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Golf Digest rankings raise as many questions as answers

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

CHARLOTTE, N.C - When Benjamin Disraeli uttered his famous aphorism, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics," he could very well have been speaking about the seemingly endless deluge of lists, rankings, and ratings generated by the golf media and select industry insiders.

Possum Trot Golf Club - Dogleg
With quality value-plays like Possum Trot G.C., you'd think Myrtle Beach would finish higher than neighboring Charleston.
Possum Trot Golf Club - DoglegLas Sendas Golf Club in Mesa, Ariz.

If you take even a passing interest in the game, you've probably found yourself perusing Golf Magazine's "Top 100 You Can Play" list, GolfWeek's state-by-state rankings, Golf Digest's "Places to Play" star ratings, or one of TravelGolf.com's authoritative "Top Ten" lists. Some of these "definitive" rankings are based on subjective observations; others are predicated on sophisticated quantitative analyses that have been known to factor out common sense.

Golf Digest, one of the game's most vaunted and highly circulated golfing publications, recently released its latest rankings of the best and worst U.S. cities for golf. The magazine rated all 314 Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSA's) in the U.S. based on population, average greens fee, average star rating from the magazine's "Places to Play" list, and courses per capita.

The final score was adjusted with a "weather modifer" developed by two Oklahoma State University geography professors. This climatological criterion was designed to assess the number of "perfect golf days" an MSA has to offer local and traveling golfers.

Similar to the first go-around in 1998 when Duluth, Minn., came out on top, there are plenty of surprises in the 2002 edition of the rankings. New York State placed more MSA's in the top 10 (three) than Florida (two). In fact, according to Golf Digest, the number one golf town in the country is Jamestown, N.Y. On the flip side of the rankings, Houston and Chicago -- two major American cities that have long been considered hotbeds of daily-fee golf - placed 269 and 273, respectively.

In addition to a myriad of nationwide head-scratchers, the rankings also revealed some regional shockers. The self proclaimed "Golf Capital of the World," Myrtle Beach, S.C. (No. 12), was ranked below neighboring Charleston/North Charleston, S.C. (No. 6). The remote outpost of Yuma, Ariz., garnered the No. 11 spot, while immensely popular golf destinations Phoenix/Mesa and Tucson ranked 41 and 132.

"When you release a ranking this broad, there are going to be as many questions as answers," said Doug Schmidt, President of Charleston Golf Partners and a longtime observer of the golf industry. "In this instance, value counts as much as anything else so some of the high destinations we associate with golf are not necessarily going to be at the top

Indeed, the MSA's that fared the best in the Golf Digest rankings were mid-sized cities with 300,000 residents or less that are brimming with quality golf courses sporting reasonable price tags. The suburban Midwest and Northeast were big winners, with a myriad of layouts priced in the $30 to $40 range. Florida and Arizona, home of the $100-plus round of golf, didn't fare quite as well.

But as industry professionals point out, Golf Digest's rankings may have missed the mark on some seasonal and marketplace considerations.

"They (Golf Digest) probably just took the rack rates and that doesn't take into consideration specials for locals and golf packages for travelers," said Rich Ballinger, head golf professional at Shaftesbury Glen Golf and Fish Club near Myrtle Beach.

While Ballinger doesn't take issue with Myrtle Beach's respectable No. 12 ranking, he does take exception to the Grand Strand's No. 281 "Value Rank".

"I think we would have finished in the top ten if they had factored in the values you can get here in the summer and winter months," he says. "It is no accident that more and more people from the Northeast and Midwest are relocating here on a permanent basis

Three and a half hours north in the bustling burg of Charlotte, N.C., local golfers are stumped by the Queen City's embarrassing 206th ranking. With a city population of just over a half million situated in a metro area of over 1.6 million, Charlotte doesn't exactly fit Golf Digest's demographic profile. Yet there are over 70 golf courses within an hour's drive of downtown.

"I think based on their criteria, the ranking is probably right," said Craig Distl, an avid golfer and president of Distl Public Relations in Charlotte. "But there has been an explosion of daily-fee and semiprivate golf courses in Charlotte over the past five years, and some of them might not be ranked yet by Golf Digest. We may not be home to the five-star resorts, but we have a good number of three and a half and four star courses. To me, this town has to be one of the best golfing cities in the U.S

Meanwhile, Charleston is enjoying a rare moment in the golfing limelight. For years, golfers from outside of the Carolinas stereotyped this historic city as bastion of high priced resort courses that was lacking in affordable, daily fee golf offerings. But for every Wild Dunes, Kiawah and Seabrook Island, there are two Patriot's Points and Wescott Plantations.

"The quality and depth of courses here lends itself to that ranking," said Schmidt. "We have a number of four and four-and-a-half star courses here and they are all reasonably priced

Out west, golf officials in the "Valley of the Sun's" East Valley seem content to ride the coattails of the Phoenix-area's top 50 rankings. The Phoenix MSA is home to pricey golf destinations like Scottsdale and Carefree, but it is also a haven for hidden gems like burgeoning Mesa.

"The average green fee in Mesa is much lower than in Scottsdale if you're talking Troon North vs. Superstition Springs," said Diane DePaolo, marketing director at Las Sendas Golf Club in Mesa. "Price is a big reason for the popularity of Mesa with the Canadian market. They're already getting killed on the exchange rate, but they can still find great Arizona golf and reasonable accommodations here.

Agree or disagree, the Golf Digest rankings could raise the collective golf consciousness about some off the radar golf meccas while raising a red flag on some of the country's over-hyped, overpriced resort golf playgrounds.

"Rankings and lists are designed to stimulate dialogue, encourage critical examination, and in the end, to sell magazines, newspapers and advertising," says DePaolo. "It is as simple as that, but it is still fun to talk about it

The silence from Jersey City, N.J. - the 314th rated MSA in the Golf Digest rankings - is deafening.

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Don't you think it's a little unprofessional

    Christopher Anderson wrote on: Jun 26, 2008

    Dear Shane,
    Don't you think it's a little unprofessional for an editor to bash a town you have never been to before? I happen to live in Jamestown, N.Y., and while our winters aren't great, there is no better place to be in the spring, summer and fall months. Have you ever golfed in Jamestown, N.Y.? If you haven't, how can you justify your comments about never moving to Jamestown, N.Y. for a 3 handicap or your deathbed? I thought reporting was about the FACTS? You should really get your FACTS straight before you bash a town you know NOTHING about. Considering you are a "professional," I think your article was very unprofessionally written and offended me personally.
    Distastefully submitted,
    Christopher Anderson
    Jamestown, NY resident Avid
    Jamestown, NY golfer


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