Breaking down the Golf Digest Rankings


Many of you probably received your May 2011 issue of Golf Digest in the mail last week. If you made it past Rickie Fowler's bright orange pants, you probably noticed that this issue included Golf Digest's latest ranking of America's 100 Greatest Courses. You can find the rankings online here. Augusta National maintains its edge over Pine Valley for the top spot, although Pine Valley sits only .38 behind. The Alotian Club, a Tom Fazio-designed Augusta clone in Arkansas, debuted at 14th, making it Golf Digest's course of the decade for the 2000's (just edging out Pacific Dunes).

Golf Digest uses a strict formula of seven categories to differentiate between good and great. Panelists rate Shot Values, Resistance to Scoring, Design Variety, Memorability, Aesthetics, Conditioning on Ambience on a scale from 1 to 10, with Shot Values counting double in the final tally.

The category-by-category scores for the top 100 courses are usually included in print, but this time they just put them up online (here).

For the most part, the category scores are very highly correlated with each other and the course's overall score - for instance, Memorability is 93% correlated with Design Variety, 86% correlated with Aesthetics and 88% correlated with shot values. Instead of just rehashing best and worst in each category, let's look at a course's relative strengths and weaknesses as measured by a given category's contribution to its overall score. Since each score contributes 1/8th to its total score, the baseline contribution is 12.5% for each category score.

The numbers below are interesting in they help explain why a course is on the list, or perhaps why it isn't ranked higher. This may also show what a course "is all about" or "not all about" (assuming you can decipher the category definitions), relatively speaking. If a particular group of courses in a category strike you as being overrated, that probably means you think the category is less important in defining greatness, and vice versa. And perhaps courses included in a highest or lowest category along with a personal favorite are likely to be courses you'd also enjoy.

[Note: these numbers were first published on GolfClubAtlas and are shown here courtesy of Jim Colton, the original author.]

How well does the course pose risks and rewards and equally test length, accuracy and finesse?

1Hazeltine National12.76%Sage Valley11.93%
2Inverness12.71%Diamond Creek Golf Club12.00%
3Harbour Town12.71%The Quarry at La Quinta12.01%
4Pinehurst (No. 2)12.70%The Alotian Club12.07%
5Southern Hills12.67%The Club at Black Rock12.07%
6Bethpage Black12.67%Canyata12.09%
7Prairie Dunes12.64%Mayacama12.11%
8The Prince Course12.63%Maidstone Club12.13%
9Aronimink12.62%Double Eagle12.14%
10Ballyneal12.59%Cypress Point12.14%

How difficult, while still being fair, is the course for a scratch player from the back tees?

1Bethpage Black13.44%Cypress Point11.13%
2Hazeltine National13.38%Shoreacres11.35%
3Butler National13.17%Maidstone Club11.45%
4Spyglass Hill13.14%Fishers Island11.50%
5Ocean Forest13.13%National Golf Links of America11.57%
6The Ocean Course13.13%Somerset Hills11.68%
7Winged Food (West)13.08%Shadow Creek11.69%
8TPC Sawgrass (Players)13.04%Monterey Peninsula (Shore)11.73%
9Oakland Hills (South)12.99%Sage Valley11.73%
10Victoria National12.94%San Francisco11.75%

How varied are the golf course's holes in differing lengths, configurations, hazard placements, green shapes and green contours?

1Somerset Hills13.00%Aronimink11.87%
2Pete Dye Golf Club12.93%Baltusrol (Lower)12.00%
3Ballyneal12.86%Sahalee (South/North)12.01%
4Friar's Head12.85%Medinah No. 312.01%
5Crystal Downs12.85%Diamond Creek Golf Club12.02%
6National Golf Links of America12.81%East Lake12.03%
7Boston Golf Club12.78%Sage Valley12.07%
8Fishers Island12.75%The Alotian Club12.08%
9Cypress Point12.75%The Preserve12.12%
10Shoreacres12.72%Laurel Valley12.17%

How well do the design features (tees, fairways, greens, hazards, vegetation and terrain) provide individuality to each hole, yet a collective continuity to the entire 18?

1Pebble Beach13.39%Aronimink11.97%
2Cypress Point13.39%Double Eagle12.01%
3Fishers Island13.35%Olympia Fields (North)12.11%
4Maidstone Club13.23%Butler National12.11%
5Augusta National13.09%Hazeltine National12.12%
6Arcadia Bluffs13.03%Congressional12.13%
7National Golf Links of America13.02%Eagle Point12.14%
8TPC Sawgrass (Players)13.00%Sahalee (South/North)12.21%
9The Prince Course12.98%Diamond Creek Golf Club12.21%
10Shadow Creek12.88%Baltusrol (Lower)12.22%

How well do the scenic values of the course (including landscaping, vegetation, water features and backdrops) add to the pleasure of a round?

