mags hear the same thing when they publish their lists.)

Even if you're a casual rankings observer, you've probably noticed these different lists don't tend to agree on much beyond, say, the top-5 courses.

So who has the best list of the best golf courses?

Our answer: none of them...or all of them.

It really depends how -- or if -- your criteria matches up with theirs.

The "Big Three" of Golf Course Rankings

Golf Digest. GOLF Magazine. Golfweek. What makes these lists most interesting is how they tend to disagree with one another.

But the reason for this is simple: again, their criteria are quite different.

Merion Golf Club's East Course is ranked #6 in America on Golf Digest's new "America's 100 Greatest Courses" list. (Sean Ogle/Breaking Eighty)

Golf Digest's rankings are generated by a network of about 1,000 well-traveled, low-handicap golfers, both hand-selected by architecture editor Ron Whitten and recommended by other panelists. Their criteria comprise seven categories:

  1. Shot Values - "How well do the holes pose a variety of risks and rewards and equally test length, accuracy and finesse?"
  2. Resistance To Scoring - "How difficult, while still being fair, is the course for a scratch player from the back tees?"
  3. Design Variety - "How varied are the holes in differing lengths, configurations, hazard placements, green shapes and green contours?"
  4. Memorability - "How well do the design features provide individuality to each hole yet a collective continuity to the entire 18?"
  5. Aesthetics - "How well do the scenic values of the course add to the pleasure of a round?"
  6. Conditioning - "How firm, fast and rolling were the fairways, how firm yet receptive were the greens and how true were the roll of putts on the day you played the course?"
  7. Ambience - "How well does the overall feel and atmosphere of the course reflect or uphold the traditional values of the game?"

Three important things to note from the Golf Digest criteria:

The first is that it tends to favor difficult courses a bit more than other rankings, as evidenced by the Shot Values and Resistance To Scoring categories.

Second, the categories of Memorability, Aesthetics and Ambience tend to be less focused on the nitty-gritty design of a given course than they are on the experience and mystique of a club. The presence of 13 courses by Tom Fazio on the top 100 (and another 18 on Golf Digest's "Next 100" list) help explain this, because Fazio has become the top choice of high-end modern clubs, many with real estate components and high-dollar memberships. Indeed, out of the "Big Three" golf course rankings, Fazio's work receives greatest representation in the Golf Digest list.

Finally, if you've studied the last few iterations of Golf Digest's rankings, you may have noticed the removal of a category from their criteria: Walkability.

What golfers will this list "speak to"? Golfers who appreciate the entire "experience" of golf, and who tend evaluate the "total package" of a club - the facilities, the service and the course itself. Bottom line: the course is important, but it's not everything.

Old Town Club in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, ranks as the #27 golf course in America on Golfweek's "Top 100 Classic" list, but doesn't appear on Golf Digest's list.

Golfweek, whose 700-person panel is administrated by Brad Klein (Full disclosure: I am a member of this panel), focuses primarily on the design of the golf course itself.

Another way they set themselves apart is that they publish separate lists for "Classic" (i.e. pre-1960) courses and "Modern" (i.e. 1961-present) Here are Golfweek's criteria:

  1. Routing - "How well the holes individually and collectively adhere to the land and to each other"
  2. Integrity of design (Classic) / Quality of shaping (Modern) - "The extent to which the existing holes either conform to the original design intent or, for those courses that have been renovated, extent to which the holes embody a character that is cohesive rather than fragmentary" / "The extent to which course construction creates design elements that fit in well and provide a consistent look or sensiblity"
  3. Overall land plan - "Ease of integration of all built-out elements, including course, clubhouse, real estate, roads and native topography and landforms"
  4. Greens and surrounds - "Interest, variety and playability of putting surfaces, collars, chipping areas and greenside bunkers"
  5. Variety and memorability of par 3s - "Differentiation of holes by length, club required, topography, look and angle of approach"
  6. Variety and memorability of par 4s - "Range of right-to-left and left-to-right drives and second shots required, as well as spread of length, topography and look of the holes"
  7. Variety and memorability of par 5s - "Variety of risk/reward opportunities on tee shot; how interesting the second shots are; variety of third shots required"
  8. Tree and landscape management - "Extent to which ornamentals, hardwoods, conifers and other flora enhance the design and playability of a course without overburdening it or threatening strategy and agronomy"
  9. Conditioning and ecology - "Overall quality of maintenance, discounting for short-term issues (weather or top dressing); extent of native areas; diversity of plant life and wildlife"
  10. "Walk in the park" test - "The sense of the place as worthy of spending four hours on it"

