Sunday, March 5, 2006

A Message From the Creator

It was with great interest that I read George Peper's article in the March 2006 issue of Links Magazine. Peper was the editor of Golf Magazine when it launched the original top 100 world rankings. Thus, it was Peper as much as anyone who can claim to have created what is now a mania. The article is basically Peper's equivalent of going to confession.

His comments are not to be dismissed since he is a thoughtful observer of the golf world. There does seem to be an obession among developers and designers to get a course into the top 100 rankings. We agree that actively courting raters and trying to influence the outcome is wrong. It remains to be seen how the longevity of many of the new entrants onto the list will survive long term, especially some of them built to have host major championships. Peper says "Egomanicial developers now say, 'build me a top 100 course no matter what it costs." Hmmm. Sounds like a certain New York based developer we know who has bad hair and who finally bought his way into the top 100 with Trump National at #87. Luckily, we are playing the 2003 list so don't have to play it. No doubt it will be off the list in three or four years anyway.

I agree with Peper that it has gotten stupid. So you buy your way onto the list or onto a major championship. The past is littered with courses no one has heard of that hosted one major in the past: Anyone remember Champions Golf Course in Houston, host of the 1969 US Open or Pecan Valley in San Antonio, host of the 1968 PGA?

One of the other problems with having all these new made-for-major courses appear on the list is that you risk pushing off some truly world class courses. It would be a shame if some of the hidden gems on the list such as Cruden Bay, Ganton or Woodhall Spa were someday displaced by all these new designs. The history of the game is important and should be respected. There needs to be a balance between older courses and newer courses and it seems to me that the balance is shifting toward newer, which isn't necessarily a good thing.

For those who have read my write-up of the Fishers Island Club the quote from one of their spokesman is perfect (see our January 2006 archive by clicking here: Fishers Island). At the end of the article, Peper lists the 10 most over-rated courses in the world. This is his list, not mine. Although I agree with him precisely on Muirfield, Baltusrol, The K-Club and Royal Troon. I would have to disagree about Pinehurst and Pine Valley, though.

I also accept his criticism of people who are "conspicuous course collectors". Bless me father, for I have sinned!

Below is the article as published:

Hey, it seemed like a good idea at the time. The magazine got great publicity and sold more ads and copies, and I was proud of our biennial list, the first to rank courses from one to 100. Over time, however, I came to realize I’d created a monster.

“You’ve done our club a tremendous disservice,” Pine Valley president Ernie Ransom told me after we pegged his course as No. 1 in the world. “Everyone wants to play here now, and 99 percent of the requests can’t be granted.” Indeed, clubs like Pine Valley, Cypress Point and Seminole—ultra-private enclaves that had long flown under the radar—suddenly gained rock-star status, with their exclusionary practices bared for the world to see. Some didn’t handle it well.

“We do not wish our course to be ranked, visited or for that matter, known. Please convey that message to your panelists,” said a representative of Fishers Island, the remote and remarkable Seth Raynor course accessible only by ferry from New London, Connecticut.

Others milked their status and bilked their visitors. The best example is surely Pebble Beach. In 1980 you could play there for $50. Now it costs $450, and I can’t help thinking that about $150 of that is attributable to Pebble’s position among the world’s top handful of courses.

Among today’s golf architects, getting a course into the Top 100 (on either GOLF’s “Top 100 Courses in the World” list or Golf Digest’s “America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses”) is what winning a major is to a tour pro in terms of prestige and marketability. Egomaniacal developers who once said, “Build me a great course,” now say, “Build me a Top 100 course, no matter the cost,” knowing that a sufficiently grand creation will buy a gander from the judges. As an absurd consequence, course designers have become multimillionaires and multimillionaires have become course designers.

Among golfers, we’ve seen the spawning of a new species: the conspicuous course collector, whose life mission is to play as many of the Top 100 as possible. Then there is the subspecies, the conspicuous club joiner, who collects Top 100 memberships as if they were bag tags—which essentially they are.

