You’ve read the rest, now read the best ranking there is, as we present our 17th evaluation of the Top 100 golf courses in Australia.
This is a golf-course ranking with a difference. For the first time in the 34-year history of our biennial assessment, not one new course opened in the two-year period spanning this list. Several reopened or were reworked, but there have been no genuinely new courses in Australia since the Greg Norman-designed Cathedral Lodge layout opened in rural Victoria in 2017.
It’s an alarming sign but one the local course-architecture fraternity is all too familiar with. New builds are rare, however redesign work remains prolific for some and paints a picture of the likely golf-course landscape here throughout the 2020s and beyond.
But that’s not to say there wasn’t much movement in the ranking for 2020-2021. The other major change is one you won’t see in these pages, at least not explicitly. After the 2018 ranking, we took the bold step of drastically increasing the number of judges. A 45-strong panel last time became 182 this time, with that quadrupling yielding more than 4,500 total votes spread across 263 different Australian courses. We didn’t just grab any old golfer off the street, either. All newcomers went through an application process and each now pays a fee to be part of the panel. In other words, they are knowledgeable, well-travelled and motivated to provide accurate feedback. Among the new panellists were a dozen women, giving the panel a much more balanced complexion than in the past.
Each panel member received an identification card to show at each course they saw (although many choose to visit anonymously, especially public-access courses) and a 16-page handbook to learn that outlines all procedures and protocols. In short, if you want to be on our panel [see below], you need to know your stuff and be committed to the task.
Our panellists also covered a lot of territory. For instance, 27 visited the remote (and excellent) Port Fairy course on Victoria’s south-west coastline and it reaped the benefit of such heavy patronage. Likewise, 12 judges in the last few months of the ranking period alone toured the time-honoured but troubled Palmer Coolum layout on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. They agreed the former home of the Australian PGA Championship was now back in a playable state and was in good enough shape to warrant its re-inclusion.
Ups and Downs, Ins and Outs
No one will be shocked to learn Royal Melbourne’s esteemed West course holds onto top spot once again, the 16th out of 17 times it has done so (including the years when we ranked only the Composite course). There was movement within the top three, however, and the West course’s closest pursuers remain close, numerically speaking.
The 2020 ranking witnessed plenty of movement in the middle and lower realms of the list. Much of it is due largely to the expanded judging panel and what in many cases are new viewpoints. For the second time our panel submitted their scores online, which allows us to dive deeper into the sea of figures, course-by-course and criterion-by-criterion. After extensive analysis, several big gains or drops were not attributable to anything other than new and different eyes appraising courses.
In the 17 editions of our Top 100 Courses ranking since publishing the first list in 1986, a total of 221 courses have at one time or another been included. Only 22 courses (down from 24 in 2018) have featured on the list each time, several of which you would imagine have a place in perpetuity.
Once again, the spread of points becomes narrower the farther down the list one peers. This time, 4.2 times as many points separate first and 50th compared to 50th and 100th. And the gaps become even skinnier for those courses fighting for the lowest positions, with mere decimal points splitting the tailenders. The upshot is: minor numerical shifts explain many of the smaller movements, especially at the lower end of the ranking.
Of the courses ranked here in 2018, Mount Compass Golf Course made the biggest move by leaping 23 places to 73rd. In the other direction, Twin Creeks fell 18 places to 93rd. Seven courses dropped out of the Top 100 (one due to permanent closure), while four were excluded [see below]. Bidding farewell for now are: Capricorn (Championship), Eynesbury, Indooroopilly (West), Macquarie Links, Paradise Palms, Ranfurlie and The Heritage (St John).
Thirteen courses are presently occupying their highest ranking. Overall there was more movement than in previous rankings, but change commensurate with many past rankings. Forty-three courses shifted by five places or more; that figure was 34 in 2018, 43 in 2016, 39 in 2014 and 42 in 2012.
This ranking period also saw the sad closure of Paradise Palms, which had never been ranked outside the Top 100, and North Lakes, which earned a place in the ranking four times during its 17-year lifespan.
Conversely, a few new courses do remain on the horizon – near Hobart, in coastal South Australia, on Kangaroo Island and perhaps more – and would certainly alter the look of our list in 2022 or 2024 and beyond. But if this year’s edition of Australia’s Top 100 Courses proves anything, it’s that even without a new kid enrolling, no one sits still for very long in the classroom of Aussie golf courses.
