“I know your rankings are baloney,” writes a reverse-mortgage broker from Decatur, Ga. “How do I know? Because you’ve got so-called “top fifty” courses that I can play for less than fifty dollars. You know as well as I do that great golf is expensive. As my dad used to tell me, ‘If you can afford to play it, it’s not worth playing.’”
Reading Decatur’s words, I have to chuckle. The Cal Sci algorithm that we use to pick the Top 50 includes practically every variable that might go into a course ranking system, including admittedly off-beat criteria such as flag-material thread count and average-wind-speed-to-ambient-grade ratio. But we have never — I repeat, never — fed the price of a round into our computers.
Think about it. If cost were proportional to quality, you wouldn’t need a course rating. You’d simply Google “most expensive golf” and up would pop your number one course: Shadow Creek Golf Course of Las Vegas, Nevada. ($500 per round.) Right behind Shadow Creek, according to copycat web sites, are Pebble Beach Golf Links ($475) and Old Head Golf Links of Kinsale, Ireland ($400).
Change the search to “most expensive golf clubs” and you get a gaggle of neighboring clubs on Long Island, N.Y., including four-time U.S. Open venue Shinnecock Hills GC, the National Golf Links of America, Atlantic GC, and The Bridge, all of which cost between a half-million and $750,000 to join. (And only if you’re invited!) The ten founding members of Sebonack GC, meanwhile, forked over $1.5 million each to play in the dunes along Great Peconic Bay. Which tells you that your average Hamptons golfer can treat you to a round at Shadow Creek with change found under his sofa cushions.
Of those eight courses, you will note, only Pebble Beach is in my Top 50. That’s because I recognize the absurdity of evaluating a course by its price tag. First of all, green fees can and do change, independent of course conditions. When I first played the 16th-ranked Old Course at St. Andrews, I paid something like 22 British pounds. Today, I’d have to pay a high-season rate of 130 pounds. Is the Old Course 5.9 times better than it was in 1990? Of course not!*
*It’s only 1.07 times better, and that’s due to improved parking around the Links Clubhouse, which opened in 1995.
A second reason to discount price is that it empowers Donald Trump.
A third reason …. but do I have to go on?
My old friend Jaime Diaz, the best print analyst in golf today, supports my views in the current Golf World. In a column headlined “Bigger Didn’t Make Golf Better; Some Tips on Saving the Game,” Jaime lands a few good jabs on the jaw of golf-industry bloat, including the cogent point that modern courses have been stretched to absurd lengths, making the game far too difficult for the average player. His solution: shorten ‘em.
“Longer term,” he goes on, “the greatest opportunity to turn the game around lies in the way people learn it ….”
“Over the years I’ve been increasingly struck by how many of the most accomplished and fulfilled golfers started out playing young and on the cheap, usually at a ragtag course where they could go round and round. More often than not, they learned technique by copying better players, with the final process one of simple and often zone-inducing trial and error. As Michael Hebron, a PGA Master Professional, likes to say, ‘You play to learn, not learn to play.'”
Yes! Now, flick your eyes to the sidebar on the right. You’ll see that the top two spots in the Top 50 are held by Askernish Old and Carne, two peerless links courses whose combined construction costs wouldn’t match what The Donald will spend on clubhouse art for his overblown Trump International Golf Links in Aberdeenshire. Neither Askernish nor Carne have valet parking, bag boys or teaching pros. Neither has a full-service practice range. Or cart paths. Or ball washers. What they have in abundance are spectacular dunes, awesome views, unforgettable holes, and summer days that go on and on and on.
Yes, Askernish and Carne would drop in the ranking if our algorithm gave points for sky-high green fees. But it doesn’t. It gives points for teenagers deciding to skip dinner to squeeze in another 18 before dark.
Tell us we’re wrong.
Top 50 on TV: Uh …. forget what you just read. Two of our priciest courses are on display this weekend at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am — the luxe Pebble Beach Golf Links (No. 9) and the very exclusive Monterey Peninsula Country Club (No. 46). All we can say in our defense is that we’ve never spent a penny at either one of them. (It’s good to be a golf writer!)