What’s it like to be a course rater? Meet 6 of ours

December 1, 2019

Any “best” or “greatest” list is, at its core, a study in subjectivity, our Top 100 Courses in the World rank being no stranger to the whims of human taste. We’re more than fine with that, if for the only reason that the folks who rate courses on GOLF’s behalf have the keenest eyes in golf architecture.

We empower and hold accountable a group of 80 well-traveled — and well-connected — golfers/aficionados, each capable of expressing their own sense of design excellence at the highest level. The group is seasoned and experienced — we look for raters who know what’s out there, what’s changing and what’s coming down the pike. And from judging posts across four continents, our panelists are positioned to place courses from different regions around the globe into proper context, one of the main reasons GOLF’s world list is the most esteemed in the game.

Read on to get to know six members of our illustrious panel.

Kristel Mourge d’Algue-Lawton
Bordeaux, France
Age: 46
Handicap: 0

For Kristel Mourge d’Algue-Lawton, one of our newest raters, good course management requires an understanding of good course design — something she was lucky to acquire at a very early age. Both of her parents played on national French teams, in addition to building golf courses in France and Africa. “The more I understood the intricacies of architecture,” she says, “the better my scores were and the more fun I had.” Though she is a scratch player — and the winner of nine national French titles herself — she says the ability to assess a course is “not a question of handicap; it’s a question of having studied the architecture craft and played enough diverse courses to have an overview of the world’s courses.” Kristel, unquestionably, is more than qualified on all fronts.

Mourge d’Algue-Lawton’s Top 3: Augusta National, National Golf Links, St. Andrews (Old Course)

John Dempsey
Pinehurst, N.C.
Age: 74
Handicap: 11

John Dempsey likes to get around. He lives in Pinehurst, where for 30 years he’s served as president of Sandhills Community College — and played bucketfuls of sandy golf. He spends chunks of each spring in Florida, tracking the preseason fortunes of his beloved Phillies and exploring new courses. He also has a summer home in Scotland — despite his Irish heritage. “I caught the golf bug as a student at Notre Dame,” he says. “While everyone else went to class, I’d take my Arnold Palmer starter set to the campus course and play for a $1.50.” A rater since 1995, Dempsey has two trustworthy rules of thumb when it comes to assessing a world-class track. “The quality of architecture I enjoy most is when I walk up to the ball and there are five different ways I can hit the shot. That’s when you know you’re playing somewhere special. That, and when you walk off 18 and ask, ‘Can I do that again?’ ”

Dempsey’s Top 3: Augusta National, Pine Valley, Shinnecock

Lukas Michel
Victoria, Australia
Age: 25
Handicap: +4

When it comes to course raters, there are players and there are players. Lukas Michel is the latter. In September, the Aussie caddie became the first non-American to win the U.S. Mid-Am, which, understandably, has him thinking about a playing career. But he’s already a full-time appreciator of a proper layout. “Living in the heart of the Melbourne sandbelt and playing the great courses here, it’s difficult not to be passionate about great design,” Michel said. No doubt. But his true competitive advantage as a rater comes from competitive travels, which have taken him from Portrush to Pinehurst and beyond. During event weeks, he usually gets to play a course five or six times. “That way, you’re actively engaged in understanding the strategies presented on each hole. I come away with a richer understanding of the architect’s design intent.” And a lower score than us mortals.

Michel’s Top 3: Pine Valley, Royal County Down, Royal Melbourne (West)

Bob Ranum
Southampton, N.Y.
Age: 66
Handicap: 11.8

Atlantic GC’s loss is GOLF’s gain. Until his retirement last October, Bob Ranum was the only superintendent the Rees Jones–designed course in Bridgehampton, N.Y., ever had. Ranum’s overall greenskeeping career spans 43 years — 30 of them at Atlantic. Now he’s a member there and one of GOLF’s newest raters. In the coming 12 months, Ranum has plans to play 47 courses in 11 different states. “I told my wife, ‘For the next four or five years, we better keep our bags packed,’ ” he says. After a long career in the game, Ranum knows what appeals to him when it comes to course design and architecture. “I’m a big angle guy and green-contour guy,” he says. “I like wide fairways because they give you different avenues and angles to navigate. And I definitely prefer treeless courses. Give me a design with windswept fescue over treelined any day.”

Ranum’s Top 3: Royal County Down, Pebble Beach, Shinnecock

Simon Holt
Edinburgh, Scotland
Age: 38
Handicap: 4

When Simon Holt finally teed it up at Morfontaine in May, he felt like a freed man. The French gem was the final Top 100 course Holt needed to check off to become the youngest of our panelists to play every course on our World list. “As soon as I hit that first tee shot, all the weight was off my shoulders,” he says. Holt grew up in North Berwick and is a member at historic North Berwick Golf Club. He caddied there growing up and later at St. Andrews, when he was going to school, but it wasn’t until ’09 when he started to take a real interest in course architecture. His fascination blossomed when he started reading Golf Club Atlas. He and a friend now run a luxury tour business called Connoisseur Golf. “Golfers are kindred spirits across the planet,” Holt says. “Everywhere I’ve played I’ve been made to feel welcome.”

Holt’s Top 3: Royal Melbourne (West), Muirfield, Paraparaumu

Gary Lisbon
Malvern East, Australia
Age: 52
Handicap: 9.9

Gary Lisbon helps GOLF’s ranking go global and look gorgeous along the way. The course photographer and trip organizer thinks about and takes pictures of the world’s greatest courses 365 days a year. No days off? Sounds like a luxury. From an early age, he was fascinated by course architecture, drawing loops on his own. Now, Lisbon is a proud member of Royal Melbourne, and he’ll put it up there with the best of the best. “Ten years on, I’m still realizing nuances and subtleties that I never knew existed,” Lisbon says. “That’s a hallmark of a great course.” Hauling his camera and clubs, Lisbon has played about everywhere. Twenty-one countries and 500-plus courses by his count. Next on his list is a trip to Canada in 2020. You can bet that Cabot Links is on the docket.

Lisbon’s Top 3: Cypress Point, Pine Valley, Royal County Down

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