A confession here: Golf Digest’s course-ranking process has never been perfect, but it has always been transparent. So in the interest of full disclosure, let it be known that in past years our eight course-evaluation criteria were a bit cumbersome and confusing, not just to readers but to some of the 1,800 low-handicap male and female golfers who volunteer as panelists. So in 2018, we retooled our system by redefining and renaming four categories and tossing out two others in favor of two new ones. The result is a process that’s easier to understand; it’s also likely to generate some surprising changes in future rankings.
That’s because one of the new criteria we’ve introduced is called Fun.
Yeah, in all the years Golf Digest has been ranking golf courses—America’s 100 Greatest started in 1966, America’s Best New Courses started in 1983—we never gave much thought to fun. You could argue that we were too infatuated with the notion of championship golf, but honestly, what kept consideration of fun out of our previous course rankings was our desire to eliminate expressions of emotion in our deliberations.
In the past, we always strove to have our panelists judge courses clinically, dispassionately, without bias or favoritism. What changed? The realization that even back then, we had one category—Aesthetics—that relied on emotional reactions. Defined as “How well do the scenic values of the course add to the pleasure of a round?” it remains today as one of the two categories not redefined or eliminated in our revised format. (The other is Conditioning, which is not used in our Best New formula because new courses are still growing in and thus immature in turf qualities.)
In retrospect, our persistence in removing as much emotion as possible in our deliberations was probably a disservice to our readers. Fun is the foundation of golf. It’s why we play the game. Fun is also fundamental to every golf architect’s thought process. It’s what drives traffic to their products and generates repeat business. If a course design isn’t fun to play, it won’t survive.
As much as we want our panelists to be judges, not critics, we recognized that our course rankings lacked the emotional element that most golfers use in judging courses. Therefore, we now have a category called Fun: “How enjoyable for all levels of golfers would this course be to play on a regular basis?”
The 2020 Best New Course survey is the first to include Fun in the rankings formula. Whether it will be factored into next year’s ranking of America’s 100 Greatest remains to be seen—enough panelists have to judge all courses in that new category before we’ll be comfortable including its average score as part of the 100 Greatest formula in 2021—but if not then, certainly it will be included by 2023. (Fun replaces our old Playability category, which had perhaps the most convoluted definition of them all.)
Our other new category is Character, which replaces our Ambience criterion, the one we called our “catch-all” category. Character is defined as, “How well does the course design exude ingenuity and uniqueness and possess profound characteristics that you would consider outstanding for its era?” Its emphasis of comparing courses within eras will likely have an impact on our rankings as well.
As for the others, Shot Values has become Shot Options with a slightly revised definition: “How well does the course present a variety of options involving risks and rewards and require a wide range of shots?” Resistance to Scoring is now known as Challenge with a slight tweak in its definition: “How challenging, while still being fair, is the course for the typical scratch golfer playing from the tees designated as the back tees for everyday play (not the seldom-used championship tees)?” Design Variety is now Layout Variety: “How varied is the physical layout of the course in terms of differing lengths (long, medium and short par 3s, 4s and 5s), configurations (straight holes, doglegs left and right), hazard placement, green shapes and green contours?” Memorability is now Distinctiveness: “How individual is each hole when compared to all others on this course?”
By tradition, the Shot Options average score is given double weight over all others in every course-ranking formula, but as we said, it’s the new Fun factor that might prove to be the wild card.