Ratings game

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April 5, 2021

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As someone who loves golf and has been lucky enough to play some of the great courses, I’m always interested when the major course rankings come out. Like everyone else, I want to see if others like the same courses I do.

But as a superintendent, former golf course rater, and someone who tries to keep our industry’s interests first and foremost, the rankings concern me. Because whether it’s ranking the top 100 courses in the country or comparing your course to one down the street, conditioning is going to be a factor even if you’ve been told a thousand times — promised, sworn to — that it’s not the case.

Whenever the ratings issues of the golf magazines come out, I ask, “Are the rankings really worth it?” Do we need to assign numerical values or say “this is better than that” about courses we already know are great?

Is there really any purpose — let alone a verifiable system — for saying that Pine Valley is better than Cypress Point or Augusta National?

Yes, there are reasons. They are bragging rights, members’ egos and the rater’s ability to check off another course from their bucket list. All of which are perfectly legit but have very little relevance in determining which of the greats is the greatest.

But a discussion about needing the rankings is for another time. Right now, I want to discuss how superintendents should deal with them. Because to repeat what I said above, you will never convince me that conditioning doesn’t factor into the ratings equation.

What do they mean by “aesthetics” if not conditioning? What are a course’s scenic values if not landscaping, vegetation, water features, etc.? All of these fall smack in your wheelhouse and are wide open to the individual rater’s interpretation.

Let’s say a rater is playing in the Southwest desert: Do they have an appreciation for the dormant (Bermudagrass) look? Or what about playing at a course that doesn’t elect to overseed or paint? Does color matter to the rater? Can this person — who, after all, could be just about anybody, I don’t care how many courses they’ve seen and played — see beyond the type of turf condition? Pardon me … aesthetics.

How about a course that didn’t have houses along its perimeter when it was built but they now line its fairways because a) it’s a development and that was always the plan, or b) the course is in what used to be farmland and is now suburbia? What do houses do for aesthetics? And isn’t it ironic that proximity to a good course can increase a home’s value, but proximity to homes can knock down a course’s stature?

It goes without saying that “ambience” is part of any course’s charm. Is it still charming if the interstate was added 50 years after the course was built? Or power lines? Or an airport? How do these affect the so-called “walk in the park?”

Conditioning also includes how firm, fast and rolling were the fairways, or how firm, yet receptive, were the greens and how true the ball rolled on them the day the rater played. What if it rained the night before and drainage is slow because the course isn’t built on sand? If it doesn’t play firm and fast “enough,” is the rating affected?

And what if the rater isn’t there at the right time of year? It makes sense that busy private clubs, that might want the prestige of appearing on the lists, must think of their members first and not let raters on until the off-season. So, the course may not be at its best, visually or condition-wise.

We all know how few golfers understand that, in agronomy, timing is everything. Turf transition, end of season, wear and tear. At certain points in any season courses are just flat-out tired. Now add all the extra COVID-19 traffic. Raters don’t want to hear excuses and courses shouldn’t have to explain how agronomy works, but is it fair to judge a golf course when it simply is not at its best?

Again, I’m not advocating for a ban on ratings, even though some courses elect not to participate. (Funny how it’s the ones that don’t have to worry, right?) But what is important is the effect that ratings — making them, not making them, dropping down or climbing — have on the superintendent. Because if the raters aren’t savvy enough to appreciate a course’s agronomic ups and downs, what about an entire membership?

“Clubs allegedly don’t care about rankings — until their position drops,” is what a superintendent at a top-100 club told me. I’m not at all surprised to hear that some clubs create “secret” committees to review a course purely for the sake of doing better in the ratings. For some courses, doing better means hiring a course architect and undergoing a renovation — if not a total rebuild.

If not making the ratings or dropping in them puts your job in jeopardy, we’ve got a problem. Maybe you haven’t explained to your membership that those greens they love weren’t built to be superfast.

You probably know better than anyone just how “good” the course you tend to really is: You don’t want to go bursting their bubble, but there are only so many Oakmonts and Los Angeles Country Club Norths. And very few daily-fee courses like Bethpage Black or Pebble Beach.

The same 100 to 200 courses are going to consistently make the ratings because they deserve to. Those same courses are also going to be in great condition most of the time because they hire the most qualified people they can find and give them the resources they request. Which isn’t a knock on you or what you do: It’s reality, but you’re sure to have to deal with golfers who can’t accept that where they play is perfectly nice and fun, just not rated “great.”

Augusta National isn’t a perennial top-5 course because the grass is so green and the sand so white. You and I know that. Do your members?

Probably the worst thing about aesthetics as a ratings category is what it does to those courses that aren’t the obvious top 100 or so, but are really close. With so many great courses, when it comes to deciding between one or another, if just a handful of raters hit that one after it rained or too early or late in the season, something as insignificant as slower-than-normal greens could make the difference. Often, it’s just hundredths-of-a-point that separate No. 100 from No. 101 in the rankings.

Ratings are here to stay. There’s nothing wrong with them, they make for good reading and endless arguments. If your course is one that already makes the rating grade or aspires to, congratulations and good for you. My only advice to you is this: Don’t do anything to the course for the sake of ratings that will eventually hurt the experience of your members.

The raters don’t pay your salary.

Tim Moraghan, principal, ASPIRE Golf (tmoraghan@aspire-golf.com). Follow Tim’s blog, Golf Course Confidential at www.aspire-golf.com/buzz.html or on Twitter @TimMoraghan