What drives bad golf course reviews?

What ruins a round of golf?

It can be as simple as a chatty or slow partner. Sometimes the course experience itself doesn't deliver.

With more than 500,000 total reviews, Golf Advisor has the largest collection of course reviews from golfers. The main difference between our site compared to other media outlets' rankings is that while theirs are predominantly focused on the course design, your review data allows us to see a larger snapshot that factors in how the paying golfer feels about the total experience, from check-in at the bag drop to the 19th hole.

Analyzing this data, we continue to learn what golfers -- who not only paid to play but found the time to get away -- find most important.

Some courses seem to have figured out golfers better than others. By reading our best-of lists, and particularly our annual Top 50, we can see which courses are most consistently meeting and exceeding golfer expectations.

We often highlight the best golf courses around the world, according to your reviews. But for this article, we thought we'd look at what you don't like as a way of providing a glimpse into what courses should focus on.

In the following charts, we want to answer a few questions:

Which subcategory is the toughest to receive a good rating?

Which part of the golf course experience is most important?

Can one element single-handedly drag down the total experience?

I pulled ratings details for all reviews in 2016 up to Aug. 16 (just shy of 60,000 reviews) to see if we can identify some answers to these questions.

* Editor's note: We began charting "Course Layout" at the beginning of 2016. Also, while subcategory ratings are optional, the vast majority of raters fill them all out. (Off-course amenities is the least-used, appearing in 91 percent of reviews.)

For starters, I wanted to find out which of our six subcategories golfers score the toughest. Here is each subcategory's average star rating, followed by a breakdown of their star ratings details:

Average subcategory ratings
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The lowest average score is for Off-course amenities, while Pace of play has the highest percentage of 1-star reviews, but Course conditions receive the most 1- and 2-star ratings of any subcategory. But, as we'll see later, these subcategories impact the Overall score differently.

Now, let's see which subcategory is most likely to cause a poor Overall rating. Filtering for 1- and 2-star overall ratings only, we can see a hint of which subcategories are dragging down a review's overall score:

1- and 2-stars overall
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Course conditions and Value are the two greatest indicators of a low Overall score. This makes sense, as it seems the strong majority of underwhelmed golfers in our reviews tend to call out bad course conditions or felt like they didn't get their money's worth. As you'd expect, these two categories follow each other pretty closely. 61 percent of poor course condition reviews also scored poor value.

How poor subcategories affect the overall rating

Another way of looking at this data is to apply the inverse to determine how a bad subcategory rating can affect the review's overall rating. So in these pie charts, we filtered out our subcategory 1- and 2-star reviews to determine its impact on its overall scores:

How overall rating is affected by subcategories
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When looking at the data from this angle, subpar value ratings make it extremely difficult for a course to receive a decent overall rating. Over 73 percent of reviews with poor value ratings lead to a 1- or 2-star overall star rating. Course Layout is next with 71 percent and then conditions at 66 percent. Compare that to Off-course amenities (46 percent) and Pace of play (50 percent).

It's also worth mentioning to the folks running the golf shop that if their friendliness isn't acceptable, there is just a 2-percent chance of receiving a 5-star overall review.

The verdict: What drives bad reviews?

Based on the data, we can answer the three questions asked at the top of the article as such:

Which subcategory is the toughest to receive a good rating?

The lowest average rating is Off-course amenities among all reviews. But more golfers rate Course conditions 1- or 2-stars than any other subcategory. Off-course amenities are more likely to be rated a 3-star (average) than conditions, which drags down its total average below conditions. But while Off-course amenities are scored the lowest on average, courses shouldn't worry too much, because its impact on the overall rating is very low. Nearly 25 percent of poor Off-course amenities ratings still gave the Overall experience 4 or 5 stars.

Which part of the golf course experience is most important?

Course conditions drag down the overall score more than any other subcategory. But course conditions and value correlate pretty closely. If a golfer is unhappy with either, the course has just a 5 percent chance to receive 4- or 5-stars Overall.

The Pace of play results are interesting: While we see no shortage of complaints about slow play at Golf Advisor, receiving more 1-star reviews than anything else, golfers appear to be willing to give the course a pass on the Overall more than conditions or value. A course still has a 28 percent chance of receiving a 4- or 5-star review in spite of slow play, which is far greater than conditions, value and layout.

