1. How are panelists selected for GOLF Magazine’s world top 100 panel? Is geographic diversity among your panel a consideration? Or is it a given that everyone is a traveler so that it doesn’t much matter where people are based?
Generally, panelists are selected based on the recommendation of other existing panelists. It helps to have two “sponsors.” There are a bunch of folks out there who are both qualified and motivated to be panelists, but I’m looking for that individual who is extremely well qualified and who exhibits serious passion for evaluating courses. Too many prospective panelists are just trophy hunters, “collecting” the Top 100. The best panelists should want to see the second-tier tracks as well, as well as those by lesser known designers. I also see too many would-be judges who are completely predisposed towards one style of design. I want a variety of tastes, opinions and backgrounds aboard on our panel. I like Doak, Coore, Hanse and the old dead guys as much as anybody, but I don’t want anybody prejudging a course merely because it’s been designed by Fazio, Nicklaus or Jones. Geographical diversity is important to the panel. At the end of the day, our results have to be credible, and part of the credibility in a World list is that you have evaluators from all over the globe.
2. How many courses are on the ballot?
In 2011, we had 464 courses on the ballot, up from 408 in 2009. The number was 450 in 2007. I’d like to double the number of courses we have, just because I’m really curious as to how certain courses would fare, but I also like keeping the panelist count around 100, so to be fair, we can’t overwhelm panelists with an impossible number of courses to see and evaluate. If after six years, a course hasn’t mustered sufficient numbers to justify its inclusion, we drop it. It won’t reappear on the ballot unless it undergoes design or condition changes and is recommended by two panelists.
3. How many courses has a typical panelist seen?
There’s no such thing as a typical Panelist. I’m lucky to have a cadre of super-freaks who love trying to get to them all. Norm Klaparda voted for 365 ballot courses this year, 72.5 percent of the courses. Tom Clasby has seen more than 300, and played every course that’s ever been included in any of our Top 100s. We have a dozen panelists who have played at least one complete version of the World Top 100, and a fistful of others who are closing in. Call it passion, call it obsession, but either way, these people are dedicated to the task.
4. How many evaluations are required for a course to be eligible for inclusion? For instance, have either Nirwana Bali in Indonesia or Ellerston in Australia been seen by enough panelists?
We require a minimum of 10 evaluations for a course to be eligible. To me, that still seems like a small number, but it’s a compromise. It’s not very much, in terms of a statistical sample, but I don’t want to discriminate unfairly against a remote course, either. Nirwana Bali had exactly 10 votes in 2011, but a few low numbers kept it out of the Top 100. I listed Ellerston as one of our “10 To Watch” in 2009, as its numbers warranted Top 100 inclusion, but it suffered from a low vote total. We only had six panelists cast votes for it in 2011, so it will have to wait once again.
5. Four courses cracked into the world top 100 in 2011, all of which are new. Given all the restoration work that is occurring in this fragile economic times, are you surprised that one or two Golden Age courses didn’t also appear/re-appear?
We have a small number of panelists, so changes to our rankings come more slowly than it does to the other major ranking lists. Sometimes, it takes a little time for re-visits to accumulate and for momentum to build. That said, we saw significant upward moves in a hurry for Pinehurst No. 2 and Los Angeles Country Club, so our crew is definitely paying attention—and responding. However, I’m not terribly surprised that we haven’t seen more movement. At the end of the day (as Greg Norman likes to say), most of these courses don’t change that dramatically, even with a proper restoration.
6. Panelists can’t possibly stay apprised of all the work going on around the world. How do you try and minimize someone seeing a course a decade ago, it gets a major facelift, yet the person doesn’t alter its vote as he has yet to return? Courses like Royal Hague, Sleepy Hollow and California Golf Club of San Francisco that have been transformed in a relatively brief period of time yet you might not know it if you had not been to any of them since 2003.
