Ratings Are For Raters

Pebble Beach green fees have increased tenfold since first appearing at or near the top of "best-of" lists

Lately I’ve rehashed a conversation with Steven Hahn in the media lounge at the recent PGA Show. A single-digit player, golf editor of Atlanta-based The 19th Hole Magazine, and overall good guy, we met on a media trip to the Dominican Republic several years ago.

As a golf course rater for one of the national magazines, Steven defended the practice – at least that publication’s version of it – while I played devil’s advocate. Logic notwithstanding, I feared I was being a bit churlish.

After all, rankings of any kind are first and foremost an editorial gambit conceived to sell magazines, the centerfolds of special-interest publications: Even readers skeptical of the findings can’t resist a look. And isn’t it tough enough trying to move magazines these days? Why deny them this gimmick, if that’s what it is? Hadn’t I also served intermittently as a rater myself? I had.

The rhetorical cavalry arrived in the form of last week’s issue of The New Yorker (February 14 and 21), with an article by Malcolm Gladwell: “The Order of Things,” subtitled, “The problem with college rankings.” Coming from one of the best non-fiction writers working today, the treatment cogently skewers the plausibility of ranking “systems” – “an act of real audacity when a ranking system tries to be comprehensive and heterogeneous” – but uses US News & World Report’s ratings of colleges and universities, not golf courses, as a punching bag.

This ought to be required reading for every rating panel. Of course, I’m hardly the first to question their probity. Several years ago, George Peper offered a 3,000+-word apologia in LINKS Magazine for his part in inventing the idea of course ratings while editing GOLF Magazine for decades.

Peper offers a much more comprehensive taxonomy of the shortcomings of specific rating approaches. No reason to repeat that here. But in the OK-now-we’re-really-going-to-tackle-declining-participation mode said to pervade this year’s PGA show, it seems pertinent to reiterate one of the inherent flaws of ratings, according to Peper: “…countless courses have gone without the recognition they deserve.”

The same goes, naturally, for golf course architects.

The itinerary on another media trip, this one to Quebec, included an afternoon stop at a course we’d typically describe as a dog track: ponderous right-angle doglegs, blind shots with little or no visual cues as to target lines, marginal conditioning, you name it. So bad was it that my golf writer-playing companion deemed it unsuitable for mention to his readership.

The only trouble with his analysis was that the place was packed. Clearly, a segment of the local golfing public and/or visitors to this major vacation area preferred this “unpretentious” track to the resort’s top-notch – but top-dollar and mighty tough – full-sized layouts.

Realistically, I’m not optimistic that ratings are ever going to go away. But I do think they’re symptomatic of the talk-amongst-ourselves syndrome that plagues many industries, and certainly ours.

At the very least, maybe a grasp of marginal practices in attempting to attract participation will result in a bit less whining about middling results. Acknowledgement that ratings are for raters is somehow preferable to lofty claims of reader service.

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