This wretched excess would be harmless if not for two problems. First, the lists are inherently flawed. No matter how experienced and knowledgeable, a selection panel will not—cannot—get the ratings right, simply because there is no “right.” Rankings are no more than a collective guess, an objective average of subjective opinions.

The magazines do their best to screen raters; GOLF vets candidates by asking them which courses they’ve seen from the current ballot. My recollection is that the minimum standard is 55 percent of the World list and 40 percent of the courses on the ballot. The problem, of course, is that there is no way to verify whether candidates have actually visited all the courses they claim.

The GOLF panel is small and elite—fewer than 100 people—to keep the levels of knowledge and discernment high. The risk is that they don’t see enough courses. The group includes golf course architects—among them Tom Doak (who ran the rankings until his design career presented a conflict), Pete Dye, Jack Nicklaus—under the theory that they are the most perceptive judges. There is a stipulation that they may not vote for their own courses, but I’m not sure that does the whole job.

My suspicion always has been that competitive instinct compels architects to give low grades to each other’s courses, to the benefit of Donald Ross, Alister Mackenzie, et al., who are not competitors for contracts. Nicklaus once asked me why more of his courses weren’t on the list. (At the time, he didn’t realize his votes for his own courses didn’t count.) “It’s partly because we have people like you on the panel,” I replied.

The GOLF panel also includes public relations execs, resort owners, tour operators, photographers, writers and others with close links to courses. The last I knew, all these conflict-of-interest votes counted. I have little knowledge of the Golf Digest panel, except that it includes more than 800 low-handicap golfers, whose identities, unlike GOLF’s panelists, are kept anonymous. With a group that size, some raters inevitably will be more knowledgeable and responsible than others. I’m also not sure whether all low handicappers may be able to judge the capacity of a course to be enjoyed by all levels of player. But the aspect I’ve always questioned is their ultra-anal grading system. Whereas GOLF simply asks panelists to rate each course from A to F, using his or her own definition of greatness, Golf Digest requires a grade from one to 10 in eight different categories. I can assure you that giving even a single mark to several hundred courses requires a fair amount of concentration. I can’t imagine filling in several thousand boxes, at least not with any sustained diligence and accuracy. It’s no wonder the rankings are a source of constant consternation to the magazines.

Over the last two decades Golf Digest has tweaked its methodology more often than Katie Couric has changed her hairdo, and GOLF quietly began a wholesale re-evaluation of its ranking system recently.The second weakness of the rankings is more important. The magic number—100—is simply too small. There are more than 30,000 courses in the world; to celebrate only 100 is ludicrous. Hell, there are 100 great courses within a three-hour drive of Manhattan! As a consequence, countless courses have gone without the recognition they deserve.

I’d like to repair the mess I’ve made, but I don’t really see a solution. I could rank the 100 most underrated courses, but the moment that list was published, those would no longer be the 100 most underrated. All I can do is try to figure out why some deserving courses miss out, and give a kiss to a few of the fairest bridesmaids. I can think of six reasons that great courses are ignored. The first three, as in real estate, involve location.

The 10 Most Overrated Courses in the World

1. Pinehurst Resort & C.C. (No. 2), Pinehurst, N.C. Sorry, those greens are borderline Goofy Golf.

2. Royal Melbourne G.C. (Composite), Melbourne, Australia. The ranked course is a composite of two 18s that no one plays.

3. The Country Club (Composite), Brookline, Mass. Same situation—a composite used only for major tournaments.

4. Muirfield Golf Club, Gullane, Scotland. A fine, straightforward test of championship golf—
and utterly charmless.

5. Baltusrol Golf Club (Lower), Springfield, N.J.
America’s Muirfield.

6. Augusta National Golf Club, Augusta, Ga. If it’s so great, why do they change it every year?

7. Pine Valley Golf Club, Pine Valley, N.J. Superb, but not No. 1—too many holes where you don’t see a tee shot land.

8. Royal Troon Golf Club, Troon, Scotland. Six dull holes—six interesting holes—six dull holes.

9. Seminole Golf Club, Juno Beach, Fla. Elite membership, world-class locker room, typical Florida golf course.

10. The K Club, Straffan, Ireland. Dublin meets Doral.

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