Want to think and talk like an expert course rater? Use this guide

November 23, 2019
Bandon Trails

Remember that old U.S. Navy commercial: “It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure”? Well, being a GOLF Magazine Top 100 Course Rater is kind of like that, minus reveille. Also, it’s not really a job at all. More like an avocation. Anyway, you probably don’t have enough free time or cash flow to jet around the globe playing the world’s great golf courses as a matter of course, reading biographies of C.B. Macdonald to pass the time. Tant pis, so much the worse, as they would say over a post-round cognac at Morfontaine, the Tom Simpson–designed Golden Age gem in France ranked No. 41 on this year’s list.

The next best thing might be for you to become a well-traveled GOLF writer, but I need this gig, so forget that. Plus, who wants to deal with the jet lag and lost clubs? All you really want to do is sound convincing at the 19th hole, lording your architectural wisdom and worldliness over the great unwashed who think a Redan is something you sleep on. You don’t need to speak in a brogue or peer at companions through a monocle, but you do need command of a few facts, concepts and bits of insider knowledge. Here’s how to fake it until that winning Powerball ticket comes through.


1. You Must Have an Underrated Favorite Course by a Famous Architect …

Any bleeping idiot can see the glories of, say, Pacific Dunes or Old Mac at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, and questioning Tom Doak’s artistry, while a ballsy move, will get you banned from design chat rooms faster than professing a love for fivesomes. But to brag on a little-known example of his work, preferably an early course that hints at where his craft will lead — now that’s the stuff. In this vein, mine used to be Doak’s Black Forest at Wilderness Valley, a heaving, rugged 18 in Northern Michigan. It was auctioned off by the IRS last year, so, hey, you have to follow the news, too!

2. …And Have a Contrarian Opinion About One, Too.

Bill Coore is a huge jerk! Okay, terrible example — he’s actually the nicest man in golf, but you get the idea. A course rater sometimes has to go against the flow to show that he’s got a mind of his own.

St. Andrews (Old Course)

St. Andrews, Scotland Nature, 1400s/Old Tom Morris

The birthplace of golf features blind bunkers, huge double greens, quirks such as the Road Hole and Hell Bunker and strategic options that vary with the day’s wind. The emphasis on variety and strategy became the foundation for strategic designs that followed, including Augusta National. The Old Course might well possess the fastest, best turf in all of golf (despite, or perhaps because of, its constant use) and no design possesses the flexibility in allowing a 10-year-old, 30-year-old, 50-year-old and 70-year-old to enjoy themselves as a group. Modern architects, take note! (No change)

Courtesy Photo

3. But Know the Sacred Cows

From Bobby Jones to Rory McIlroy, many prominent professional golfers have hated the Old Course at St. Andrews at first sight. It’s flat, it’s boring, it’s quirky, whatever. Eventually, they come around, and you’d better, too, if you know what’s good for you. It’s the “cradle of golf,” and you might as well criticize motherhood while you’re at it.

4. Have a Pair of Comfortable Shoes

“I was riding around Pebble Beach…” No, you were not. You were walking the course, because that’s what a course rater does, damnit! The “walk in the park” test is key to a track’s quality and appeal. A true rater will sometimes even walk a course without clubs, so as not to be distracted or impacted by his or her play. Myself, I’m gamboling about in a luxe pair of Royal Albartross Croco Black kicks, which have the added appeal of sounding like a Top 100 Course themselves.

5. Have a Few Cliff Clavins Handy

Ah, Cliffy, the Cheers character Top 100 raters most resemble and a repository of arcane historical nuggets. Here are two Cliffisms that’ll play well at the clubhouse bar: “Alister MacKenzie first learned about the principles of camouflage during the Boer War, when he served in the British Army as a civilian physician, and later used those principles in his course design.” “Myopia Hunt Club got its name by virtue of the fact that several of its founders came from Massachusetts’ Myopia Club, which itself was founded by four brothers with poor vision — and a very good sense of humor!”

6. Know, and Take a Stance on, a Controversial High-Flyer

Certain courses, while a fixture in the Top 100 rankings, still provoke heated debate as to whether their lofty perches are merited or the result of other, non-design factors, such as exclusivity, championship history or the Illuminati’s secret backing. Prime among these courses: Scotland’s Muirfield, San Francisco’s Olympic Club, and Seminole in Florida. Yea or nay doesn’t matter — just be at the ready with a “hot take.”

