Rating golf courses is an inherently subjective enterprise, much like rating restaurants and novels. I may like F. Scott Fitzgerald while you prefer Jane Austen, and who’s to say which position is correct?
But while elements of personal taste and preference inevitably affect a golf course rating, I try to infuse as much objectivity as I can into the process.
When I worked for the Golf Magazine panel that ranked public golf courses and when I assessed resorts for Travel and Leisure Golf, I developed a 200-point rating system. It’s mine, but it’s not much different from the systems used by most conscientious course raters.
I grade the condition of every hole. I look for greens that are smooth and true, though I don’t care much how fast they are. I want fairway grass to be tight, without bare spots or weeds. I expect difficult lies in the rough, but I like the rough to be consistent; I don’t think a ball should nestle down on bare dirt, surrounded by tufts of turf. I like consistency in bunkers, too. They can be penal, but I don’t think a player should have to have four or five sand techniques because the bunkers differ widely from one hole to another. Each hole gets a rating from 1-3 on conditioning.
I grade the design of every hole on a scale of 1-5. Again, I have my preferences. I like holes that force the player to think and make decisions. I like holes that offer risks and rewards. I think the penalty for a bad shot should be graduated. I like holes that offer a hope, however slim, to recover from a bad shot. I like a course that requires great shots for birdies but allows the bogey player to have a pleasant round.
So, 144 of the 200 points are for the meat and potatoes of a golf course, design and maintenance.
When the round is over, I add up to 20 points if the course, as a whole, offered a lot of variety. Did it require four different clubs on the par threes? Were there uphill shots, downhill shots and doglegs in both directions? Were there short, finesse holes as well as long ones?
I think a great golf course should be a place where you’d like to take a walk even if you couldn’t play it, a place whose beauty soothes the spirit and fires the imagination. So I award up to 20 points for esthetics. I like courses with vistas, whether they be of oceans, lakes, mountains or the town of St. Andrews. I like to see birds, animals and flowers. I don’t like condo canyons, freeways and overhead power lines.
I award up to five points for service. Is the staff polite and efficient? Are there any extra touches, like towels and cold water?
I add up to six points for the practice facility, because I think good golfers often want to practice. If the course has a range with grass tees, a short-game area and a putting green, it gets all six points.
Finally, I think golf ought to be a walking game, and I award up to five points if a course is easily walkable and the management allows players to choose to walk.
This system isn’t perfectly objective, of course. But I do try not to let how well I play affect my judgment. If anything, I lean in the opposite direction. If I birdie a hole I tend to suspect it’s too easy.
Even the greatest courses I’ve played don’t get 200 points under this system, because even great courses generally have some holes (like, say, the 15th at Pebble Beach) that are mediocre. If a course scores over 150, I generally consider it an A. The threshold for a B is 140, and so on.