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Opinion: A Collective Opinion - Australian Golf Digest Opinion: A Collective Opinion - Australian Golf Digest

To what extent should a good experience matter when judging golf courses?

Quite probably the citizens of Rome ranked the gladiators performing before them in the Colosseum, though they didn’t have magazines or websites to publish the rankings. You can imagine the post-games chat: “Did you see the way Maximus chopped that Carthage fellow’s head off? Gotta put him in the top 10.”

In the same way among golfers, course rankings are a much-loved topic of discussion. Every time such rankings are issued, howls of outrage echo through the clubhouses of the land. Puzzled and upset faces scan the lists and heads are shaken. “How could they get it so wrong?” is the usual cry. Many golfers call for a second glass of claret after reading the list in order to restore mental equilibrium.

This, of course, is a good thing. Controversy is the meat in the sandwich of a good conversation after a tragic round of missed putts. It takes your mind off how poorly you’ve played.

But how are these rankings decided? What are the criteria, and how reliable are the panellists? In fact, who are these faceless pundits?

From about 1880 onwards, after the game of golf became widely popular in Britain, for many years the rules of the game differed depending on which golf club was hosting matches. In 1897, the R&A formed a rules committee and finally in 1899 a uniform set of rules was issued and universally accepted. This mirrors the way English common law came about. Henry II, first of the Plantagenet kings, insisted that instead of different law in different local parts of England there should be one law common throughout the kingdom, and thus English common law was born.

These two examples of unifying a code of rules to the benefit of golfers or citizens came to mind when the latest course rankings were published here in Australia under the guidance of this magazine’s sainted editors. The accepted practice in deciding rankings is to release a group of panellists on various courses armed with criteria such as shot values, resistance to scoring, memorability, ambience, design variety and conditioning. Points are awarded in each category and a tally recorded, thus resulting in a ranked list. Perhaps the identity of the panellists should be kept confidential for their physical protection, such can be the ire of golfers whose beloved course has not (in their opinion) received sufficient points. But in fact, the list of panellists is made public. These brave people have my admiration.

The reason course rankings are useful is because we golfers are wont to travel. Much of the glory of our game lies in this habit: golf is as much an enjoyable physical sport as it’s a social activity. That is to say, we take pleasure in playing the game with people we don’t hitherto know in a place we’ve not visited before. Investigating – and hopefully conquering – courses new to us is a particular joy, just as a keen fisherman might eagerly approach a new river, lake or beach.

One can accept that there is a vaguely objective notion of what a ‘good’ course should offer, though that notion, like a fine diamond, must possess many facets. But does the ranking system sufficiently account for certain negative features of a course? Many a wonderful course has too many trees. (This is not always the fault of the club; local councils can be quite idiotic in misunderstanding how excessive tree canopy detracts from golf.)

For me, the greatest pleasure is to play a course with local people who know the course and are good company. If the course is highly ranked, well, that’s an extra pleasure, but it’s not everything.

What the rankings can’t provide is an idea of the ease in which a visitor might have a round with a local golfer and the level of hospitality at the club or course. It’s no good playing a great course if you’re likely to be insulted or treated poorly in the pro shop or be shunned by the club members like a leper. A warm welcome makes all the difference. True, such matters are way too subjective for a publicly issued ranked list, but they do count. In the hospitality/warmth-of-welcome category, I’d rank Paraparaumu Beach Golf Club at the top of the Australasian courses.

Above all, what the course ranking lists show us is how blessed Australia is to have so many decent courses. This is not something due entirely to those alive and managing golf clubs or caring for turf today. It’s the product of a century or more of effort, sacrifice and pride. The history of Australia (and similarly New Zealand) has often been an effort to distinguish ourselves from our original mother country and culture in Britain, and show the world who and what we are on our own. We are not merely a derivative of something; we exist as ourselves. Our wonderful collection of golf courses proves that beyond doubt.