In the past, we employed a system for awarding bonus points for recent visits. We will do this again for the next ranking. When I was asked to take over the GOLF Magazine Top 100 rankings in 2007, I attempted to streamline the process, simplifying procedures in order to ensure maximum voter participation. I argued in 2005 that an Arnold Palmer (then a panelist) vote on Tokyo Golf Club from one exhibition he played there 30 years before was mostly meaningless. Now, I’m not so sure. Our panelists seem to have long, terrific memories, and can always change a vote. I rely on the keen interests of our panelists to be aware of renovation/restorations and respond with re-visits accordingly.
Architect Frank Pont apparently has been doing remarkable work in restoring Harry Colt’s classic courses in the Netherlands. That’s why we put Royal Hague on the ballot for 2011. With only 12 votes, it finished at No. 168—very respectable—but hopefully its mere inclusion on the ballot will spur many more visits. Sleepy Hollow seems to get better with every restoration tweak—and the panelists who like it seem to love it, yet it got little overall love in 2011, finishing No. 273 in the World, and even well back of Top 100 in the U.S. status. My guess is that not enough panelists have seen it lately. The Cal Club finally broke through into the U.S. Top 100 in 2011. We got enough eyeballs on that one to bump it in, but only 19 panelists evaluated it. Compare that with votes totals for the Olympic Club (94) and San Francisco Golf Club (88). It’s easy to imagine that with 50 or 60 more panelist visits, results might be very different.
7. With each new World Top 100 ranking, the obvious question left unanswered is: What courses fell 101 to 110?
101. Congressional (Blue), U.S.
102. Royal Melbourne (East), Australia
103. Spyglass Hill, U.S.
104. Naruo, Japan
105. Hamilton (West/South), Canada
106. Sunningdale (New), England
107. Rye, England
108. Royal Aberdeen (Balgownie), Scotland
109. Prestwick, Scotland
110. Wentworth (West), England
8. You have been a rater for all three major publications. As succinctly as possible, how do the three methods vary?
Each has its strengths and each has its flaws. GOLF Magazine gets knocked for not having enough panelists to see all the courses that need to be seen and for having little accountability in terms of the “I know it when I see it” method we employ. Golf Digest suffers because they change their criteria too often, that they can’t quite grasp that “Resistance to Scoring” is almost irrelevant and that they use different criteria for public and new courses than they do for their big Top 100. To my mind, somehow, Digest’s low-handicap panelists tend to reward hard, ultra-exclusive, perfectly conditioned golf courses with ultra-plush clubhouses at the expense of those destinations with genuine charm and character.
I’ll tell you a story that explains the problem. When I was a young Digest panelist, maybe 1989, I played two candidate courses on one trip, Bel-Air and the Jack Nicklaus Private Course at PGA West. When I added up all my numbers, the Nicklaus course came out ahead by a comfortable margin. Yet, I could have cared less if I ever played it again, but I would taken Bel-Air for my “every day” course in a heartbeat. How could the Nicklaus be “greater” than Bel-Air if I felt this way? It’s because the criteria were imperfect. How does Medinah manage to cling to the top 25 (and higher) year after year, when it fails the “Design Variety” and “Memorability” tests? As a championship test, its credentials are impeccable. As a golf course you yearn to go back and play again—no. So why is that “great?”
Golfweek has some head-scratchers as well. I was always amused that I could put down any number I wanted at the end for an Overall Vote, regardless of what numbers I had submitted for the individual categories. However, that renders the individual categories kind of meaningless. I also happen to think they employ one too many categories that reward the overall development and the skill of the architect given the site—both of which are admirable, but in the end, detract from what’s really significant, which is the final product. I’m not sure how many Golfweek panelists possess the requisite skill to evaluate “Overall Land Plan,” “Quality of Shaping” and “Tree and Landscape Management.” I’m not sure I do. I know Brad Klein has those skills, but in the end, most of us don’t really care how they produced the food—they want to know whether the meal was any good.
Maybe the simplest way to put it is that I’ve heard numerous complaints over the years from Golf Digest and Golfweek panelists that it just takes too long to fill out each of those individual categories for so many courses. I always enjoyed the process, but I’ll admit it was laborious. Our system, simply comparing one course to the next by placing them in categories where you feel they belong (Top 3 you’ve ever played, 4-10 among the courses you’ve ever played, etc.) is more within the comfort zones of people who rank things. Give me your five favorite movies. You don’t slap down a number for cinematography, another for soundtrack and another for acting then add them all up. You think of the movies you liked best, period.
