“How many have y’all played?” It’s a text that pops up on my phone every single time a list drops: Canada, be it SCOREGolf, Top 100 Golf Courses, or even our own (which we will update in the spring), the USA, with Golf Magazine, Golfweek, Golf Digest, or the big whale: the World Top 100 from Golf. My friend groups in the golf world are the nerdiest of the nerds, the ones that, if there was such a thing for golf, we would attend Comicon in our Batman suits and Spider-Man skin-tight leotards (nobody wants to see this from a bunch of middle-aged golfing lads, trust me). This means that generally, being the youngest of the crew, I have the least amount of World Top 100’s played: at 26 of the top 100 seen, I feel pretty privileged to be able to have seen that much at 25 years old, but I have friends who have played north of 50 of the world list. Truth be told, I have friends who have played the entire list, which is downright impressive to think about.
Yet, this list in particular—2023/2024 edition—caused quite a ruckus: between Cabot Saint Lucia and Cape Wickham, St. George’s and Open Rota courses, it seemed to be rather spirited in the reaction to the list. Geoff Shackleford and McKellar Magazine seemed particularly distraught by this list, claiming corruption and conflicts abound. The old saying of “you can insult someone’s wife, but don’t insult their golf course” rings true every time we publish something slightly off-the-cuff on this website, where my DM floods with complaints from members and fanatics, and sometimes, emails from owners, developers, or architects. Naturally, the saying is derived from the theory amongst country club’s and golfers that insulting someones golf course is a far worse crime than saying something about their wife or partner (which is a crazy thought), and the reaction is often a bit more vocal than the latter.
The criticism is part of the gig, I suppose, but I’m always surprised how aggressive some people can get about general criticism of their golf course (I once recieved death threats over not loving a golf course as much as others). I can only imagine the heat Golf Magazine takes for doing the World Top 100. In contrast to what we get for an article or even our Top 100, I suspect its ten or hundred-fold. This time, Cape Wickham, a cult classic and favourite among Twitter and Instagram, further showed that no one on Twitter apparently loves their partner as much as they do the Mike DeVries & Darius Oliver course on King Island, Australia. In the 2022 edition, it was 70th, to off the list this time (107th, for what its worth). Five courses made the list for the first time, which doesn’t include three re-entries, and yet, it still fell an additional 37 spots. The social media’s were up in flames, you would have thought Pine Valley fell off! Yet, Cape Wickham’s fall only illustrates how amazing the time we live in to play golf truly is. On the World Top 100, over 25% of the list is built post-1990. Even the classics, like Merion and Pinehurst No. 2 and Oakland Hills, have been restored to their former glory. If there’s a single course on this list at a worse place than they were 30-odd years ago, I couldn’t think which one I was writing about it.
A Canadian’s Perspective
St. George’s, a historical mainstay on World Top 100 lists and a Stanley Thompson masterpiece, also fell off like Cape Wickham. Being Canadian comes with a certain amount of bias, but to have only two courses in the country on the World Top 100 is a bit of a travesty, especially given the quality of the golf courses at the top of the nation (our issue comes with the drop in quality as you fall down the country’s Top 100). Give me St. George’s or Toronto Golf Club over Yeamans Hall and Bandon Dunes any day; I loved Whistling Straits, Bethpage, and Inverness Club, but it would take a lot of scotch for me to think any of those three are better than Jasper Park Lodge, Capilano, or Cape Breton Highlands Links. Granted, St. George’s came in at 103rd and Torotno Golf Club at 108th so they just missed, but to me, there are more courses in this country deserving of being included.
Given how remote some of the golf courses in Canada are, it is part of the process and system I suppose: Jasper, Alberta is a lot less likely to see panellists than Melbourne, Australia or even Bandon, Oregon, where you have four realistic competitors. Even Toronto, with an excellent trip including St. George’s, Toronto Golf Club, and Hamilton up front, will see less raters than San Francisco, California, Melbourne, Victoria, or New York City. But given the quality of golf being left off the list in Canada alone, and not just ones I think should be included or the ones every national publication ranks in the top 5 in Canada, but ones that have been on these types of lists since 2000, one starts to think about the baseline of the Top 100. If golf is much better than 30 years ago, be it because of new builds or restorations or a combination of both, is a Top 100 list the best representation of the upper echelon of the golfing world? It’s all subjective of course, but there are courses on the list that I would take a place like Pasatiempo or Kittansett over, and that’s considering the rather minor amount of golf I’ve played compared to what lies out there in Scotland, Australia, Ireland and more. I have seen a bit, but nothing quite like others, and if I’m feeling that way, surely others are, too.