Can an element single-handily drag down the total experience?

While Course layout is the easiest subcategory in which to receive a good score, if the layout receives a poor rating, the Overall will almost certainly follow suit. But Course conditions can drag the layout score down. Only 12 percent of reviews with poor layout scores had 4- or 5-star conditioning scores. (Inversely, 44 percent of reviews with poor condition ratings still managed 4- or 5-star course layout ratings.)

What can golf courses do?

Course layout, while a strong indicator of whether the golfer will be happy or not, is a much less flexible category that normally requires a pretty heavy investment to improve. But courses should focus on conditions, or, if that doesn't work, find a price point that provides golfers a feeling of receiving great value.

But if course management provides added attention to staff friendliness, they may be able to nudge some poor or average reviews up to good or excellent. It may be that simple.

We're curious which subcategories you find most important during your round, and if there are any "deal breakers" in particular that can ruin the experience overall. You can tweet us @GolfAdvisor, or tell us in the comments below.

Brandon Tucker is the Sr. Managing Editor for Golf Advisor. Prior to the launch of Golf Advisor in 2014, he was the managing editor for Golf Channel Digital's Courses & Travel. To date, his golf travels have taken him to over two dozen countries and nearly 600 golf courses worldwide. While he's played some of the most prestigious courses in the world, Tucker's favorite way to play the game is on a great muni in under three hours. Follow Brandon on Twitter at @BrandonTucker and on Instagram at BrandonTuckerGA.
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Commented on

These are great infographs!

Commented on

I'd like to see more of a range, especially for overall rating. It is hard to put a pretty good course at a 4 or a 5 if you've played some really nice courses and rates them as 4 or 5's. Though a course like say the New Course at Grand Cypress in Orlando is a cool course and and fun to play how do you give it a high grade when Bethpage black and Kiawah are your 5s

Commented on

I agree.  I've played Pebble Beach - once.  That's a 5 star course. If that's my benchmark, the local muni isn't getting 4 stars.

Commented on

I think since these are consumer reviews, a lot of golfers tend to rate the course based on their expectations, so a muni can still get five stars if it was flawless for the price. thanks for the feedback. 

Commented on

I think you can differentiate the ratings between a "good" and "great" course in the subcategories, and particularly in "Course Layout" which we added this year. But thanks for the feedback, the more ways we continue to find separation the more useful the site will be for the golfer. 

Commented on

I believe that if you can score well at a course you will over look many of the short comings of a course..what drives scoring up or down..pace of play..course conditions..if you are standing and waiting on each and every shot, it is hard to stay loose and get into a groove, so on course marshals can help pace of play....also if the conditions of the course make it so hard you cant post a decent score you will have an unfavorable experience..this can affect pace of play..so I believe these 2 are tied together..staff contributes to over all experience as well..if you get into a beef with the person behind the counter at check in..you will be thinking of that your whole round..

Commented on

I think these categories need to be weighted...maybe by type of course (muni, country club, resort, etc.) price range, etc. and maybe by category of golfer, men, women, handicap, etc.  If a course layout is tough for say, a high handicapper, they need to move to an easier layout.  Weaker golfers are frustrated by course layouts outside their skill sets and better golfers are frustrated by slow play.  

I have played golf for over 50 years and slow play is the number one complaint I have heard.  That dovetails with people who don't play because it takes 5 1/2 hours to play a round.  Of course, for everyone who is frustrated by slow play, there is someone holding them up that is blaming the course layout instead of themselves. 

I know it is tough for courses.  With the downturn in playership,  most courses wont enforce pace-of-play because they don't want to miss out on any rounds.  And, if they do, the slow players complain that staff isn't friendly because they were asked to be courteous and speed up their play!

Commented on

Thanks for the feedback, I agree that handicap and age and gender, etc. could play a factor. I will look deeper at this data in my next installment and see if we see any difference. 

Commented on

I'd think we'd see some delta if you could provide a type of split based on handicaps. I see some courses I'd routinely describe as "pedestrian and just ok" receive glowing reviews from casual golfers. I'll readily admit there's no single solution (and people lie about handicaps), but I'd much rather hear from a 5 handicap than a 25.

Commented on

I agree. I will look at this for the next installment. Thanks for the feedback. 

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What drives bad golf course reviews?
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