The Best List of the World's Best Golf Courses

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 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.

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.

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.

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

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.

Tim Gavrich is a Senior Writer for Golf Advisor. Follow him on Twitter @TimGavrich and on Instagram @TimGavrich.
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Commented on

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.

Commented on

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.

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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.)

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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 !

Commented on

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.

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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.

Commented on

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

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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.

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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.

Commented on

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.

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