What golfers will this list "speak to"? Golfers whose primary goal, both close to home and in their wider travels, tends to be finding the most interesting golf courses possible, with less of a focus on the peripheral factors that may elevate the total "golf experience."

Also, because Golfweek doesn't have a category like "Resistance to Scoring," raw difficulty has less of a direct influence on the rankings. As a result, you are more likely to see some shorter, perhaps more "sporty" courses on the Golfweek list.

The GOLF Magazine rating system is the hardest to define, because it is essentially undefined.

Instead of hard-and-fast criteria, GOLF Magazine's Joe Passov asks the 100 extremely well-traveled panelists - which includes professional golfers, journalists, course architects and other hand-selected experts - he oversees to use their own judgment to assess courses.

A higher percentage of the GOLF Magazine panel includes people tied directly into the golf industry than other panels, lending something of an insider perspective to it.

Finally, the GOLF Magazine panel is a fraction of the size of the Golfweek and Golf Digest panels, so whereas the larger panels go for a more scientific and statistics-based approach, the GOLF Magazine panel goes somewhat more by feel.

"Although there are no set-in-stone criteria they must follow," Passov's description reads, "we have confidence in [the panelists'] confidence in their sense of what constitutes 'greatness' in a course." This open-endedness makes GOLF Magazine's list quite eclectic.

What golfers will this list "speak to"? Golfers who place particularly high emphasis on their peers who have played a huge number of courses around the world, and who have more or less "seen it all" in golf. Whereas both the Golf Digest and Golfweek panels include more "everyday" (though still knowledgeable and avid in their own right) golfers, GOLF Magazine's is driven entirely by utter experts. Another differentiating factor is that rather than using scores in different categories to assess courses, GOLF Magazine's list awards points to courses based on where they fall in each panelists' personal ranking, with the caveat that panelists are disallowed from voting for courses they own or have designed.

Other Ranking Systems...

The "big three" rankings are far from the only intriguing methods of evaluation of golf courses out there. One of my favorites is the Doak Scale (devised by architect Tom Doak and popularized by his Confidential Guide To Golf Courses) which rates golf courses on a simple scale from 0-10 as follows:

  • 0. "A course so contrived and unnatural that it may poison your mind, one I cannot recommend under any circumstances. Reserved for courses that wasted ridiculous sums of money in their construction, and probably shouldn’t have been built in the first place."
  • 1. "A very basic golf course, with clear architectural malpractice and/or poor maintenance. Avoid even if you’re desperate for a game."
  • 2. "A mediocre golf course with little or no architectural interest, but nothing really horrible. As my friend Dave Richards summed up: 'Play it in a scramble, and drink a lot of beer.'"
  • 3. "About the level of the average golf course in the world. (Since I don’t go out of my way to see average courses, my scale is deliberately skewed to split hairs among the good, the better and the best.)"
  • 4. "A modestly interesting course, with a couple of distinctive holes among the 18, or at least some scenic interest and decent golf. Also reserved for some very good courses that are much too short and narrow to provide sufficient challenge for accomplished golfers."
  • 5. "Well above the average golf course, but the middle of my scale. A good course to choose if you’re in the vicinity and looking for a game, but don’t spend another day away from home to see it, unless your home is in Alaska."
  • 6. "A very good course, definitely worth a game if you’re in town, but not necessarily worth a special trip to see. It shouldn’t disappoint you."
  • 7. "An excellent course, worth checking out if you get anywhere within 100 miles. You can expect to find soundly designed, interesting holes, good course conditioning and a pretty setting, if not necessarily anything unique to the world of golf."
  • 8. "One of the very best courses in its region (although there are more 8s in some places, and none in others), and worth a special trip to see. Could have some drawbacks, but these will clearly be spelled out, and it will make up for them with something really special in addition to the generally excellent layout."
  • 9. "An outstanding course—certainly one of the best in the world—with no weaknesses in regard to condition, length or poor holes. You should see this course sometime in your life."
  • 10. "Nearly perfect; if you skipped even one hole, you would miss something worth seeing. If you haven’t seen all the courses in this category, you don’t know how good golf architecture can get. Call your travel agent—immediately."

