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Of rankings and ratings

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

Number crunching, observations, and random thoughts on the Top 100 (modern) courses lists.

According to GolfWeek's 2004 list, The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island ranks as the 16th Best Modern Course in America (those built after 1960). The Ocean Course currently ranks 44th in Golf Magazine's Top 100 list of all American courses regardless of vintage (it's 9th among courses built post-1960), and Golf Digest's poll rates it 70th overall, 22nd "modern."

The 9th best modern course according to GolfWeek is Lester George's Kinloch Golf Club in Virginia, and the 22nd best is Kingsley Club, a Mike DeVries design in Michigan, neither of which break into Golf Magazine's or Golf Digest's lists anywhere.

The 2nd best course built after 1960 according to Golf Digest is Tom Fazio's Wade Hampton (37th overall), exactly one place ahead of GolfWeek's and Golf Magazine's modern number one, Sand Hills. Sand Hills is Golf Digest's 3rd best course built after 1960, but Wade Hampton is only number 15 on GolfWeek's list, and 13th (52nd overall) from Golf Magazine's perspective.

Butler National, the 4th best course built since 1960 according to Golf Digest (42nd overall), is 83rd on GolfWeek's modern list, and doesn't appear in Golf Magazine's Top 100.

Aside from being confusing, incongruous, and even bizarre in places, if these rankings offer anything it's a glimmer of how the world of golf views classic, and in the case of this column, modern architecture. What should we make of these rankings? A better question might be, should we make anything at all of them?

The GolfWeek and Golf Magazine lists are basically the results of the amalgamated scores of dozens of raters. Golf Digest applies an additional value to its rankings, called "Tradition" points, that factor in arbitrary considerations like tournament history and architectural history. Undoubtedly they would deny it, but on the surface it appears Tradition points give editors wiggle room to adjust the rankings, and it most certainly precludes courses younger than 10 years old from doing much damage in the rankings.

The common factor in all three polls is that raters evaluate the golf courses. Individuals (i.e. humans) from different areas of the country, each assigned with unique criteria and rating procedures, submit scores for the courses they play. GolfWeek, for instance, implements strict guidelines for its raters and occasionally brings them together for seminars and outings. Golf Digest's reputation is for utilizing players of higher skill, which of course would be reflected in how certain golf courses are perceived.

The magazine rankings verify that the canon of classic courses remains relatively constant, but their breakdown of modern architecture indicates are both telling and turbulent. Some observations:

The President and His Cabinet

Only GolfWeek separates the modern from the classic, but quick analysis reveals that 34 of the top 100 courses in Golf Magazine's poll were built after 1960. Of these 34 courses, ten were designed or co-designed by Pete Dye, five by Fazio, four each by Robert Trent Jones, Sr. (RTJ) and Rees Jones, and three by Jack Nicklaus.

Bottom Heavy

Despite Golf Digest's tradition-tipping system, 45 of its 100 courses are modern, but only eight reside in the first 50, while a whopping 37 appear in the second 50. Of Golf Digest's top 34 modern courses (using Golf Magazine's modern number of 34 for comparison reasons), eight belong to Dye, seven belong to RTJ, five belong to Fazio, four to Nicklaus, and three to Dick Wilson.

Of GolfWeek's first 34, nine are Dye designs, six have Fazio labels, three belong to Nicklaus, three to Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, and two to RTJ.

Where's The Rees?

Raters from all three publications admire the work of Dye and Fazio, and praise Nicklaus and RTJ only slightly less. But why do Golf Magazine raters place four Rees Jones courses highly (Ocean Forest is number 14 modern), but only one of his courses registers in Golf Digest's modern listing (Ocean Forest at 41 modern, 96th overall), and Rees doesn't crack GolfWeek's modern list until number 48 (Quintero)?

Dune Bug

Tom Doak's Pacific Dunes has rocketed up the charts in the three years it's been open, reaching number two modern in both GolfWeek and Golf Magazine polls. Golf Digest raters remain less impressed (or is it that "Tradition" thing), and have it at only the sixth best modern.

Hazing Rituals

You wouldn't want to be a rookie on Team Magazine or Team Digest. You'd be buying pizza, carrying bags, and getting wedgies for years.

Among Golf Digest's top 34 modern, only 11 different contemporary architects or architecture teams appear. Twelve different architects make Golf Magazine's top 34. Compare that to the 15 different names scattered through the same number on GolfWeek's tally.

GolfWeek raters appear to be more open to new modes of design and lesser-established architects. In addition to the marquee names, Lester George, Steve Smyers, Mike DeVries, Rick Smith and Warren Henderson, Ken Dye, and Dave Axland and Dan Proctor all appear uniquely in the publication's top 34. Proceed further into their Top 50 and more names show up that aren't found on the other lists: Jim Engh, Bobby Weed, Bob Cupp and John Fought, Arnold Palmer and Ed Seay, and Tom Watson.

Furthermore, twelve of GolfWeek's top 34 modern courses are not in either of the other two magazines top 34.

A Modern Canon - Not

Outside of Coore and Crenshaw's Sand Hills, there's little consensus about the architects' best work. The following are several top designs in each poll:

Tom Fazio - Shadow Creek, Wade Hampton, Dallas National (GW); World Woods Pine Barrens, Wade Hampton, Shadow Creek (GM); and Wade Hampton, Butler National (with George Fazio), Shadow Creek (GD).
Pete Dye - Whistling Straits (Straits), Pete Dye Golf Club, The Golf Club (GW); The Golf Club, Whistling Straits, TPC Sawgrass (GM); and Crooked Stick, The Golf Club; The Honors Course (GD).
Robert Trent Jones, Sr. - Spyglass Hill, Hazeltine, Eugene C.C.; Spyglass Hill, Hazeltine, Mauna Kea, Bellerive (GM); and Spyglass, Hazeltine, Bellerive, Congressional (GD).
Tom Weiskopf/Jay Morrish - The Rim, Double Eagle (GW); Double Eagle, Forest Highlands (GM); and Forest Highlands, Double Eagle (GD).

Considering all this various data, answering the "what do we make of these rankings" question isn't difficult: not much. Because each rater is trained (or not trained, or trained differently) to value specific things in a golf course, each list is necessarily going to differ from the other, while results from one poll offset those of another. If you're looking for accuracy, definitive analysis, and breakdowns, you've come to the wrong place.

Add to this the understanding that these rankings are designed to promote discussion and sensation, thereby selling magazines, and it's clear that we should view them simply as entertainment and hot stove league chatter, and good chatter at that.

In the next column we'll examine another side of these rankings, as well as what role the objective evaluation of courses plays in the wider world of golf.

Derek DuncanDerek Duncan, Contributor

Derek Duncan's writing has appeared in TravelGolf.com, FloridaGolf.com, OrlandoGolf.com, GulfCoastGolf.com, LINKS Magazine and more. He lives in Atlanta with his wife Cynthia and is a graduate of the University of Colorado with interests in wine, literary fiction, and golf course architecture.

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