If golf facility managers plan carefully, they can benefit from the process known as course ratings. I’m not referring to the procedure by which state and regional associations evaluate a layout for index/handicap purposes. I’m referring to the rankings systems run by various golf publications that arrive as lists of “Top-100 Best Courses.”
Superintendents play a crucial role in determining how a property can use and benefit from the process. When I say “use,” I mean understanding how the ratings work and taking advantage of it to maximize exposure of your property. This isn’t a matter of gaming the system. It’s more like establishing a facility-wide policy and then making it possible for the rater to appreciate the strength and character of the property.
The process is based upon the willingness of the golf course to accommodate access to panelists so they can evaluate the experience, file a report and allow the publication to aggregate the scores into a list that gets published. Golf courses will often use their standing as a mark of pride and brand promotion. But there’s also the potential for abuse.
I spent 23 years at Golfweek magazine creating and expanding their ratings process. Before that, I was a Golf magazine panelist. All along I kept a close eye on how Golf Digest did things. More recently, I spent two years with the process at GolfAdvisor.com. Program administrators have an inherent stake in coordinating a credible system and are keen to work with host facilities in explaining what they are doing. They are also careful to root out those rare raters who might take advantage of the system and are simply interested in mooching their way to access.
Some panelists prefer to show up anonymously, make no special requests and proceed as if they were an everyday golfer. Good for them if they do so.
In many cases, however, the rater requests access. That’s when club policy needs to kick in. All requests should go through a designated channel. The requests should come well ahead of time; there’s something fishy about a phone request on Thursday for a Saturday tee time. Several weeks ahead should be the minimum expectation. The raters should also be expected to provide credentials in the form of a currently valid identification certificate or tag — not just a business card — issued by the sponsoring rating panel.
Be wary of requests for a rater and his or her three guests. Privileges as a rater do not include free buddy trips. Nor do they entail free golf. Clubs should not feel pressured to comp a round. Fees should apply, and while a course is allowed to waive green fees or guest fees for the rater at their discretion, this should never be done under pressure or threat from the rater.
Public courses should never give away a tee time to a rater that could be used by fee-paying guests. A similar policy should prevail for private clubs. It’s also a good idea to have them accompanied by a knowledgeable staff member or designated member who has an inherent interest in the course, its history and any recent upgrades.
Superintendents can help the club benefit from the ratings process. They might have an interest in accompanying the rater or sending one of their assistants out to play along as a bonus/reward to staff. Feel free to converse with the rater before the round and let him or her know what’s in store or if there have been any special events — like dicey weather, aggressive topdressing or repair work to the grounds.
When it comes to course set up, do not overdo it. Don’t mistake difficulty with excellence in course architecture. The days of celebrating “toughness” or “resistance to scoring” as a criterion of virtue are over.
I always advise “6-6-6” on pin placements: six generous ones, six moderate ones and six marquee hole locations to show off a bit of flair. Otherwise, there’s no need to do anything special, other than letting the rater play the course as it normally presents itself and trusting them to understand the strengths and limits of the site. A modest debriefing always helps. You learn something as well as force the rater to articulate the experience. Never ask what number rating they’d assign, but it is fine to get them to open up a bit about what they liked, didn’t like and where they thought some improvement might help.
Don’t be afraid as a facility manager to make the rankings work for you. It’s not a process that should be wrapped in mystery. And it’s also not a process that you can buy your way into. What’s needed is a bit of skill in making sure raters see the best of what you have to offer.