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For my money, the major golf magazines are missing the point

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

Recently a guy I was playing golf with in Canada asked me a question. He'd watched me taking notes and photos during the round and was curious as to why.

When I told him, he made the remark 99 percent of all playing partners do when they find out what I do for a living.

"Tough job, eh?"

I responded with the same remark I use 99 percent of the time.

"Yeah, but somebody's got to do it."

But this fella was a little more curious than most. Several holes later, he asked: "What exactly do you look for? I mean, what goes into rating a course?"

That's both difficult and easy to answer. Rating or reviewing a golf course is a mixture of the obvious and the subtle, the easily measured and the not so easy to measure.

The three major golf magazines come out with periodic rankings that cause a lot of debate. They all have criteria that may sound different but are really pretty similar.

But they all, without exception, leave out one of the most important criteria, perhaps the most important. This is where I tease you a little and tell you to look for the answer below.

Golf Digest's is the oldest course ranking. The magazine uses hundreds of raters around the country, mostly amateurs, and they take certain criteria under consideration: aesthetics, conditioning, design balance, memorability, resistance to scoring, shot values, tradition and ambience, walkability and overall.

Golf Week uses fewer raters but claims its panel is more truly representative of the golfing public. Its stated criteria are ease and intimacy of routing; integrity of original design; natural setting and overall land plan; interest in green and chipping contours; variety of par 3s, 4s and 5s; basic conditioning; landscape and tree management; "walk in the park" test and overall.

Golf Magazine uses an even smaller panel that includes architects and others in the industry, who consider strategic integrity, variety of shot requirements, rhythm of design, location, ambience, tradition, conditioning and visual appeal.

It all sounds pretty impressive. All that ambience and aesthetics, shot values and design integrity. And it is a pretty thorough way to rate golf courses for the purist.

But they all leave out one seriously important factor: money.

Call it what you want: Shot-per-dollar ratio, wallet-to-pro-shop-counter routing, k-ching balance. Whenever everyday golfers get together, online and in person, green fees are an integral part of the discussion.

Do these famous courses merit what they charge? Is all that atmosphere and tradition worth it? Or are their rates more inflated than their reputations?

We here at TravelGolf.com try to review courses with the full range of traveling golfers in mind, rich, poor and points between. I take into account most or all of the criteria the above-named magazines do, with the vital addition of green fees.

That's why we run a lot of "value" stories, listing courses in various golfing hotspots where you get a lot of bang for your buck. We cover the famous 18s, of course, but we also look for those obscure tracks that don't overcharge for their "ambience." And we tell you if we think the green fees are worth it.

Take Pebble Beach. I've heard a lot of golfers say they dream of playing there, damn the cost (in the $450 range). They're referring as much to the tradition as to the actual course. Great - I understand. But I also want you to know about courses that are just as good, if not as tradition-laden, that you can play for a lot less.

When I play a place like the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island or Pinehurst No. 2, with their rates in the $300-and-up range, I take all the usual criteria into consideration, then try to match them up with the green fees.

I think the Ocean Course is worth the price. I would play it several times at that rate. I can't say the same about No. 2; you might be willing to pay those fees to play for the novelty of playing a revered course, but I wouldn't pay them twice.

This is what the overwhelming majority of golfers are looking for, and what the major magazines' ratings are missing. They're plenty clear and specific about prices on those annoying subscription forms they stuff their pages with. They should get off their ambience kick and include some practical information in their rankings.

Then maybe we could save a little money and afford to renew.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Price per hole

    Michel wrote on: Oct 10, 2006

    What about paying full fare when a course is being renovated or reseeded. The price per hole should be halved or the cart fees dropped or then again a free round at one of their sister courses !
    Tigers Paw did this to us last year 1st week of November. I think the clubs should be more considerate as one thing is for sure I didn't leave with anything but mud on my shirt from my divots. I would have preferred a good memory of thier signature hole.


  • price-per-hole

    Kiel Christianson wrote on: Jun 20, 2006

    Well said, Tim! I've been using the price-per-hole criterion since I started reviewing courses. $18 = $1 per hole. $180 = $10 per hole. In my experience, only the most pathetic goat tracks aren't worth a buck a hole; and there are many quite pleasant courses that charge even less than that. However, it is only the very best that justify $10 per hole. In my experience, most that charge this much are not worth it more than once, if even that. Especially if they're new "resort" courses trading on luxuries and a big-name designer rather than quality golf.


  • Ocean vs. #2

    Spencer Hux wrote on: Jun 20, 2006

    I couldn't agree more on your comments about Ocean Course and Pinehurst 2. I can't justify spending that much money at Pinehurst for second time, but I wouldn't hesitate to spend that at Ocean every now and again.


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