Golf course rankings: Power to the people

Kevin Markham looks at a new breed of golf course rankings...

Let’s do something: take a moment and write down your top 10 Irish golf courses.

Go on, I’ll wait.

OK, now put that list to one side and let it settle.

Almost every golf magazine you can think of produces a course ranking of some description… top 100, best 50 under €50, 20 hidden gems… and as soon as it is published, people pile in to criticise it.

That’s human nature. How many people will ever agree on a ranking after all, be it restaurants, beer or airlines? Golf courses are tougher still as their landscapes vary so much. Factor in cost, conditioning, expectation, weather, how well you played and whether or not you got lost en route to the course and it’s a minefield of personal opinions. Add on a moment of brilliant customer service or the proverbial ‘fly in your soup’ and an unshakeable opinion is formed.

Developing such golf rankings has been the preserve of experts (course architects, club managers, professionals, golf writers) for years but more recently there has been a shift towards people power, facilitated by the internet.

The reach is global and the opportunity to express opinions is endless — and boy do we like to express our opinions online! This has been harnessed by two recent golf course rankings… determined entirely by online votes.

It goes without saying that amateur golfers do not assess design nuances and shot-making requirements in the same way as the experts, but is that a flaw or a strength? And rankings can easily be influenced by a club contacting its members and encouraging them to take part in the survey – you only have to look at the Golfing Weekly Top 50 list below to see a few unexpected names (e.g. Wexford at 50, Royal Tara at 27, Malahide at 21).

Nevertheless, this is about the ‘readers vote’ and that makes it a relevant and interesting ranking.

Golfing Weekly

The weekly ezine runs a top 50 Parkland and top 50 Links ranking. It was developed by Peter Finnan (now running IrishGolfer Magazine) over two years ago and the number of participating golfers has increased year on year. For the 2016 Ireland’s Top 50 Parklands there were 96,125 ranking votes (by 4,165 readers), which is a pretty hefty number all things considered. Only one vote is allowed per IP address to keep things honest.

Voters were asked to enter up to 50 course names on the online survey, ranking them as they saw fit. You could enter four names or 40 depending on how much you wanted to get involved and how widely you have played golf across the island. It’s not difficult to see how this imbalance could skew results but the magazine takes the data and subjects it to algorithms so complex even Einstein would get a headache.

Computers mash up the numbers and out pop the results. For 2016, Druid’s Glen took the top spot, beating the K Club (Palmer) and Mount Juliet into 2nd and 3rd, respectively.

The top 10 looks like this (with previous year’s ranking alongside): 1. Druid’s Glen (4th) 2. K Club Palmer (1st) 3. Mount Juliet (2nd) 4. Slieve Russell (10th) 5. Lough Erne (5th) 6. Fota Island (20th) 7. Killeen Castle (6th) 8. Carton House Montgomerie (16th) 9. Cork (11th) 10. The Heritage (7th).

Year on year, traditional top 10s don’t fluctuate this much but it’s pretty obvious that the public vote has more volatility, dictated by who votes and how many votes are cast. It explains why a course such as Fota Island has jumped from 20th to 6th: after all, the quality of this glamorous parkland hasn’t changed in recent years. And given that Cork Golf Club has risen from 11th to 9th, it would seem that more golfers from Munster voted in this year’s poll. (Adare was not included as it is closed for the year.)

Just Golf

Just Golf is Ireland’s number one daily deals golf company. It has been operating very successfully here for several years, offering green fee discounts at a range of golf clubs and numerous other promotions. The company has built a strong community which it interacts with frequently.

One such interaction asked golfers to select their top 25 Irish parklands. The ranking was published in February and the top 10 are as follows (with previous year’s ranking alongside):

1. Mount Juliet (1st); 2. Druid’s Glen (2nd); 3. The K Club Palmer; (4th) 4. Fota Island (13th); 5. Adare (5th); 6. Concra Wood (3rd); 7. Carton House O’Meara (13th); 8. Killeen Castle (14th); 9. Lough Erne (10th); 10. Headfort New (9th).

“We wanted to try something a little different,” says Kevin Turner, the company’s Digital Marketing Executive. “The Just Golf community like to voice their opinions so we asked them to select their top parkland courses. We received 2,464 unique votes and we believe this has created an unbiased ranking of the best courses in Ireland, from the average Irish golfer’s point of view.

“Everyone knows that we have an abundance of amazing courses, and naturally many of the renowned courses cater to international golfers, but what we wanted was a fully Irish perspective based on what Irish golfers play.”

Turner makes a fair comment and it is one that should be appreciated. The average golfer wants to know what other average golfers think. These rankings do that and, while neither is founded on industry expertise or experience, the process provides a useful perspective. First, it means different and often unexpected courses can be pushed into the limelight. Second, despite the different formats, they still bear similarities to the more traditional rankings: of Golfing Weekly’s top 10, seven appear in the top 10 of Golf World magazine’s best parkland courses; for Just Golf, it is eight.

More interesting still is that Just Golf’s top three courses correspond with Golfing Weekly’s top three, if in a different order. That alone serves to validate the different approach… not to mention the quality of the courses. People power certainly has its place, which brings me back to that list you wrote at the beginning.

Take another look. Are you going to stick with that order? What about the couple of courses that you thought of but didn’t include? Is it time for a little manipulation, perhaps?

You can see why it’s so difficult to develop any golf course ranking but at least now you can have your say.


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