THE TOP 100 LIST: Read on for the Australian Golf Digest Top 100 for 2020/2021
Why Are Four Courses Missing?
In a rankings first, no brand new courses entered the Top 100 for 2020, with the only newcomers being reworked courses re-entering or established courses making the grade either for the first time or returning. That’s not to say there weren’t some compelling additions to the list.
Rejoining this time were the two Peninsula Kingswood layouts, which course-architecture critics and our judging panel have commended for the past year, along with Concord, which also sat out the 2018 list due to extensive renovation work that’s been well received. All three now enjoy rankings higher than they had in 2016.
Others coming in on merit rather than major overhauls were Cranbourne, Eastern’s South course, Horizons, Maroochy River, Mollymook’s Hilltop course, Palmer Resort Coolum and RACV Cape Schanck. Of those seven, Eastern and Maroochy River joined the Top 100 for the first time, while coincidentally, Horizons, Mollymook and Cape Schanck each come back after an absence of 16 years.
Two courses were intentionally (but temporarily) omitted from the 2020 ranking due to significant works rendering them unrateable: Castle Hill and the Gunnamatta (formerly Ocean) course at The National. Both reopened in November 2019, so with insufficient time to garner a fair number of votes. Two more – Killara and Yarra Yarra – were not considered as major course work remains in progress at both clubs.
So Near Yet So Far
The end of any ranking list means the beginning of another rundown of who or what missed out. The Top 100 is as competitive as ever, as shown by the calibre of the courses that didn’t make it.
Here, listed alphabetically rather than ranked, are 25 ‘fringe-dweller’ courses to watch out for in 2022 and beyond.
- Alice Springs
- The Heritage (St John)
- Indooroopilly (West)
- Kooralbyn Valley
- Long Reef
- Macquarie Links
- Palm Meadows
- Royal Fremantle
- Royal Hobart
- The Sands Torquay
- Twin Waters
- Yarrawonga Mulwala (Murray)
So You’d Like To Be On Our Panel?
Am I ready to be an Australian Golf Digest Top 100 Courses panellist?
Answer these true-or-false questions correctly and the answer is likely to be yes.
1. Now that I’m an AGD Top 100 Courses panellist I can expect to ring up any club, any time and enjoy free golf.
2. It should be expected that the courses I play well on are naturally going to rate better in my eyes.
3. The sign of a great golf course with strong Shot Values is one that asks me to use every club in my bag.
4. When judging a course’s Conditioning, disregard trees and vegetation.
5. Memorability is how well I can remember the course without holes blurring into one another.
6. I’m a woman so there’s no point in applying to be a golf course panellist.
1. False. Sorry to burst your bubble there, Freddie Freeloader, but while joining the country’s most respected course-ranking team does have its privileges (e.g. gaining access to world-renowned courses), waltzing onto any course and demanding a free slice of the action isn’t one of them. In fact, it’s left to the discretion of each individual club how they would like to treat judge access and green fees. Whether they charge or not has absolutely zero bearing on the scores they receive.
2. Absolutely false. And this is an important point. Panellists should never judge any course in any category by how well or how poorly a course fits their own particular golf game. To do so is to mark emotionally, giving high scores to places where one plays well and low scores to places where one plays poorly. That’s not what we’re looking for. We’re not running a popularity contest.
3. False again. In fact, it’s an old cliché, used mostly by golf course critics to sound profound. It’s now almost meaningless, mainly because no two golf bags contain the same 14 clubs anymore. If you’ve got four wedges in your bag, it says little about a course’s Shot Values and a lot about your game.
4. True. None of that applies to our definition of Conditioning, which is solely about firm and fast turfgrass. What you describe is grooming, which you may properly address in the Aesthetics category, because grooming is cosmetics, and Aesthetics is one of two categories where you do get to express emotion. If lush perfection of uniform turf excites you, you express that in Aesthetics, or in Ambience, if you think that’s a traditional value of golf worth upholding.
5. False. That’s precisely not the definition of Memorability. What this describes is a test of your memory. You deserve the 9.5, not the course. Memorability asks how individual are the holes while retaining a collective continuity from first hole to last.
6. The biggest false of the lot. We’re actually on the lookout for more female panellists to provide scores and comment that better reflects the 20-percent makeup of Australia’s golf membership population.
Think you have what it takes to join our panel? Send us an e-mail: [email protected]