Where once members and owners paid little regard to where a course was ranked, it has become a focal point for some and a burden for others, especially superintendents

When Matt DiMase was hired as director of golf course maintenance at Black Diamond Ranch in Lecanto, Fla., in 2012, one of his directives was to get the Quarry Course back onto Golf Digest’s list: America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses.

That meant improving the quality of the greens, reducing disease and firming the course, as well as removing and adding vegetation.

It will take time to see how the raters access the alterations. Golfweek’s Top 100 lists come out annually. Golf Digest’s rankings is every two years; the next list will come out in 2015.

Where once members and owners paid little regard to where a course was ranked, it has become a focal point for some and a burden for others, especially golf course superintendents. That was never the intent.

In 1985, when Golf Digest and Golf magazine started compiling their lists of the top-100 golf courses in the U.S., the respective editors of those lists, Ron Whitten and architect Tom Doak, were part-time employees.

Back then, some courses that earned top-100 honors were delighted with the accolades, while others rebuffed the so-called honor, going so far as to forbid raters on the grounds.

Now, nearly 30 years on, the number of magazines compiling a tally of the best courses has grown, as have the categories. Whitten and his counterparts are now full-timers.

Almost universally, facilities, including the most exclusive private clubs, put effort into and take pride in earning a spot in the rankings. The most coveted is the Golf Digest top 100. Golfweek has the America’s Best Modern and Classic lists. A layout built after 1960 is considered modern.

Along the way, in an effort to capitalize on the growing interest of the rankings, magazines invented categories such as best residential, best courses you can play, best affordable, best resort and best in state and, when business was booming, best new course.

There are also regional magazines throughout the country that have their own lists, including best in state.

In all the national publications, course conditioning is one of the categories on which layouts are judged. Other topics range from architectural integrity, and variations in the par-3s, 4s and 5s.

WHEN A COURSE FAILS TO MAKE A LIST – or worse, falls out – there are only so many places fingers can be pointed. All too often it is the golf course superintendent who incorrectly bears the brunt of the disappointment, even if the turf conditions had nothing to do with the numbers.

“I’ve had golf pros call me complaining about the superintendent, but I’ve never had a superintendent call me about the golf pro,” says Brad Klein, Golfweek’s architecture editor. “A lot of them think it is maintenance. They have to blame somebody.”

According to Whitten, the lists were created as sort of an entertaining way to determine one way of ranking golf courses to settle arguments around the bar at the 19th hole.

“They’re not supposed to lead to superintendents’ dismissals because of a drop in the rankings,” he says.

The fact is, though, they have. Whitten said it happened often in the boom years of the late 1990s, but not as much recently.

Good conditioning might be part of a facility’s success, but that doesn’t mean the course has to be a bear to play or kept at tournament conditions every day of the week. Whitten and Klein said that facilities that try to toughen conditions to achieve higher scores are in reality hurting their chances.

“People who rate golf courses don’t want it to be that hard,” Klein says.

Whitten concurs.”We’re not looking for U.S. Open rough height,” he says, also dismissing the idea that fast greens mean great greens. “I can show you greens that are nine on the Stimpmeter that are unputtable, and 13s that are just fine.”

What clubs fail to understand is the minute distinction between being on a list and not. Even being ranked in the top 500 of any national list is a mighty accomplishment considering there are approximately 17,000 golf courses in the U.S.

As an example, for Golfweek’s 2013 America’s Best Modern list, Sand Hills Golf Club in Mullen, Neb., has the No. 1 spot with a score of 9.28. Shadow Creek Golf Course in Las Vegas is 10th at 8.12, 1.16 behind Sand Hills.

The lower down the list, the less the separation. At No. 50 is Blackwolf Run’s River Course in Kohler, Wis., with a score of 7.3, just .82 behind No. 10 Shadow Creek. At 100 is Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Ky., with a score of 6.91, meaning only .39 separates it from 50th. The difference between Valhalla and Emerald Dunes Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Fla., which is ranked 200, is a minute .45.

Pikewood National Golf Club in Morgantown, W.Va., is No. 45 on the Golf Digest top-100 list with a score of 62.9943; it’s first time on the list. It takes honors for the top-rated course in the state. When Pikewood opened in 2009 after nearly a decade of construction, Golf Digest named it the best new course in the country.

According to Pikewood Superintendent Brett Bentley, it was a goal of the owners and architects, Robert Gwynne and John Raese, to achieve top-100 honors.

Bentley spent 10 years as an assistant to John Zimmers at Pittsburgh’s Oakmont Country Club, ranked fifth by Golf Digest and sixth on Golfweek’s Best Classic Courses. Unlike at Oakmont, where the goal was to maintain the highly regarded turf, including greens that are some of the fastest in the country, Bentley is dealing with a very young course, built on rocky terrain high in the mountains.

“It’s bentgrass,” Bentley says. “You make sure you are doing the fundamentals.”

For him, the fundamentals often come back to one word: drainage.

While the greens are USGA specifications, the rest of the golf course, according to Bentley, is clay-type soil on top of rock, lots of rock.

Bentley says he and his crew have added drainage throughout the golf course, but the battle is ongoing.

“You put in drainage and another problem pops up,” he says.

Bentley has also been aerating and topdressing as much as possible to improve the soil. He says that Pikewood has raters play almost daily, and he surmises they realize that it’s a new layout and that weather has a significant impact on conditions.