9. What is a specific example of how a certain course fares better under one system and worse under another?
If I use the “hard and super-exclusive” standard that Digest seems to favor, several courses jump out. The Alotian in Arkansas is one. Somehow, it ranked number 14 in the U.S. for Golf Digest in 2011, whose panelists deemed it to be a better golf course than Pacific Dunes. GOLF Magazine ranked it No. 76 in the U.S. Another Fazio-designed “retreat,” Eagle Point, rose to No. 48 in the Digest rankings; it finished No. 160 in ours. Rich Harvest in Illinois, the 7,687-yard Solheim Cup site, is No. 58 on the Digest list. It ranked No. 231 (U.S.) in ours. I’m not saying any of the above is a bad golf course. It’s more a case that they fit the Digest ranking criteria and sensibilities of their panelists differently than they do with ours.
Our panel shows more affection for shorter, sometimes quirkier courses that tend to be more fun to play as opposed to brutal tests. Take Harbour Town. It has plummeted to No. 100 on the Digest list. It’s not always in perfect shape and it favors placement over power. Our team places it No. 45 in the U.S. Another short, sweet spread, Shoreacres, slid to No. 92 in the Digest list, while it climbed to No. 36 in our U.S. rankings. I’m not saying that Digest got it wrong, but with their more homogonous make-up of low-handicap panelists, it just seems to me that they overemphasize “test of golf” more than “character.”
10. Thirteen countries are represented. Does that sound about right to you from a world coverage point of view? Any thoughts on the most likely country to next come on board? Perhaps China?
I do like the diversity we have on our list. I would be disappointed if there were 80 U.S. courses among the World Top 100. Does that mean some panelists might cut a little bit of slack to some of the rest-of-the-world entries? Maybe. It definitely has always sparked my interest in a World list to see courses from Japan, South Africa, France and such. China seems poised for a break-through, if for no other reason than the sheer number of courses that have debuted in recent years, with more on the way. Brian Curley has produced some amazing courses for the new Mission Hills project on Hainan Island, as well as the other-worldly Stoneforest in Kunming on the mainland. Will our panelists find them too “manufactured,” or gimmicky? Perhaps. They definitely will be contenders, however.
At the top of the list, though, is the just-finished Coore-Crenshaw course on Hainan, called Shanqin Bay. I walked the site with Bill two years ago and it clearly had fantastic potential, seaside, cliff-top and such. Bill was a little nervous, however, as to how the course would be received by the Chinese, whose tastes typically run to length, sharp edges, perfect manicuring and landscaping, etc. In other words, Augusta National. Bill’s going to deliver Sand Hills, ragged and natural. We shall see.
I’m still thinking that any country that can offer a great new seaside design (including China) has the best chance of breaking through at some point.
11. Since you took over the panel in 2007, can you discern any design trends? Hot architects? Cold architects?
Sad to say, nearly everybody is a “cold” architect today, due to the lack of work. An alarming number of once-thriving firms have dismantled their staffs over the past two years. Since the economic collapse in the fall of 2008, there are almost no trends to report, since the number of new courses is so small. I think the rankings reveal on ongoing fascination and respect among our panelists for so-called minimalist design, with an emphasis on contouring and ground game features that include large, undulating greens and closely mown chipping areas. The natural, ragged-edge bunker styles, often fringed with fescues have found their mark as well. Again, Doak, Coore-Crenshaw and Hanse figure prominently there as “hot.” Yet, Tom Fazio keeps scoring hits (I loved the bunkering he employed at Idaho’s Gozzer Ranch), Brian Curley has proliferated in Asia and even Gary Player, while not a critical favorite, has interesting projects opening everywhere.
