Thick as a Brick: The Rolex World’s Top 1000 Golf Courses

“The spirit of golf is very much alive in this splendid Rolex book. Your duck hook or soaring slice can’t possibly spoil it for you.”

–Dan Jenkins, Golf Digest

The product behind the guide

Last month, I received an advance copy of The Rolex World’s Top 1000 Golf Courses. This 1,335-page compendium was sent to me because I was one of the undercover munchkins tapped to evaluate a pair of U.S. courses that ended up in the book.

In a way, Patricia Schultz’s groundbreaking “1,000 Places To See Before You Die” changed the publishing landscape. There is scarcely a title produced, especially among sports and travel books, that isn’t pegged to a key number, be it 50, 100 or 1,000.

But Rolex was an early player in the numbers game. Its current guide follows the success of Europe’s Top 1000 Golf Courses, which has been published since 1995.

The new book, which took three years to complete, assesses private, public and resort courses in every environment imaginable, and in countries (like Brunei, Pakistan and Uruguay) not often associated with golf. The handsome guide is the brainchild of Gaetan Mourgue d’Algue, one of France’s finest golfers in his heyday and founder of Golf European magazine and the Trophee Lancome, a prestigious tournament. D’Algue, who pushed for the formation of the European Tour, was assisted by his daughter Kristel, the 1995 NCAA individual champion and a former European Women’s Tour member; and Bruce Critchley, a former Walker Cup player and commentator with Sky Sports UK.

This team of golf-savvy individuals persuaded Rolex to take on the world. As a major sponsor of golf globally, Rolex was the ideal partner for D’Algue Selection, which has produced a totally independent (and charmingly quirky) independent world ranking for golf courses.

First, the book cover. It’s spectacular. The shot was taken from atop a cherry-picker 40 paces or so behind the eighth green at Pebble Beach looking back across the cove to the tawny bluffs, the clifftop fairway and the Pacific Ocean beyond it. The image captures perfectly the most dramatic second shot in golf, as Jack Nicklaus once described it. It makes a wonderful first impression.

Next, the methodology. A network of over 200 “inspectors” (enlightened amateurs, professional golfers, journalists specializing in golf course architecture) anonymously worked their way around the world, completing an in-depth questionnaire and adding incisive comments of their own.

According to the Foreword, “Our Editorial Committee has given each course a score, geared primarily to the excellence of the site, the course architecture involved, and of course maintenance and condition. After considerable deliberation and verification, we took the entire 33,000 courses currently registered worldwide and ended up with those we consider to be the Top 1000.”

Sixty-three countries are represented in the guide, a veritable United Nations of golf. “It is interesting to note,” the Foreward continues, “that 36% of the courses are to be found in the United States, 28% in Europe, with the fast developing countries of Asia Pacific having 23%, leaving 13% covering the rest of the world.”

Setting aside the ‘World’s Best’ lists published biennially by GOLF Magazine and Golf Digest,  the Rolex guide is to my knowledge the first truly comprehensive world ranking for golf courses ever published.

There is more. “Like all rankings it is of course subjective, but it is the result of unbiased and independent opinion with no commercial pressure,” the guide states. In other words, it invites debate and doesn’t pretend to be the last or final word. “The goal is for you to enjoy these treasures, be they the ancient links of Scotland and Ireland, gems from the Golden Age of American golf architecture, or luxury golf resorts in the Asia Pacific region.”

Australia's Kingston Heath scored a perfect 100

Set up like a Michelin or Peugot touring guide and printed on tissue-thin paper, the format is user-friendly. Countries are listed alphabetically, from Argentina to Wales. The maps are excellent. Australia, for example, has four full-page color maps and eight half-page maps, with its 65 ranked courses clearly marked on each.  There’s a pleasant introduction for each country citing the history, growth and development of the game, its current crop of top courses, and so on.  The language is a bit stilted—my guess is that the English was translated from French or another language, with all the idiosyncracies you’d expect. It’s small price to pay for such a worthy companion.

A single page is devoted to each course. Courses are listed alphabetically. Their geographic location is notated by a stylized national flag on a tiny map at the top of each page. There’s also a more detailed local map with distances from population centers gauged in kilometers and miles below the write-up, a very helpful feature for travelers.

As for the fine-print boilerplate, there’s the full name of the club, resort or course along with office, pro shop and FAX numbers, followed by website address, e-mail address, GPS coordinates, altitude, situation (Cypress Point, for example, is 3 miles from Pacific Grove) and airport closest to course (for Turnberry in Scotland, it’s Prestwick, 20 miles). There’s also a running line of information on availability of driving range, whether or not it’s “on grass,” plus details on  club rentals, trolleys, electric trolleys (golf carts), caddies, etc.

As for the golf course itself, the architect(s) and the year(s) they performed their duties are listed. The architects listed for the Old Course at St. Andrews, for instance, are Unknown (1754), Daw Anderson (1850), Old Tom Morris (1860) and Alister Mackenzie (1930). Next is the type of course (links, parkland, mountain, desert, etc.), notable tournaments hosted (if applicable), and whether or not it’s easy to walk (yes or no). If there’s a signature hole, it is noted. (At Augusta National, it’s No. 12). There’s also a facsimile scorecard, with length, par, slope and course rating listed from the Championship, Men and Ladies tees. All very helpful.

A section devoted to Fees and Restrictions covers the basics, including main season green fees, playing restrictions (“members’ guests only” at most of the private clubs), dress code  (“smart, shirts with collar, no denim” is the general rule), handicap required (mostly yes or no, but ‘Call the Club’ at Seminole), and information on annual or weekly closure, a key fact for traveling golfers. I guess it would have been too much to post aerification schedules.