1Maidstone Club13.54%Oakmont C.C.11.82%
2Cypress Point13.49%Hazeltine National11.83%
3Fishers Island13.49%Butler National11.89%
4Monterey Peninsula (Shore)13.45%Bethpage Black11.90%
5Pebble Beach13.45%Crooked Stick11.90%
6Arcadia Bluffs13.30%Pinehurst (No. 2)11.95%
7The Club at Black Rock13.26%Winged Food (West)11.97%
8Bandon Dunes13.24%Baltusrol (Lower)12.00%
9Pacific Dunes13.23%Plainfield12.03%
10Kapalua (Plantation)13.22%Inverness12.04%

How firm, fast and rolling were the fairways, and how firm yet receptive were the greens on the day you played the course?

1The Quarry at La Quinta13.84%The Prince Course10.94%
2Double Eagle13.82%Fishers Island11.28%
3Diamond Creek Golf Club13.49%Pebble Beach11.31%
4Sage Valley13.34%Ballyneal11.51%
5Canyata13.25%Whistling Straits (Straits)11.57%
6The Preserve13.10%Maidstone Club11.61%
7Eagle Point13.10%Pacific Dunes11.62%
8Forest Dunes13.06%Harbour Town11.64%
9Mayacama13.04%Bandon Dunes11.70%
10Flint Hills13.00%Pinehurst (No. 2)11.71%

How well does the overall feel and atmosphere of the course reflect or uphold the traditional values of the game?

1The Country Club13.53%Arcadia Bluffs12.15%
2Garden City13.52%Bethpage Black12.03%
3Maidstone Club13.41%Forest Dunes12.19%
4San Francisco13.41%Forest Highlands12.28%
5Winged Food (East)13.32%Friar's Head12.24%
6Sage Valley13.29%Galloway National12.02%
7Chicago Golf13.28%Pete Dye Golf Club12.01%
8Seminole13.25%The Prince Course12.11%
9Merion (East)13.25%TPC Sawgrass (Players)12.15%
10Cypress Point13.23%Victoria National12.20%

To add a twist, now let's compare the difference in relative strength between one category and another. I think is even more telling in identifying what kind of courses you tend to favor. Looking at the courses listed, I tend to be a Shot Values and Design Variety guy versus Conditioning and Resistance to Scoring. Ask yourself if you had to pick between only playing the 10 courses on one side of the list versus another, which one would you choose?

Memorability vs. Aesthetics (Correlation: 85.9%)

I tend to get the definitions of Memorability and Aesthetics confused in my head, especially because the scores are highly correlated (have ocean, will travel). But looking at the difference in relative scores, you can see which courses are high in one but not the other. Viewed this way, it is clear that Memorability is in viewed in terms of having memorable, photogenic and/or famous holes, where Aesthetics is more geared towards the surroundings and/or backdrops.

My pick: Memorability

1.TPC Sawgrass (Players)0.93%--Diamond Creek Golf Club-0.83%
2.Bethpage Black0.86%--The Quarry at La Quinta-0.71%
3.Oakmont C.C.0.68%--The Preserve-0.71%
4.Prairie Dunes0.58%--Monterey Peninsula (Shore)-0.67%
5.Riviera Country Club0.52%--Mayacama-0.57%
6.Pinehurst (No. 2)0.49%--Mountaintop-0.57%
7.Merion (East)0.48%--Sahalee (South/North)-0.53%
8.Chicago Golf0.44%--The Alotian Club-0.52%
9.Pine Valley0.43%--Sebonack-0.47%
10.Crooked Stick0.43%--Wade Hampton-0.46%

Shot Values vs. Conditioning (Correlation: 37.8%)

Golf Digest changed the definition of Condition before the 2009 rankings to incent less watering and firm and fast conditions. Looking at the individual category rank above, it begs the question whether it's really having an impact. Most of the courses known for having the epitome of links golf in the U.S. (the courses at Bandon, Fishers Island, etc) are among the bottom 10 in relative strength in that category. Fazio owns the right side of the table below.