Given the depth of golf and the amount of quality new golf courses popping up all over, would a World Top 200 make sense? We might be getting to that point with quality, demand, and interest. Ranking more is never really a bad idea as it further illuminates the courses that might be of-quality to make it but just miss out mathematically, but it also creates more debate and discussion. Maybe a World Top 250 for sex appeal and ease of marketing (for some reason, Top 200 doesn’t flow as nicely)? The difference between the 175th best golf course in the world and the 90th is so small that it almost makes sense to list the close calls and near misses given the quality presented. Maybe a place like Baltimore or Glens Falls shouldn’t make a World Top 100, but would they make a World Top 200? How about Hamilton, Banff, or Sagebrush? The bar has become almost unrealistic compared to a 1990 ranking, and acknowledging those to just miss might make some sense… and no, this isn’t some participation trophy type rant, and it’s not me vouching for some recognition for the club I work at. I’m simply looking at the numbers, the percentage of turnover, and the new players, like Lido or Te Arai coming in strong, and thinking that the 100th best golf course in 1990 is likely not as good as the 200th best golf course in 2023. To me, that’s a beautiful thing that we should be celebrating.
Conflicts & Controversy
One of the most highly debated topics around this World Top 100 list is the inclusion of Cabot Saint Lucia/Point Hardy, which debuted at 76th. The course technically isn’t “open,” if you count soft and grand openings as something different, which had people up in arms how a course could be ranked before it officially opened. Ben Cowan-Dewar pointed that the course opened in June in a post on Golf Club Atlas, and I know a handful of raters myself who have been. Soft, hard, medium or anything else, once a golf course has 18 holes open, it’s open. More times than not, the “soft opening” and “hard opening” dates revolve more around the facilities and clubhouse than the golf course, which is usually the first to open. If all 18 holes are open for member play, why can’t it be eligible for the Top 100 lists? And even if the locker room sauna’s and short game chipping facility aren’t open, it’s not uncommon in most industries for critics and reviewers to get first access to the product. On any given Wednesday or Thursday, commercials will be played before the Hockey or Basketball game on TV talking about what the New York Times thinks about “Killers of a Flower Moon” or “Ant-Man and The Wasp” or something. Yet, movies come out on Thursday nights for advanced screenings and Friday to most theatres, and critics are already able to give their thoughts. Prince Street Pizza, the famed New York pizza joint that just opened in Toronto, had Tik Tokers and Influencers flock the checkered floors at the base of the new innovative development called ‘The Well’ before it officially opened. Where are the complaints for Prince Street Pizza!
On the golf course side, it’s not uncommon either. Comporta Dunes, the new David McLay Kidd design in Portugal which isn’t on this list, is another golf course I can think of that opened this fall, but saw media and some limited play throughout the summer. That includes numerous journalists and active golf social media accounts—which means, you guessed it, raters—playing the course before it officially opens. In December, I’m off to the West Coast for a media day for a course that likely won’t open this year, but should early 2024. If I’m able to play all the holes, which that’s the intention and goal behind the day, am I not able to dive into the merits of the golf course because the clubhouse can’t serve me a hotdog at the turn? Maybe for some that might matter, but if the intent is to discuss golf, then golf shall be discussed… hot dog’s and hot chocolates be damned.
Shackleford and McKellar were more upset about not disclosing Ran Morrissett, Ashley Mayo, Mike Keiser, and Ben Cowan-Dewar’s conflicts, being part of the Cabot brand while being on the ranking panel, but if we begin to disclose conflicts, the odds of everyone having a conflict is extremely high. I can think of people on the panel who belong to places like Somerset Hills or Sleepy Hollow, and there are numerous architects on the panel, including Tom Doak, Thomas McBroom, Dana Fry, and more. Generally, those who work in the industry or have stakes in the game are the ones who have seen the most. If their life is golf, they’ve seen more, and Golf Magazine makes panellists disclose conflicts to cover that base. On such a small panel (115 people in total), I imagine the crew that oversees the panel knows most of the conflicts anyway. Beyond The Contour‘s Canadian Top 100 panel has architects and club professionals, of which the BTC staff knows the conflicts and the background. It’s not hard to spot a statistical anomaly if Tom Doak submits his ballot he puts 15 of his courses in the top 20… likewise if Ben Cowan-Dewar, who wouldn’t be able to submit for Port Hardy anyway given his position at Cabot’s big boss, but if he did and submitted it top 5, well, it would stick out like a sore thumb.
This is by no means meant to come off as carrying the water for the Cabot brand. In fact, this website is trying to avoid that (we’ve openly criticized Cabot Cliffs, something most don’t do… which maybe means we’re crazy)! The point is, it feels like a silly point to keep hammering home just because a golf course with hype from Golf Digest, Golfweek, and Golf Magazine debuts inside the World Top 100. If it’s deserving, it’ll stay there. If it’s not, then it’ll fall off: instant reactions are natural in life, and it really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.