I like the Doak Scale a great deal because at the end of the day, the difference between the 99th-best course on a list and the 100th-best course on the same list is negligible.

Sure, you can argue over which of two "Doak 6" courses are "better" with your friends, but the Doak Scale acknowledges that these debates consist mostly in personal tastes.

Look for the Coore-and-Crenshaw-designed first course at Sand Valley to start appearing on major rankings lists soon.

A very basic but useful way to evaluate courses would be a trinary scale, which would go something like this:

  • -1: A course you would not care to play at all
  • 0: A course you've played once but would not care to play more than once in a great while
  • 1: A course you'd be glad to play multiple times in short order - either multiple times on a trip, every year on a recurring trip or, if it's local, one you'd be glad to have as your home course

This is the loosest method of all, but when I'm making recommendations of courses to play at a resort or destination, I'll often argue for or against certain courses based on this scale.

Golf Odyssey, whose own staff of expert golf travelers we know well, gives golf courses and resorts letter grades (pluses and minuses included) as part of its secret-shopper-type approach. With more than a quarter-century of experience backing up their evaluations, they're known as some of the most honest - brutally so, sometimes - golf travel gurus in the world. Here's how they define their ratings:

"As a rule of thumb, establishments in the “A” range are among the world’s finest and are not to be missed. Those in the “B” range still offer merit, but fall short of “must-go” status. Lower ratings may not meet the standards of our discerning readers."

Stringent? Absolutely. But that's why Golf Odyssey enjoys such a strong reputation among the world's best-traveled golfers.

Other outlets and publications lean on reader reviews. Most notably, this is how GolfAdvisor, which is associated with GolfNow and Golf Channel, operates. They take a similar approach to popular crowd-sourced rating sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp.

Bringing It All Together

Sweetgrass and the adjacent Island Resort & Casino earn Platinum status on our new "Best Golf and Casino Resorts" ranking.

When we debuted our GVI's Best method with our "Best Golf and Casino Resorts" list a few weeks ago, we tried something new.

With the help of a statistician, we factored all of these methods - and many more - into our ranking, producing three tiers: Platinum, Gold and Silver.

The result: what we feel is as close to an "objective" system as we could possibly compile, but without the granularity of a straight 1-100 (or in our case, 1-60)  ranking. All in all, we've had a great response to that first list; stay tuned for more to come.

Now, I want to hear from you:

  • What do you look for in evaluating the golf courses you've played?
  • When you're debating courses with your buddies, what do you argue over?
  • What do you make of these different golf course rankings and ratings systems?

Can't wait to hear your thoughts below.

Jan 17, 2017

Join the conversation

Post a comment 

Stevenhp's avatar
Stevenhp wrote at 2017-01-25 01:34:25+00:00:

I take these ratings with a grain of salt. I disregard the private courses as I don't run in those circles to get an invite. The most prestigious course on any list that I have played is Pebble Beach with my dad, yeas ago when it was half the price. It was more about being with him than with the course itself. My belief is that any course is a challenge and that playing only once isn't a real disadvantage. I also I fell that if a course is in good shape and well taken care of, that's just fine. These lists are just fillers.