7. …And Know the Guy Behind the Guy

Any foodie worth his sea salt can tell you not just the name of the celebrity chef on the marquee but the chef de cuisine who’s sweating bullets in the kitchen. Likewise, a rater knows the “boots on the ground” for the top architects. Here’s a cheat sheet: Brian Slawnik and Brian Schneider (for Tom Doak); Dave Axland (for Coore/Crenshaw); Jim Wagner (for Gil Hanse); Nick Schaan (for David McLay Kidd).

8. Champion a Little- Known Designer

Remember Tony Lazzeri? No? The second baseman was a part of the New York Yankees’ famed “Murderers’ Row” lineup of the late 1920s. If you wanted to impress a baseball fan, you’d talk about Lazzeri, not Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig. And you’d have a neat factoid at the ready (see “Have a Few Cliff Clavins Handy”), e.g., Lazerri still holds the American League record for most RBI in a game with 11. You need your own Lazzeri. Consider Charles “Steamshovel” Banks, a cohort of C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor whose highly regarded original designs include Whippoorwill in New York and New Jersey’s Forsgate. Factoid: Banks was a Yale grad who taught at the esteemed Connecticut prep school Hotchkiss. He met Raynor when the latter was redoing the school’s course, then quit to join Raynor’s firm. School’s out… forever!

Juno Beach, FL Donald Ross, 1929

This posh coastal retreat designed by Donald Ross challenges with palms, sea grape bushes, ocean breezes and a varied routing that encompasses two dune ridges. So impressed was Ben Hogan with Seminole's virtues, that he would play and practice here for 30 straight days each year leading up to the Masters. (Down 11)

LC Lambrecht

9. Have a Favorite Strain of Grass

And it must be fescue. Case closed.

10. Study the Templates

Biarritz and Narrows, Alps and Cape — the rater knows his template holes like the back of his golf glove. He can recite his five favorite Redan holes at the drop of a bucket hat, with brownie points for a non–Macdonald- Raynor-Banks track. (Name-checking No. 2 at A.W. Tillinghast’s Somerset Hills in New Jersey will earn mega snaps.) Why are template holes so crucial? Because course raters know that even a bad template will have strategic interest, and strategic interest is to cracking the Top 100 as sweet vermouth is to a killer manhattan.

11. Be Worldly Wise

College graduates take the Grand Tour of Europe; golf course raters take the Grand Tour of Scotland and Ireland. Sure, you get some extra credit for including England (now home to 11 courses in the Top 100). Better still to trek the continent proper to play under-visited gems such as The Netherlands’ De Pan (Utrechtche), a 1929 H.S. Colt design debuting at No. 88. And everyone knows an Australia/New Zealand trek is de rigueur for Royal Melbourne, Kingston Heath, Cape Kidnappers, et. al. But true raters aren’t list chasers; they’re adventurers with a thirst for far-flung excursions that take in Africa, Asia and South America, where many of the 400-plus courses under consideration for Top 100 status reside and new candidates always emerge.

12. Keep Up with the Joneses

The Jones architecture dynasty is in its twilight phase; still, a would-be rater has no street cred if he doesn’t know his Robert Trent Jones Sr. from his Jr. from his Rees.

13. Belong to an Architecture Society or Online Forum

You think being a course rater is all jet-setting? Well, maybe … but Ivy League professors with tenure don’t just bumble their way into the gig, do they? Nor do they ever stop their own education. In a similar vein, raters pursue their abiding passions both offline and online — and make new friends (often with nice club memberships) in the process. Check out the Donald Ross Society (rosssociety.org), the Alister Mac- Kenzie Society (alistermackenzie.co.uk), or Google to see if your pet architect has a similar group. Also, for the most interesting golf architecture discussions on the Internet, with the least profanity, visit the granddaddy of such sites, Golf Club Atlas (golfclubatlas.com), cofounded by none other than GOLF’s architecture editor, Ran Morrissett.

14. Be Conversant on the Game’s Hippest New Tracks

Quick! Which of these is not a world-class course built this century?

A. Ohoopee Match Club
B. Sweetens Cove
C. Rock Creek Cattle Company
D. Sheep Ranch
E. Newman’s Own Salad Dressing

Why the cool new kids on the block no longer have “Golf Club” or “Country Club” at the end of their monikers is a question better suited to the marketing mavens. For wannabe-rater purposes, never mind what’s in a name. You need to know what makes them compelling. Oh, and the answer is E.

15. Have a Personal Ranking of All of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort’s Courses

You’ve been to Bandon, right? Otherwise we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I won’t bore you with my own list — remember, I’m not an official Top 100 Course Rater, I just play one in this article. But I will say that Bandon Trails sits at the summit. At least until Coore/Crenshaw’s Sheep Ranch officially opens this spring. I’ve already booked my ticket. You?

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