12. Does hosting a televised event result in a bump up in the rankings?
Just as often, it can result in a bump down. What televised tournament courses do is heighten awareness, our panelists included. Our panelists might make a special trip prior to the event, or after, thanks to piqued curiosities, but there’s no guarantee a course will move up simply based on television exposure. I’ve never been to Leopard Creek in South Africa, but I thought it looked great when it hosted a Tour event last year. The next week, Ernie Els shredded Durban C.C. in winning the South African Open. I wondered if Durban was no longer sufficiently testing to challenge the best, but I spoke with Durban’s club champion this past May and he told me “there was no wind whatsoever. Normally, there’s wind.” If nothing else, it spurred me to want to visit. So hosting an event will likely result in a bump in visits, but after that, there are no guarantees.
13. When PGA West debuted, one panelist was quoted along the lines that given golf is a game of avoiding hazards, PGA West is the best as its hazards are the most hazardous. Other panelists were put off by its penal nature and their sharply negative votes saw it drop off, never to return. Are there any examples in recent times of a course that is similarly polarizing?
What was it that Ben Hogan supposedly told Robert Trent Jones’ wife, Ione after dueling with Oakland Hills in 1951, “Madame, if your husband had to play his courses for a living, you’d be on the bread line.” I think the biggest gulf in comprehending “greatness” in a golf course is the difference between a great “every day” course versus a great “special occasion” course. Isn’t the supreme compliment, “I could play this course every day?” Yet, as Pete Dye once noted, “Golfers stand in line at PGA West just as they do every morning at St. Andrews, just hoping there is a cancellation so they can play.” In other words, golfers love to test themselves to the ultimate degree—on special occasions. They don’t want to do it every day, which is what our rankings now reflect.
I can’t think of another course that was so similarly polarizing in our rankings. Some courses are victims of design trends, others from maintenance issues, still others from egregious real estate additions that changed their landscape forever. Wild Dunes in South Carolina, El Rincon in Colombia, Phoenix Country Club in Japan and Bali Handara in Indonesia were all courses that attained Top 50 or Top 100 status that are no longer even on the ballot. The long, hard, all-aerial courses of the Trent Jones/Dick Wilson heyday in the 50s and 60s aren’t likely to return, due to changing and more sophisticated design tastes, and the courses that ruled in the go-go 80s and early ‘90s, with endless waste bunkers and artificial mounds are in the same boat.
14. How many courses do you typically see in a year?
My best guesstimate is 120, give or take a few—but roughly 10 different courses a month. That number as been as high as 180. Since I’m also the Travel Editor at GOLF Magazine, not every course I see is a Top 100 candidate, but I try for the best mix possible of Top 100s, public access tracks and as many new courses as possible.
15. GOLF Magazine world panelists have no defined criteria for rating a course. Personally, what factors are the most important to you? Is it fun? Course conditioning? Strategy? Shotmaking demands? Aesthetics, etc.?
I still cater to the notion that we let our panelists define “greatness” for us, not the other way around. I really do respect differences of opinion—in fact, I encourage it. But, I’m secure enough in my own thinking that I can defend my position every time. Thirty years ago, Johnny Bulla gifted my sister a copy of Alister MacKenzie’s Golf Architecture. She lent it to me and I soon became infatuated with MacKenzie’s 13 General Principles, preceded by his dictum, “the essence of golf is variety.” I’ve never strayed from this. To me, the greatest courses are those that are endlessly stimulating, both on the senses and on shot requirements. My skills may be modest these days, but even when I played the game well, I disliked courses that asked me to do the same thing over and over. Fun is paramount—and fun to me means variety, which leads to memorability. I relate it all to the “enticement” factor. When you finish playing a course, how quickly do you want to rush back and do it again? Oakmont is fun to me, even though it brutalizes me, because it all seems so “doable”—yet anything less than perfection is punished.
In a nutshell, it’s all about variety: in lies, stances, shot demands both in the air and on the ground, hazard design and placement, hole lengths, direction and aesthetics and especially variety on and around the greens, because that’s where so much of the action takes place. Yet all of that individual variety should fit in to a seamless whole, so that there’s nothing that appears forced in the design. I don’t need a 150 slope—or 140 for that matter—to be entertained and I could care less about conditioning, except to the extent it actually influences the design. In 1992, I had the misfortune of encountering Royal Dornoch, Royal Melbourne and Pinehurst No. 2 with fuzzy greens and it took away from the intended design to such an extent that it sullied the experience for me. That said, I’ve been a firm, fast and “brown is OK” guy, since my first trip across the pond all those years ago. Watching the ball zigzagging through the mounds and valleys—and planning for it, rather than all-carry dartboard golf—that’s my thing.