Bryan's avatar
Bryan wrote at 2017-01-24 23:52:06+00:00:

I know this is off subject but who can play these courses? I've noticed that when the conditions get REAL the pros don't score well. I really would like to have an old pro stop by a couple of our home courses and have him give it a swing. The normal golfer who gives his cash up for this game plays cow pastures and want to be golf courses. When I visit any of these plush courses I score better than at home. Granted the pros are good but we play course conditions they do not see.

Donald McDonald's avatar
Donald McDonald wrote at 2017-01-24 18:44:40+00:00:

I sometimes wonder whether anyone involved in golf ever thinks outside the box. We constantly complain about slow play, but have a thousand rules that seemed designed specifically to slow up play and scare less expert golfers. And we follow the same criteria in designing and rating golf courses. A difficult course promotes poorer and slower golf in poor players. And since we have a lot more difficult courses than easy courses, we have more poor players than good. So I would like a system that guides me to intriguing and beautiful courses that do not "force" timid golf. Perhaps one category for 10 and under handicaps and one for everybody else. (I read something by one of the greats. He felt that golfers who learn how to swing drop to a 10 overnight. But from there on every stroke dropped gets progressively harder. That seems to still be true.)

Gholphnut's avatar
Gholphnut wrote at 2017-01-19 16:44:41+00:00:

Haven't seen the word "fun" or "humor" in any of the big-time ratings gamers' criteria. Design elements that force a whimsical smile from you are rare, memorable & worth much more to me than a nice set of sand traps! And fun is the whole point of playing !

Philly Mike S's avatar
Philly Mike S wrote at 2017-01-18 17:49:33+00:00:

Memorability is the top factor. The photo of the 11th hole at Merion was where I attended one of the best keg parties in high school. Merion's 7th hole is a great sledding area in the winter.

Ash's avatar
Ash wrote at 2017-01-18 15:30:46+00:00:

As a turfgrass professional I have been able to play many of America's best courses. In many, if not most of these rounds, I am not invited into the clubhouse, grill room, or locker room. For this reason I believe I and my Superintendent cohorts are well suited to honest course assessments. We aren't wowed by the fluff as we don't experience it. Take away the perks, rank a club based on 18 holes, and evaluate it. I have a distinctly different take on the Top 100...unobscured by ancillary trappings.

ChrisC's avatar
ChrisC wrote at 2017-01-18 12:44:24+00:00:

I suspect that many of the journalists are biased towards how well they are received at the course, the "perks" they get when playing it, and the lunch / dinner that is offered by the course. The actual standards of the top courses do not vary much and the amounts of money thrown at them for their maintenance and upkeep, really set the standard for how good they are.

Call me cynical but I suspect my opening comments have more to do with the "ranking" than most of your criteria listed above.

James's avatar
James wrote at 2017-01-18 03:15:39+00:00:

Having had the opportunity to play Sand Valley last fall it is ok but not even in top 10 in Wisconsin

Johnk's avatar
Johnk wrote at 2017-01-18 00:55:29+00:00:

You failed to mention with Golfweek that you rate all those categories but then you give it a rating totally independent of them and that is the only number that is used in determining its ranking.

Riverrat's avatar
Riverrat wrote at 2017-01-17 21:24:32+00:00:

If you want to have a rating for the 100 best courses that is fine, as an interesting exercise and fun reading. But to be most useful to the majority of people, the courses should be grouped into Private, Public and Resort courses. The rating criteria would probably be different for each category. All would have a consideration of the cost and is it worth the money.

Jimbob's avatar
Jimbob wrote at 2017-01-17 20:30:31+00:00:

The Pine Valley burger is outstanding. And the golf course is pretty good too.

Don's avatar
Don wrote at 2017-01-17 19:32:33+00:00:

I agree with Gene. Rankings are meaningless. Most of us don't have the money or game to play these courses the golf magazines list The only ranking I pay attention comes from a lifelong friend. He ranks courses on the ratio of best corse for the money. My home course, the LeSueur Country Club, wins in the private category. The Kukuiolono course in Kauai wins hands down in the public category. St Andrews wins hands down for the best golfing experience in the free world with Balibunnion second

Gean's avatar
Gean wrote at 2017-01-17 19:24:00+00:00:

Bill's Burger at Olympic Club is uniquely delicious--but non-conforming. (Google it to see why.)