Under, Over, or Properly Rated
I am incapable of staying out of any golf course debate. For better or worse, too: it’s a passion, and I simply enjoy talking golf courses until I fall asleep or the cows come home or whatever silly analogy you want to use.
As such, I’m prepared to go to war over my own personal favourites. Truth be told, of the 26 golf courses I’ve played on the Top 100 list, I enjoyed every single one of them (understandable), but it was architect Ian Andrew, I think, who told me it’s easy to choose courses that should be on the list, but it’s harder to find the ones to replace the courses. So, in that spirit, here are five trades I’d make if it was my personal list.
- Jasper Park Lodge
- Cape Breton Highlands Links
- St. George’s
- Bethpage, Black
- Whistling Straits, Straits
- Bandon Dunes
- Yeamans Hall
After playing Bethpage Black in November, it is a bit of a shock to see it not only continue to hold on tightly to its spot in the World Top 100, but be highly ranked as well, with no future prospects of falling off. Sure, it is a mighty and heroic golf course with some spectactular holes—4, 5, 9 are three that immediately come to mind—but the green surfaces themselves are truly horrendous and lacking any character or interest, and the small details that make the World Top 100 so difficult to crack (mowing lines and some minor tree issues and what not) are not up-to-standard. It might as well be simulator golf: chipping and putting are a massive part of golf and a major part of what makes a golf course great, and to have that massive checkbox unchecked for Black means it gets docked major points for me.
The other four—Inverness, Bandon Dunes, Whistling Straits, Yeamans Hall—are all excellent and I’m not neccesarily upset with them being included, I just think Jasper Park Lodge’s sense of humour and adventerous spirit put it ahead, for example, or St. George’s strong (very strong) set of par 4’s. I love Kittansett’s low-profile, high-IQ bunkering scheme, which includes rock piles and aerial hazards not seen elsewhere. Pasatiempo is, well, Pasatiempo, and I’m always surprised to see it trailing behind SFGC/Cal Club debate, which I would personally have it firmly inside that group with an excellent set of green complexes and a rather impressive routing that handles more elevation change than Augusta National. Cape Breton Highlands Links is the lone exception, which I can see someone not agreeing because conditioning is such a battle there and it heavily depends on the winter, but the opening and closing stretches are way too good to leave off an honourable mention list, and the journey from the sea to the mountains and back is just as good as anything I’ve seen.
Among the courses that made it, I was a bit surprised to see the relatively large drop from Pinehurst No. 2, which fell four spots to outside the Top 20 (21st). Likewise for Pacific Dunes, which feels slightly underrated at 32nd now, behind places like Winged Foot’s West course and Oakland Hills’ famed South course. Both of which are fantastic and among my personal favourites, but it’s tough to beat Pacific. Even more confusing is the drop of 5 spots from Crystal Downs, further seperating the top 2 in Michigan (which would be a coin flip in my view). San Francisco fell 3, while Cal Club made ground moving up 3… the race for The Bay’s best is on! Of paricular note, I think The Lido at 68th is pretty underrated and will rise, a LOT, in the coming years.
The 1% of the 1% + The Future
Looking ahead, Top 100 lists will become more difficult to crack. As it currently stands, Te Arai’s Doak course just opened and did not have enough time to qualify for this list. Cabot’s second course at Castle Stuart with Doak should also be interesting, Cabot Citrus Farms is set to open, The Keiser’s in Colorado, Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw in Montana, and so much more. Golf is in a good spot, and as a result, numerous golf courses are being built, historic clubs are being restored (will Yale crack the World Top 100 once Gil is done?), and that threshold of a World Top 100 becomes even more difficult to crack. In my view, a Top 200 or Top 250 World makes sense, but alas, I’m not making that list!
Looking ahead, the one list I do oversee—on this website—is set to drop sometime in the first two quarters of 2024, with ballots out now. We’ve expanded our panel, doubling in size from 17 to 34. Requirements have changed from 2 of the 17 panellists to qualify to now 3 of the 33. More regional diversity, more input, and more opinions. I’m excited to finalize the list and release it. There is conflicts in our panel, but they are disclosed if panellists feel the conflict cannot be avoided, and occasionally, a score might be thrown out if a conflict produces an odd-result (this is extremely rare).
Truth be told, I find the entire anti-ranking list rather annoying. It’s all in good spirits, no different than a Top 100 Food ranking or the best cities to live in the world rankings, and any discussion around golf and golf artchitecture is a good thing… right? Anyone who takes it so serious like it’s the definitive guide to great golf is annoying; on the other side of the coin, anyone who wants to completely abolish the lists lives in a fantasy land. Golf in general should work on being less serious in general, and arguing over 15 spot swings to the point where things get hostile (as it so often does on Twitter) doesn’t shine a good light on golf. Have some fun you gremlins!