16. What are some hidden gems (not in the world top 100) that particularly have impressed you in the past twelve months?
Stoneforest International in Kunming, China opened three courses this year, the C course (Leaders Peak) boasting some of the most mind-blowing aesthetics I’ve ever seen, especially for an inland golf course and Brian Curley weaved plenty of strategy into the mix, so that it’s not just a one-trick gimmick course. It’s really exceptional. So is the Lava Fields course he did for the new Mission Hills on Hainan, which trots out terrific drama and bunkering, and offers much more variety, especially around the greens than the venue’s tournament track, Blackstone.
Closer to home, let me single out Essex County Country Club in New Jersey. Perhaps course scholars have confused it with a highly regarded Donald Ross course in Massachusetts called Essex County Club, home to the first Curtis Cup and site again in 2010. Nevertheless, New Jersey’s version deserves a Cup of its own. It features a blend of Tillinghast and Raynor/Banks holes and is enjoying a Gil Hanse restoration. The members seem to prefer the greens firmer and faster than their brilliant contours should ideally yield, but the property crackles with incredible variety.
Speaking of confusion, I’m also a fan of The Country Club…not the one in Boston, but rather its Cleveland, Ohio namesake, a thinking-man’s 1930 William Flynn design that played host to the 1935 Amateur, won by Lawson Little. A terrific retooling by Bret Stinson of hometown IMG Design and outstanding terrain make for one of my favorite “every day” courses I’ve seen in a long time.
17. As it so happens, fifty courses in the World Top 100 are from the United States of America and fifty are from the rest of the world. How does that 50/50 split compare with your own ballot?
As I mentioned before, I’m not wedded to a 50/50 split, but for credibility’s sake, I’m happy it’s not 80 U.S./20 Rest of the World, either. I voted 53 U.S. courses into my World Top 100.
18. Based on your extensive travels, where is the game most healthy? Least healthy?
I don’t know that I travel enough to every destination on a regular basis to answer this question with any conviction. Anecdotally, I’ve heard that Ireland is really hurting, not only from American tourists being off, but more so from locals who have seen their economy turn upside down. Sure, the exploits of the Northern Ireland gang have helped, but I’m hearing talk about multiple course closures if things don’t turn around.
China is the craziest place. The government has cracked down again, attempting to enforce its 2004 moratorium on the building of new courses on the mainland. Yet, there’s definitely pent-up demand. Seemingly every course I’ve played there in the past two years, both on the mainland and on Hainan Island, has been wall-to-wall with foursomes.
19. What has been the impact on your travels given the pared down opening of new courses? Any particular courses that you are keen on in the next six months?
One of the things I loved about being a course ranking panelist in the 80s and 90s was seeing all the new courses—evaluating who was copying whom, who was original, what the trends were. That’s all gone now. You’ve pretty much have to trek to Asia, especially China, to see new courses in volume—and even that is dicey, because American readers aren’t terribly interested in Asia as a golf travel destination.
Number one on my hit list is Cabot Links in Nova Scotia, Canada, thanks to the seaside site and the quality and track record of the people involved in creating it. Shanqin Bay on Hainan Island, China is next. Since I walked the property with Bill Coore 27 months ago, I’ve got a good idea of how great it might prove to be. Mission Hills has another track that could be really fun, called Shadow Dunes, and still another one on Hainan, Tom Weiskopf’s the Dunes at Shenzhou Peninsula, will feature a composite course (once the East is done) that could be a home run. The existing West is really good, but I toured the all-sand terrain for the East and some sensational holes await. There’s also a new Weiskopf course on Kauai that I’m eager to play, called Kukuiula. The photos I’ve seen make me want to book a flight tomorrow. I’m a total sucker for golf on the water—and Kauai’s weather and natural beauty can’t hurt.