My pick: Shot Values

1.The Prince Course1.69%--The Quarry at La Quinta-1.83%
2Ballyneal1.08%--Double Eagle-1.68%
3.Harbour Town1.07%--Diamond Creek Golf Club-1.49%
4.Pinehurst (No. 2)0.99%--Sage Valley-1.42%
5.Pebble Beach0.96%--Canyata-1.17%
6.Fishers Island0.96%--The Preserve-0.94%
7.Whistling Straits (Straits)0.82%--Mayacama-0.93%
8.TPC Sawgrass (Players)0.76%--Eagle Point-0.80%
9.Pine Valley0.74%--The Alotian Club-0.71%
10.Pacific Dunes0.70%--The Estancia Club-0.71%

Shot Values vs. Resistance to Scoring (Correlation: 82.3%)

No big surprises on this list. A lot of shorter, classic courses on the Shot Values side. Mostly well-known brutes on the Resistance to Scoring side.

My pick: Shot Values

1.Shoreacres1.03%--Ocean Forest-0.79%
2.Cypress Point1.01%--Bethpage Black-0.77%
3.Fishers Island0.74%--The Ocean Course-0.74%
4.National Golf Links of America0.69%--Spyglass Hill-0.69%
5.Maidstone Club0.69%--Butler National-0.66%
6.Somerset Hills0.64%--Hazeltine National-0.62%
7.Shadow Creek0.61%--Oakland Hills (South)-0.54%
8.Monterey Peninsula (Shore)0.54%--Winged Foot (West)-0.51%
9.Garden City0.50%--Rich Harvest Links-0.47%
10.Ballyneal0.47%--Baltusrol (Lower)-0.45%

Memorability vs. Ambience (Correlation: 77.8%)

Ambience tends to reward classic courses that are more likely to support the traditional values of the game, probably because they played a large role in setting those traditions. Golf Digest doesn't predefine what these traditional values are, but I would assume things like caddie programs, walking only, etc.

My pick: Ambience

1.Arcadia Bluffs0.88%--Aronimink-1.20%
2.The Prince Course0.87%--Winged Foot (East)-0.95%
3.TPC Sawgrass (Players)0.85%--Peachtree-0.95%
4.Pete Dye Golf Club0.82%--Baltusrol (Lower)-0.92%
5.Bethpage Black0.74%--The Country Club-0.88%
6.Pebble Beach0.66%--Garden City-0.85%
7.Galloway National0.62%--Double Eagle-0.84%
8.Kapalua (Plantation)0.57%--Winged Foot (West)-0.84%
9.Victoria National0.50%--East Lake-0.79%
10.The Club at Black Rock0.49%--Cherry Hills-0.78%

Resistance to Scoring vs. Design Variety (Correlation: 56.2%)

This one looks very similar to the Difficulty vs. Shot Values comparison above, with many shorter, classic courses making the right side and many major championship tests included on the left. Other than Shadow Creek, I could play out on my string on the right side and die a happy man. A true murderer's row.

My pick: Design Variety

1.Hazeltine National1.04%--Cypress Point-1.62%
3.Butler National0.98%--Somerset Hills-1.33%
4.Ocean Forest0.95%--Fishers Island-1.25%
5.Bethpage Black0.89%--National Golf Links of America-1.23%
6.The Ocean Course0.89%--Maidstone Club-1.05%
7.Baltusrol (Lower)0.86%--Shadow Creek-1.01%
8.Medinah No. 30.85%--Monterey Peninsula (Shore)-0.84%
9.Winged Foot (West)0.81%--San Francisco-0.83%
10.Spyglass Hill0.72%--Ballyneal-0.74%

Shot Values vs. Design Variety (Correlation: 87.8%)

It looks like Shot Values and Design Variety are definitely my personal favorites, so what happens when you stack them up against each other? Initially, I would've considered my self a Shot Values guy, but I have to side with any list that includes Cypress Point, Crystal Downs, NGLA and Friar's Head.

My pick: Design Variety

.Aronimink0.75%--Somerset Hills-0.69%
.Medinah No. 30.55%--Cypress Point-0.61%
.Inverness0.53%--The Club at Black Rock-0.55%
.Sahalee (South/North)0.45%--Crystal Downs-0.54%
.Hazeltine National0.42%--National Golf Links of America-0.54%
.Baltusrol (Lower)0.41%--Fishers Island-0.51%
.Southern Hills0.38%--Boston Golf Club-0.47%
.Butler National0.32%--Friar's Head-0.44%
.East Lake0.31%--Shadow Creek-0.41%
.Winged Foot (West)0.30%--Pete Dye Golf Club-0.38%


  1. Mitch said...:

    This is very interesting, I only disagree with one thing. I can't see BN as being that low when it comes to the "Conditioning" if they are actually judging how "Firm, fast and rolling were the fairways, and how firm yet receptive were the greens." Pretty sure BN is #1 there.

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