One of the Rolex guide’s most useful entries is called ‘Around Golf.’ At the bottom of each page are found a couple of hotel and restaurant recommendations for each course plus two points of interest. The editors were not lazy. All three courses at Bandon Dunes are in the Top 1000 (the book went to press before the debut of Old Macdonald), and while there is some overlap in lodging options, there are varied recommendations for restaurants and points of interest on each page devoted to Bandon Dunes, Bandon Trails and Pacific Dunes.

As an extra bonus, the book contains a copy of the Simplified Rules of Golf published by the USGA. (Would that Dustin Johnson had a copy in hand before he stepped into that bunker on the 72nd hole of the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits!).

Of the 1000 courses listed, 362 are found in the U.S., 282 in Europe, 237 in Asia-Pacific and 119 elsewhere. While acknowledging Charles Blair Macdonald as “the first home grown American to take the game seriously,” the guide states emphatically that “Golf (in the U.S.) didn’t really catch on until a young Francis Ouimet beat two established stars in Harry Vardon and Ted Ray from England in the 1913 US Open. That opened the eyes of Americans to the possibilities of this elegant pastime and when they added to it the ‘country club’ format and saw the role it could play within the community, the game took off.”

Of course, this growth came with a downside, which the book is quick to point out. “They (the U.S.) developed some of the most exclusive private clubs and awarded themselves some of the very best courses; so while many are to be found in this guide, they really are without access unless you are a friend of a member.” You mean I just can’t show up at San Francisco GC because I love the description in the book and want to play one of A.W. Tillinghast’s first designs?  Afraid not.

Now for the important part: the grades. There is a world ranking for all 1000 courses starting on page 29. Ratings are in five-point increments, descending from a high of 100 to a low of 75.

Rolex has awarded a top score of 100 to just 15 exceptional courses, “each of singular historical and architectural merit.” There are three in Scotland (Carnoustie, Muirfield, the Old Course at St. Andrews); two in England (Royal Birkdale, Sunningdale – New), two in Ireland (Portmarnock, Royal County Down); six in the U.S. (Augusta National, Bethpage – Black, Cypress Point, Oakmont, Pine Valley, Torrey Pines – South); and two in Australia (Kingston Heath, Royal Adelaide).

As noted, the authors give fair warning that the rankings are subjective, but there’s one course in the elite 15 that just doesn’t belong: Sunningdale – New. In my opinion, based on my outing there several years ago, it should be ranked no higher than the Old, which gets a 95. It probably  deserves a 90, in the same class with its Surrey neighbor, Walton Heath (New and Old).

I defer to my dear friend Jim Finegan in all matters pertaining to British golf. “Sunningdale, twenty-two miles from Piccadilly Circus, is often pointed to as the surpassing venue for heathland golf, ” he writes in All Courses Great and Small, his gem of a book devoted to England and Wales. He goes on to say that “pure enchantment” characterizes Sunningdale Old, and I wholeheartedly agree. The New, designed by H.S. Colt, who also touched up the Old, “is perhaps a bit more rugged than the Old, a bit more masculine.” It is also, as he says, “somewhat bleaker in prospect.” While a sturdy test of golf with a fine collection of par threes, it lacks the charm, subtlety and beauty of the Old.

Quite frankly, there are two Irish courses ranked 95 by Rolex that deserve a perfect score. Both are superior on all counts to Sunningdale – New. In fact, Patricia Schultz herself, who I’m guessing is not a golfer, got it right in her book by dedicating individual entries to Ballybunion, the Co. Kerry tour de force saluted by Herbert Warren Wind as “nothing less than the finest seaside course I have ever seen;” and to Royal Portrush, its Dunluce Course a brawling, wondrous links that hosted the British Open (1951) and is in my opinion H.S. Colt’s enduring masterpiece.

Both of these links—Ballybunion and Royal Portrush–offer a wealth of pleasureable excitement, high drama from start to finish, plus equal demands for power and finesse. Both are off the charts for aesthetics: broad panoramas of the ocean’s rolling combers from the seaside holes at Ballybunion; spectacular views of sheer white cliffs and the boiling sea at Royal Portrush, which also boasts the greatest long par three in Britain at ‘Calamity Corner,’ its famed 14th hole.

Lahinch deserves better than an 85

While we’re in Ireland, another pet peeve: Doonbeg (90) does not deserve to rank ahead of Lahinch (85), especially in light of Martin Hawtree’s inspired revisions to Lahinch, often called “the St. Andrews of Ireland.” Besides, does anyone really believe that Greg Norman, handicapped by a 70-acre protected snail habitat at Doonbeg that resulted in a disjointed routing, exceeded the efforts of Old Tom Morris (1893) and Alister Mackenzie (1927) at Lahinch? (The book sows the seeds of its own demise by quoting Old Tom, who said Lahinch was “as fine a natural course as it has ever been my good fortune to play over.” Mackenzie, also quoted, described Lahinch as, “The finest and most popular course that I or I believe anyone else ever constructed.”)  No shark can bite through those two.

Everything else seems in reasonable order, but I wish Rolex had not seen fit to truncate proper names, especially when it comes to “Hill” and “Hills.” In the U.S., the Hills were O.K. for Cherry, Sand and Jupiter, but why not Shinnecock? For anyone who has ever seen or walked the course, the name is incomplete without the Hills. Ditto Spyglass. There’s no Robert Louis Stevenson romance at Spyglass (or even a proper view) without the Hill.

The Rolex World’s Top 1000 Golf Courses guide will be on sale at Amazon, in major golf stores and selected pro shops at a retail price of $35. The following website is expected to be activated shortly:

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)