Post round traditional burger at Koasati Pines in Louisiana is special; it's even more enjoyable if you have their pre-round breakfast.

Best Burger Ever: GALCO Country Club, LaMarque, Texas ( circa 1965).

Larry's avatar
Larry wrote at 2017-01-17 19:16:38+00:00:

Hart, what in the world is your problem with Wade Hampton ? Have you ever played it?

Gean's avatar
Gean wrote at 2017-01-17 18:55:37+00:00:

GALCO Country Club in LaMarque, Texas circa 1965.

More recently, Koasati Pines in Kinder, Louisiana. Have their wonderful breakfast pre-round!

Also, Bill's Burger mid-round at Olympic Club is a unique and delicious experience. You can google it to better understand. Unfortunately, it doesn't qualify in my ranking system because it is non-conforming

Cobus Erasmus's avatar
Cobus Erasmus wrote at 2017-01-17 18:39:54+00:00:

Each golfer will rate a course differently on different merits, views and values. Some will prefer links and other a standard tree paradise with beautiful gardens etc. Theres are coastal and inland courses in sub tropic and other in highveld origins. Various up to standard courses will have fans and the question is just how many prefer what and which. Some courses will just be imbedded in your memory for ever for the right reasons!

Don's avatar
Don wrote at 2017-01-17 18:36:27+00:00:

Like everything else, politics and reputation play a role in the rating systems. To me there are a plethora of courses I would want to play once but would not choose to play them every day. These would include many of the top rated courses that just would not lend themselves to daily play.

Because there are golf courses on some of the world's best real estate, there are numerous ones where the beauty of the course is a distraction from the golf itself.

Weather can influence the rating of a course. Can you play year round or is it only on those bluebird sky days that one truly gets to appreciate all its magnificence?

Lastly, there are courses that meet all criteria but the membership and archaic rules would make it undesirable to play there regularly.

Nick(THG) Karnazes's avatar
Nick(THG) Karnazes wrote at 2017-01-17 18:33:14+00:00:

Play the Pride of the Pacific, San Clemente municipal .

Richard's avatar
Richard wrote at 2017-01-17 18:20:08+00:00:

For me # 1 criteria is conditioning. There´s no point in playing a beautifull golf course with terrible fairways and greens.#2 is the challenge and the demand for a variaty os shots.#3 Beauty of the course.

Now when a ranking includes in the top ten courses one that has been closed for a year, it makes it dificult to believe in the overall evaluation.

Tim Gavrich's avatar
Tim Gavrich wrote at 2017-01-17 17:48:51+00:00:

Gean--<br/> I love it! What's the best cheeseburger you've had at a golf course?<br/> --Tim

Gean's avatar
Gean wrote at 2017-01-17 17:37:39+00:00:

Every golf course I have played is a better course than I am golfer.

But, I know a great cheeseburger when I taste one: big and greasy. The cheeseburger experience should be included in any and every course rating system.

Doug Roberts's avatar
Doug Roberts wrote at 2017-01-17 17:18:48+00:00:

I am also a rater. A few circumstances tend to prioritize my ratings more than some raters. How did I play. Who did I play with. The esthetics. I did have the good fortune to play Pine Valley and Merion in the same week. Had the multiple club champ gal of Merion as my host and I actually enjoyed and rate Merion higher. My caddie at Pine Valley missclubed me several times....Ugh. Very difficult to figure out yardages there. A few disconnects are to be expected. There are so many fabulous courses. When I step on a course and 500 raters have said it is such and such....That is my starting point and it won't move dramatically from that. The biggest difference I have was Wolf Creek...Doak gave it a zero. I loved it. Makes for good 19 the hole chatter...ha

Bcs's avatar
Bcs wrote at 2017-01-17 17:18:16+00:00:

