Golf‘s latest ranking of the top 100 golf courses in the world has caused a stir, and it hasn’t even been published yet. David Jones, aka “UK Golf Guy,” got a hold of the list and posted it on his social media channels, complete with a nifty graphic bearing his own logo. I doubt Golf‘s editors were thrilled.
Jones, who operates a UK-based golf-travel outfit, also wrote a lengthy and insightful analysis of the ranking. He notes that the Golf panel seems to like courses located in the U.S. and Great Britain, designs by Tom Doak and Coore & Crenshaw, and classic seaside links—especially ones that haven’t been monkeyed with by the R&A and Mackenzie & Ebert. He comments skeptically on the high ratings of some very new courses, including the not-yet-open Point Hardy Golf Club at Cabot St. Lucia. Finally, he laments the descent of Cape Wickham Golf Links, which appeared at No. 70 in Golf‘s last world ranking but has now dropped out of the top 100.
The latter two points apparently resonated with Darius Oliver, a golf-travel writer and co-designer of Cape Wickham. In a scorched-earth blog post on his Planet Golf website, Oliver describes Golf‘s list as “the magazine ranking with the most professionally, and personally, conflicted panelists.” He mentions that Ran Morrissett, the head of the ranking panel, was an “initial investor in the Cabot business” and is a “consultant on one of their projects in Florida.” (Cabot is the development company behind Point Hardy as well as Cabot Cliffs and Cabot Links, Nos. 52 and 79, respectively.) Oliver also asserts that Morrissett is a “cheerleader (or promoter)” for the architect Tom Doak, who helmed the Golf ranking in the 1980s and 90s, currently serves as a panelist, and has eight designs in the top 75.
Oliver reserves special ire for Golf‘s omission of Cape Wickham, which he and Mike DeVries designed in 2015. “The absence of Cape Wickham from a World Top 100 ranking hurts that list’s credibility,” he writes. At the end of the article, he acknowledges his “personal bias” in the matter. (In Oliver’s own list of the world’s top 100 courses, Cape Wickham comes in at No. 10, just behind National Golf Links of America and five spots ahead of Augusta National.)
What a mess, right?
On one hand, it’s true that Golf’s smallish (now 115-person) panel is heavy on golf-industry types, which probably increases the potential for conflicts of interest. As of November 2022, for instance, both Ben Cowan-Dewar, Cabot’s CEO, and Ashley Mayo, the company’s new “head of brand,” were panelists. It’s unclear whether Golf raters are allowed to evaluate courses in which they have a monetary or reputational stake.
On the other hand, I find it unlikely that Cowan-Dewar and Mayo could have tilted the scales significantly in favor of Cabot’s portfolio, given that the other 113 panelists have just as much say as they do. I don’t see any particular reason to accuse them or Morrissett or Doak of shady dealings, and Oliver, whose own biases are as obvious as anyone’s, doesn’t appear to have a strong justification for claiming corruption.
That said, I do raise an eyebrow at the inclusion of brand-new golf courses on the list. It seems a better practice to wait for the turf to settle in, and to allow plenty of panelists to visit and reflect on the experience, before comparing the latest C&C joint to the ancient likes of Cruden Bay and Prestwick.
More broadly, though, the kerfuffle around the Golf ranking reveals some flaws of the golf-course rating “game,” as Jonathan Cummings calls it. What started as a lark—what’ll happen if we ask a bunch of knowledgeable golfers what they think are the best courses in the world?—has become a business and, in the wrong hands, a racket. A lot of constituencies get a piece of the pie. Publications profit from the reliable sales and clicks that a top-100 list produces; Golf Digest and Golfweek, in particular, profit from fees paid by their legions of raters; panelists profit from access to exclusive courses (and occasionally from luxurious treatment at certain well-funded clubs and resorts); and ranked courses profit from an effective form of unpaid advertising. The entire system has long since tilted away from its original motives—the celebration of great golf architecture and the silly fun of ranking stuff.
In other words: everyone is taking this shit too seriously. There is no such thing as an authoritative list of the world’s greatest golf courses. There are just millions of golfers, all with unique tastes, quirks, biases, and conflicts of interest. I wish we’d focus instead on the rankings of individuals: give me Ben Crenshaw’s top 100, or Derek Duncan’s. Let’s chat and argue and joke about those lists, and quit trying to create a new “official” one every few months.
This is a naïve request, of course. The rating game is a moneymaker, and it will go on.
This piece originally appeared in The Fried Egg newsletter. Subscribe for free and receive golf news and insight every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.