A Different Way of Ranking Golf Courses

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Recently, while I was busy sauntering around Europe, Andrew, the lucky bugger, again played Donald Ross’ Pinehurst #2, the crown jewel of public golf in America and my favourite course. In our postmortem of his round, I mentioned in passing that I had recently started considering golf courses as if they were machines, or planes, or race-cars, specifically in regard to their efficiency.

In truth, efficiency may not be the ideal term for such an exercise, but I think that it nevertheless strikes close enough to the heart of the matter (and if someone, a trained engineer or scientist perhaps, has a better term to use, please feel free to direct me to the thesaurus, for this theory is very much still a work-in-progress). Moreover, it’s not as if I expect this criteria to become the standard-bearer of the industry henceforth, nor for it to be adopted by anyone other than myself; regardless, I believe it offers a method of evaluation that differs from the criteria used by the major panels and scales. 

The 12th (left) and 11th (right) at Pinehurst Resort’s No. 2 course

Most importantly, I believe that considering golf courses in this manner very much “levels the playing field”, in that it reduces the importance placed upon factors beyond the control of the owner, architect, superintendent, greens committee, etc., and instead foregrounds those that were and still are, such as routing, creativity of design, tree-management, turf-quality, etc. 

Here, let’s use, for a striking example, a comparison between Pebble Beach and Cape Arundel, two quite polar-opposite golf courses. Regardless of Water Travis’ original genius and the work of its subsequent stewards, this quaint 5800 yard golf course, laid across a rather nondescript and cramped piece of land in Maine, was simply never going to match the one built on arguably the best, or at least the most dramatic, tract of unblemished property in America. Using the criteria delineated by the magazine for whom I have served as a panellist for a few years now, and judging both courses on a pure “merit basis”, I would have to rank Pebble Beach well-ahead of Cape Arundel, for the former is, despite its flaws and avoidable shortcomings, still undoubtedly among the fifteen to twenty best golf courses in the country, while the latter is a highly pleasant and interesting regional curiosity which I probably wouldn’t include in a “traditional” top 100 list. Yet I left Travis’ creation feeling much more invigorated, much more inspired, much more proud of the way that the Mainers treated and stewarded their century-old golf course than how the Pebble Beach Company have treated theirs. In effect, I very much felt as I did when watching, among others, Danny Amendola or Wes Welker in comparison to Josh Gordon (or Jonathan Marchessault and Jack Eichel, or Calum Wilson and Kai Havertz.) To continue this sports metaphor, like Cape Arundel, Amendola milked every ounce out of the raw, genetic talent he was given, whereas, like Pebble Beach, Gordon, in the rare instances when he wasn’t suspended for drug use, always left you wanting, begging, pleading for more—if this Gordon guy could just screw his head on straight, you’d find yourself mumbling, he could go down as an all-time great. In short, based upon its property and the old aerials that are still readily available and seemingly circulated weekly on Twitter, Pebble Beach should be, at the very worst, the fifth-best golf course in America (or thereabout). But it isn’t.

Pebble Beach’s 4th, with its original aesthetic and an expanded green complex. Photo credit: Pebble Beach Company

Basically, my modus-operandi for such an evaluation boils down to this: how much does this golf course, in its present state, get out of what it had to work with originally? How much of its true-potential is currently being fulfilled? 

Returning to the beginning of this piece, Andrew and I agreed, to the surprise of no one, that Pinehurst #2, thanks to their change of ethos over the last decade, now essentially runs at maximum efficiency. More or less, Ross couldn’t have routed the golf course any better than he did. He couldn’t have squeezed any more out of the raw features he had to work with. He couldn’t have devised a better set of greens and a more effective bunkering scheme to combat said lack of natural interest. The course couldn’t be kept in a manner that better emphasizes his architecture: the tree management is ideal, the turf perfectly crisp yet receptive. In essence, it’s now operating to its greatest efficiency, meaning somewhere around the back end of the top-ten best courses in America, its peak, in my opinion.

Cape Arundel, meanwhile, likewise operates at a remarkably high level, though not quite to Pinehurst #2’s. Of course, being a website with a primarily Canadian foci, we began to grade out our golf courses, beginning with Toronto Golf Club, which, we both agreed, grades quite highly: probably somewhere in the low 90s. 

Toronto Golf Club’s sublime 16th green

Again, as with any rankings, this is a highly subjective exercise, but here is an early scale of how I would judge some of the more noteworthy courses I’ve so far played in Canada. Although I must confess that since I am not an architect by trade, nor a builder or shaper, I feel rather under-qualified to judge how most of these golf courses were as raw sites, along with the wonders that an influx of a few million dollars could do to them—yet I gave it a go.

Below is a tier list diving into efficiency, but only among those courses this website’s panel ranked in the Top 125 in Canada.

90-100% Efficiency

Cabot Cliffs
  • Toronto Golf Club
  • Cabot Cape Breton (Links)
  • Cabot Cape Breton (Cliffs)

85-89% Efficiency

  • Cherry Hill
  • Tarandowah
  • Coppinwood
  • Maple Downs
  • Laval-sur-le-Lac (Blue)
  • Memphremagog

80-84% Efficiency

St. Thomas
  • TPC Toronto (Hoot)
  • Laval-sur-le-Lac (Green)
  • Redtail
  • Summit
  • Mad River
  • Camelot
  • St. George’s
  • Islington
  • National Golf Club of Canada
  • TPC Toronto (Heathlands)
  • Beacon Hall
  • Burlington
  • Essex
  • St. Thomas
  • Muskoka Bay
  • Thornhill
  • Grand-Mere
  • Pulpit Club (Pulpit)
  • Lakeview

70-80% Efficiency

Cape Breton Highlands Links
  • London Hunt
  • Cape Breton Highlands Links
  • Rocky Crest
  • Royal Ottawa
  • Wildfire
  • Cataraqui
  • Kawartha
  • Lookout Point
  • Oshawa
  • TPC Toronto (North)
  • Royal Montreal (Blue)
  • Hamilton (West/South)
  • Ottawa Hunt (Gold)
  • Westmount
  • Pulpit Club (Paintbrush)
  • Lachute (Thompson)
  • Magna
  • Ridge at Manitou
  • Bigwin Island
  • Rideau View

60-70% Efficiency

  • Oakdale (Thompson/Homenuik)
  • Copper Creek
  • Le Maitre
  • Taboo
  • Mississaugua
  • Chateau Montebello

50-60% Efficiency

Eagle’s Nest Golf Club. Photo credit: Visit Vaughan
  • Eagle’s Nest
  • Lambton (Championship)
  • Black Bear Ridge


2 thoughts on “A Different Way of Ranking Golf Courses

  1. Interesting concept Zachary – it has some interesting ties to conversations I have often about ‘working with what you have’ and ‘doing just what is needed’ – keep up the good work!

  2. Zach, really great concept here and I’d say you are bang on when it comes to Pebble and #2 (also my fave in the US). Well done on the Canadian list, looks pretty accurate from your innovative perspective. I’d encourage you to share it with Geoff Shackelford as I’m sure he’d love the theory.

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