The difficulty with the classification of golf courses

There are few things in sports that excite people more than the publication of ranking lists of the top 100 courses. Whether it’s ticking off places they’ve played, planning their next golf getaway, or simply being used as a talking point in next weekend’s fourball – rankings get people talking. However, since the beginning of these listings, there have been huge inconsistencies between where the courses are placed and, in some cases, whether or not they are listed. In the UK alone, Royal County Down, Sunflower (Ailsa), St. Andrews (former)and Royal St. Georges have all topped the ranking lists of various publications over the past few years, showing how difficult it is to choose the “best” course – let alone 99 others in a consistent order.

Join us as we dive deeper into the difficulty of ranking golf courses and take a look at some of the decisions panels have to make along the way.

Time and travel

The first problem is arguably the most obvious and important. How do you play enough courses to give a full and fair assessment of each? Often posts looking to visit courses as part of a rankings review will try to sneak in a few rounds on the same day – although it’s safe to say that this might not give enough time to fully absorb everything. what the club has to offer. But even that means you could be out for six months at a time to cover all potential inclusions. As a result, most publications recruit a team, or panel, of reviewers, perhaps dividing up by location to tackle courses in their own regions. However, this can come with its own differences…


Let’s say Person A makes the ranking lists for the North West of England and proclaims that Royal Birkdale is the best in the region, arguing that it is also probably the best in the country. Meanwhile, their Northern Irish colleague says the same for Royal County Down. How do you decide between the two? Inevitably, it will take an editor or lead panelist to make that final decision – but surely they have their own biases too? One of the things that makes golf course rankings such a hot topic is their subjectivity, creating the opportunity for fierce debate. It would be foolish to think that this didn’t extend to those who made the list in the first place!

Types of courses

Speaking of subjectivity – how do you rate courses that are wildly different in character from each other. royal lytham is arguably the toughest course in England. Surrounded by houses, and with no clear and obvious view of the sea, it’s far from picturesque. However, it is also potentially one of the best-designed links courses on the planet, always causing trouble for the world’s best when they return for The Open. Meanwhile St. George’s Hill in Surrey is one of the most beautiful places to practice this sport. A castle for a clubhouse, sheltered from the hustle and bustle, the course is lined with heather and meanders wonderfully through the woods. These are two totally different golf experiences, and you’ll likely find the golfing public as a whole entirely split 50/50 on which they would rather play! Should the evaluator take the environment into account? Or just the 18 holes themselves? This is one of the hottest debates surrounding the Top 100 lists.

Previous ranking and current policy

One of the biggest dilemmas faced by panels is how to separate a golf course’s history from its current place in the rankings, or should that also be considered? It is extremely difficult to justify why a course that has always been a Top 10 mainstay and carries a big name has suddenly slipped down the list. After all, these courses now charge the green fees of a Top 10 site, and visitors have pre-booked their courses a year in advance! As such, you tend to see very little movement from some of the courses at the higher end of the ranking lists, perhaps trading a spot or two here and there; but ultimately creating a slightly closed club that can be difficult to break into, no matter how much improvement a run down the ladder brings.

Relative to this point; royal liverpool currently ranks the lowest of the courses on the Open rotation, although it is still firmly entrenched in the Top 50 in the UK and Ireland. Don’t be surprised to see it move up a few places from 2023, having then hosted golf’s oldest major – raising awareness among golfers of its history in the sport and creating increased demand for tee times. Especially if Tiger Woods or Rory McIlroy repeat Hoylake’s past exploits! As with everything in life, there is inevitably a recency bias at play when compiling these lists.

But how clean was the locker room?

One of the biggest questions leaderboards have to wrestle with is what to factor in their journey. Playing at dusk or early morning when the clubhouse is closed will present a different experience than being tasted by the over-enthusiastic secretary as he seeks to improve his club’s position. But should this play a role in the composition of the lists? How about the friendliness of the Pro Shop staff? The availability of shooting bullets? The size of the car park? The quality of the Club Sandwich? All of these things play a role in how the general golfer will feel once they leave the gates – but whether or not they should influence a venue’s position in the ranking lists is up for debate. ongoing, and one of the main explanations for some of the differences. between lists of different publications. It could also be disputed that beating your handicap on a glorious summer day could also have an effect on your opinion of a course…

So what’s the best way to do it?

There is no one “best” way to compile a list. Whether a list wishes to consider a club’s off-course equipment depends on the panel. Likewise, hosting something like The Open adds gravitas. And while it won’t improve hole play, the golfer may feel like they know the site better before arriving, making for a more enjoyable day. Given the scale of the task, dividing the work of course rankings among a panel is also a very sensible solution, allowing the publication to have visited all sites in the last 12 months or so.

But with all of these things, the most important thing is to be honest with the public. Explain the methodology, let them know what was included in the review, add what outside influences may have come into play (such as the recent renovation of the club’s greens before a major event). Then let the audience discuss it for themselves.

After all, as has long been proven with these lists, there will never be a consensus on the best course in the UK, Europe, the world etc.

Although it’s probably Royal County Down.

Michael C. Ford