When I look back at the great courses I have played it really comsmdown to how many truly memorable holes does a course have. I think about my all time favorite 18 holes and if a course do sn't have a representative on that list th n it is no bettr than a runner up. Think about # 13 at Augusta, number 11 at Merion, numbr 4 at Myopia, number 18 at Balybunion, number 17'at the country club brookline, and holes i haven't played yet, like the par 3 at Cypree or 18 at Pebble

These holesare the lasting memoriesmore than the total course experience or the showers in the mens locker room, although I have installed rain showers in myhome due to that experience at Merion

Jay Hare's avatar
Jay Hare wrote at 2017-01-17 16:25:10+00:00:

There are no 100 BEST courses. There are 100 hardest 100 most scenic,100 you want to play every day etc. As above some rate on history and some on difficulty of shots there can never be a best painting or music or golf course. The rankings of the courses can be purchased by flying raters around the country and world to see the BEST course in Tunesia or Fargo,S.D. Is the Mona Lisa the best art or is a grandchild's scribble?

Bruce's avatar
Bruce wrote at 2017-01-17 16:20:25+00:00:

The comments are meaningless, especially when it refers to a golf course that the average player can never get to play on.

Ed's avatar
Ed wrote at 2017-01-17 16:20:04+00:00:

Not everyone can play on most of the courses because they are private. Even if you are a member of a private course, they often don't have recipricals. I also have played great courses that never seem to be mentioned, or some that are mentioned and are not nearly as nice as others in their area. I often wonder if these so called raters actually play every course, or only the ones that seem to advertise in their particular magazine.

Richard Carle's avatar
Richard Carle wrote at 2017-01-17 16:18:25+00:00:

It has become a cultural phenomenon, making lists. For the golfers among the top 1/10% who own more than half of everything it gives them an itinerary. Wish I could tag along! The best course in the world for me is my local muni because I can be there in 10 minutes and leave with money still in my wallet, the coffee is free in the morning, and no one is trying to impress anyone.

Terry Crow's avatar
Terry Crow wrote at 2017-01-17 16:06:29+00:00:

The rankings seem to leave the fun element out of the equation. If a golf course is too hard from the appropriate tees, then I don't care if the service is good, the course is beautiful, etc. However, every year I go through the lists and check off those that I have played.

Greg Campbell's avatar
Greg Campbell wrote at 2017-01-17 16:04:44+00:00:

For me, it comes down to Challenge, Variety, Aesthetics, and Conditioning

Peter Hoff's avatar
Peter Hoff wrote at 2017-01-17 15:48:49+00:00:

"Ranking Courses" is a nice parlor game, but not much more--except perhaps for the "trinary" scale that at least poses the question, would I go out of my way to play it again? It is especially of little purpose when we get down to splitting hairs between, say, #16 and #18. The lists that include courses so inaccessible financially and socially that people like me, enthusiastic as we are, will never set foot on them, are particularly useless. It is fun to read, imagine, and compare our own take on those courses we have been lucky enough to play. And all the attempts to parse the elements of "greatness" are interesting intellectual exercises. Keep publishing the lists, but "controversy??" The world is too full of real controversies to get worked up over these.

Jim Byrne's avatar
Jim Byrne wrote at 2017-01-17 15:20:39+00:00:

Who cares? The only relevance is bragging rights for the members. I have had an opportunity to play many elite courses and of the courses played, Merion would be my favorite; reason being, the historical significance of the Bobby Jones grand slam win. To walk up those rickety stairs to the men's locker room and to sit in either the Bobby Jones or Ben Hogan alcoves is a thrill to say nothing about those circular overhead showers. All 100 courses are great insofar as maintenance and condition are concerned and some are more difficult than others but it'a the history and nostalgia that set the great courses apart from the good courses.

Hart Huffines's avatar
Hart Huffines wrote at 2017-01-17 15:13:58+00:00:

Well written article! Old Town is a huge omission for Golf Digest and I can't understand their placement of Wade Hampton. Political?

Tim Gavrich

Senior Writer

Tim Gavrich is a Senior Writer for Golf Advisor and the Managing Editor of the Golf Vacation Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @TimGavrich and on Instagram @TimGavrich.