A More Democratic Golf Course Ranking, For and By Players

Courtesy Ram's Hill Golf Club

Most rankings of the greatest golf courses are topped by the likes of Augusta National, Cypress Point or Pine Valley. While we all know those are great courses, the list isn't particularly useful to most golfers. The vast majority of players haven't a shot in hell at playing such hyper-exclusive clubs. Golf Advisor's ranking of the United States Top 50 golf courses dropped earlier this week, and it's created in a much different fashion. Rather than relying on experts and industry insiders with unfettered access, the Golf Advisor list is curated by everyday golfers who review the courses they play on the site.

According to Golf Advisor, players posted more than 100,000 reviews in 2016. "Anyone can review a golf course on Golf Advisor," according to the site's managing editor, Brandon Tucker. "You don't have to apply or be selected. There are other magazine panels where you have to pay to be on it. We provide the categories to rank, but a golfer of any ability, age, budget can rate the experience however they choose."

The results are radically different. This year's highest-rated course is Ram's Hill Golf Club in Borrego Springs, California, which most players probably haven't heard of. "It's certainly not as uniform as other Top 100s with a stricter criteria," Tucker said. "But I think it's as genuine as any." 

"My favorite part about doing the Top 50 is that with the other Top 100s, there are so few courses in the U.S. that meet the architectural threshold to even get panelists to come out and play the course," Tucker said. "Our list is so much more than course design, but more about the overall management of the facility from pace of play to conditions, so far more courses have the chance to be recognized."

Turnover on Golf Advisor's list is higher than other rankings as well. The 2016's iteration saw 37 new courses. "I think our list can be a lot more nimble than other Top 100s," Tucker said. "Golf courses are going to see results from investment quicker from paying customers than from industry panelists." Local players and golfers frequently shelling out for a round tend to notice and appreciate course upgrades and elevations in the level of service almost immediately. Where industry insiders may only experience the course once or twice before making a judgment.

Most of the courses on this list are not ‘destination' venues. Pebble Beach doesn't even make the cut. Most Golf Advisor reviews are of courses by players who live in close proximity. "Big destination courses are generally going to charge a little higher prices and often times have higher expectations to meet," Tucker said. "One other theme I've noticed this year is that off-the-beaten-path courses, located maybe a little farther away from a destination or city, deliver a neat, more remote setting and usually a little lower green fee and tend to be rewarded on our site." Because of their location, those facilities have to work a little harder to earn players' dollars and reviewers' respect.

Tucker has only been to 17 of these courses himself. But there are a couple he's excited to check out. "FarmLinks seems like such a neat setup in Alabama. There's a good stay-and-play component there, good for buddies trips," he said. "Scotch Hall Preserve also looks like one of the most affordable waterfront courses on the East Coast," making it worth a trip.

Check out the Golf Advisor's Top 50 Courses in the United States here