The more great golf courses I play, the more I realise the inherent challenge, and potential folly, in trying to rank courses. I think that the approach made famous by Tom Doak (a variation of which I use on this site) of grouping them into categories can work. However, it is only ever going to be a debate starter, not a debate ender.
In the last few weeks there have been 3 new Top 100s of note published. Golf Monthly has released its UK and Ireland Top 100 for 2019/20, National Club Golfer launched its inaugural Scottish Top 100 and Irish Golfer Magazine gave us their top Irish Courses for 2019.
I’ll kick off today with some thoughts about the Golf Monthly list and follow up with the NCG Scottish Top 100 in the next couple of days.
The biannual Golf Monthly list is made up according to raters’ scores over a range of attributes. Quality of test and design is worth 35% of the overall score, presentation and conditioning 30%, visual appeal 15%, club facilities 10% and overall visitor experience 10%. This definitely skews the list towards well presented, visitor-friendly courses rather than producing a more architecturally-based list.
The 2017/18 incarnation of the list was the first to exclude truly private courses - if you can only play it with a member then the course isn’t included. This means that the likes of Loch Lomond, Wentworth and Queenwood are all knocked out. They also appear to have overlooked Tom Doak’s Renaissance Course even though there you can take advantage of a one-off ‘experience’ and Skibo Castle which is available for very limited green fee play now. I think this undermines the list a little. It should either be re-titled ‘The UK and Ireland Top 100 courses you can play’ or they should include all the courses. Otherwise, the ranking simply doesn’t do what it says it does.
Turnberry has held on to the number 1 slot it took last time. Given the factors they take into account that probably isn’t a massive surprise. It is spectacular, immaculate and has great facilities.
While there was plenty of love for Turnberry, when I asked the question of my Twitter followers Royal County Down was the clear favourite among the 200+ who voted. RCD is down 1 place to position 4 in the Golf Monthly list. Personally, I still think this is too high. I didn’t visit it in the best circumstances (I was young and my hangover was horrendous) but the number of blind shots and punishment for going off line was just too much for me. Maybe I need a return visit?!
There are a couple of real stand-outs on this list compared to other similar efforts. Here are some notable courses which are ranked higher by Golf Monthly than their average position in the equivalent Golf World and top100golfcourses.com list-
Royal Liverpool (Golf Monthly ranks it 14th versus an average of 37th by others)
Old Head (31 v 65)
Hankley Common (33 v 62)
Hillside (34 v 57)
Tralee (48 v 79)
Walton Heath New (51 v 87)
Gleneagles Queen’s (55 v 83)
Druids Glen (77 v NA)
If you want to see the problem that the Golf Monthly rating system can have, then look no further than the ranking of the well-conditioned, spectacularly set, US-visitor-friendly, Old Head. Personally, I struggle with it even having a place in the top 100 because of the quality of the layout.
So, what about the other way? Here are the courses Golf Monthly under-rates versus its peers -
I have played four of those courses and three of them would probably make my personal favourite top 10. Lahinch is ranked 29th in the World in my ‘Ultimate Top 10’ and yet much lower in the Golf Monthly list which is just for the UK & Ireland. The latest Irish Golf Magazine rating has it as number 3 in the country and I think that is utterly justified. The course is a sheer delight and a joy to experience. Maybe the exposure (and, no doubt, the love) it will get when the Irish Open is there later this year will give it a boost but it really shouldn’t take that.
I have a massive gap in my Scottish CV having not played Cruden Bay, but Golf Monthly seems to be way out of step with the rest of the golfing world with their ranking. It is ranked similarly in Golf Monthly (71) to its ranking in my Ultimate World Top 10 (75). I need to get there to make up my own mind.
Probably the biggest surprise for most people I have spoken to on the subject has been the inclusion of Adare Manor. This redesign of this Irish course by Tom Fazio has debuted as the 25th best golf course in the UK and Ireland. That is an amazing ranking and by that reckoning it would probably make it a world top 100 course now. Very few inland courses in the UK have achieved that status - and none that have been created in the last 100 years.
Without a doubt the press from those who have played it has been great - it is said already to be ‘Ryder Cup ready’ with conditioning second to none on these shores - but can it really justify such a lofty position? Well, the Irish Golfer magazine has just placed it in position 3 in Ireland (above Royal County Down!) so maybe there’s something in it. The marketing impact of such a ranking has definitely paid off as I’m taking Mrs UKGolfGuy to experience the hotel for our wedding anniversary next year - she can hardly wait!
However, this list also corrects some things that I think were a little out of sync in the last outing. Ballybunion has moved down 7 places to 22 (it started in 6th place in 2009) and for me it may have some way to go yet. I simply found parts of it too much of a slog to enjoy. Maybe Martin Ebert’s work, discussed in Golf Monthly, will help in that respect.
I’ve not heard of a golfer yet who doesn’t love Castle Stuart and it continues its ascent up the rankings, to number 19. Another consistent riser has been Royal Dornoch. When the list debuted in 2009 it came in at number 19, but 7th feels a much better position. These are all sensible moves. I still think that placing Sunningdale New above the Old is a little quirky but they both deserve to be ranked as highly as they are.
I should also say the the quality of research in Golf Monthly’s list and the accompanying comments are first class. It’s easy to throw rocks at a ranking list but in this list you can read a good summary of the course (although maybe a little more critique would be welcome in places) as well as comments on what has changed since the last edition and what changes are to come.
I think the list could still be improved significantly by including all UK and Irish courses again and giving greater weighting to the course architecture. That said, having played Turnberry this summer, I can see that it does have a good claim to be the best of the lot. I just hope they sort out the Old Head versus Lahinch issue next time!!