“I think everyone understands what we’re about, and that Mother Nature has control,” Bentley says.

Then again, maybe the raters don’t. It’s not as if most golfers understand to what degree weather affects course conditions.

“I don’t think raters know how to evaluate agronomics,” Klein says. “A lot of guys like lush and green. A lot of guys like the ball rolling well, even if it’s over dirt.”

GOLF DIGEST CONDUCTS THREE-HOUR online seminars to educate raters about what to look for in a golf course, including maintenance. Since 2008, Golf Digest has been advocating for less water, firm fairways and firm yet receptive greens. The panelists are told not to judge the conditions of tees.

“Off-color is better than soggy because that breeds disease. It’s important to the survival of the game,” Whitten says. “It’s been an eye-opener for not only panelists, but also clubs.”

Whitten doesn’t want his panelists nitpicking conditioning. “Just the basics of course maintenance,” he says. “The superintendents aren’t dummies. They’re looking to get the turf to optimal conditions.”

Klein cautions his raters against making any snap assessments of the turf. “Don’t judge until you find out what’s been happening; find out their budget,” Klein advises.

With the success comes high expectations, Bentley says.

“I took the job knowing how much pressure there would be,” he adds. “I hold myself to very high standards.”

Black Diamond Ranch’s Quarry Course was heralded as one of the best designs in America when it opened in 1987. The Tom Fazio layout was a fixture on the top-100 lists for many years. For the 2009-2010 Golf Digest poll, it slid to 89th and has since dropped out.

On the Golfweek Modern list the Quarry Course was ranked 18th in 2002. It fell to 81st, but it is back up to 55th on the latest list.

Under the new ownership, DiMase is provided with the tools he needs to make significant improvements, beginning with the greens.

“It is a goal for them; they do want to get back in the top 100,” DiMase says of the owners.

The bermudagrass greens suffered greatly from Pythium root rot, so much so that some were down to 30 percent turf coverage. DiMase followed an aggressive path to get them growing and improve turf coverage.

“We took the approach that we were doing a grow-in,” DiMase explains. Greens were fertilized daily and only hand-watered. “We used moisture probes daily. There was a lot of verticutting and topdressing,” he says.

DiMase promised the owners that he would get grass on the greens.

“I told them, ‘Give me eight weeks and I can get coverage.’ After about eight weeks and two days they were covered.”

For the most part, DiMase says members understood that green speeds would not be in the 10-foot-plus range for a while.

“Our goal was for there to be turf health,” he says. “You have to get grass; you don’t want them to be putting on dirt.”

DiMase also convinced the owners to skip overseeding the Quarry greens. He is maintaining the entire layout firmer than before he arrived in an effort to save water, cut back on nutrients, and give the bermudagrass less competition when it comes out of dormancy.

Also as part of the effort to regain the course’s status, two bunkers were added, some fairways reshaped, vegetation added in out-of-play areas, and growth that had taken over the rock wall of the Quarry holes was removed.

It will take time to determine whether this is enough to get the Quarry course back into the Golf Digest top 100 and reverse the trend with Golfweek raters.

“I do feel pressure, but I wouldn’t want it any other way,” DiMase says. “I get support, and it offsets the pressure.”

Pat Sisk has been in charge of Milwaukee Country Club’s golf course since 2001. Since then the 1929 Colt Alison design moved up from the 70s in the Golf Digest rankings to as high as 40. This time around it is in the 53rd slot. On the Golfweek list of classic-era courses, Milwaukee is 43, a drop of six from the 2012 ranking.

RATER GIVES INSIGHT TO RANKINGS PROCESS

Since 2000, I’ve been a golf course rater that votes for Golfweek’s America’s Best Courses.

I’ve come to know a number of fellow Golfweek raters as well as some who help choose the top-100 golf courses for Golf Digest and Golf magazines and have a little insight on what raters are looking for.

The combined number of raters making up the panels is more than 2,000. There are some who know what they are talking about, some who have just the slightest clue. One architect told me that after addressing a group of panelists, an older gentleman raised his hand and asked, “What is this Redan you keep talking about?”

Huh? That’s like a movie reviewer not knowing the film “Battleship Potemkin.”

Although most on the golf panels have a decent knowledge of course architecture, unfortunately, what the vast majority knows about agronomy is next to nothing. Many, for instance, don’t understand the correlation between the weather and turf conditions.

Trying to please all the raters is impossible. Some want soft conditions and emerald is their favorite shade of turfgrass. Others want firm and embrace a hue that is in the brown family.

While raters are told they aren’t to be swayed by factors other than the golf course, the fact is such aspects as the appearance of the beverage cart girl, how friendly the person is behind the pro shop counter, and the quality of the hot dog at the turn do matter, even if subconsciously.

Also, for many raters, the number they write on their scorecards the day they tee it up at the course affects their opinion, even though it shouldn’t.

“People judge by how they play,” says Brad Klein, who heads Golfweek’s America’s Best Courses rankings.

That fact has helped Tom Fazio, Klein notes. Fazio’s courses are concave and therefore very forgiving to shots, especially slightly wayward ones off the tee. He is also a designer who puts everything right in front of the golfer, so there’s little to think about or guess on.

Ron Whitten, who coordinates the Golf Digest rankings, said he advises his raters not to worry about their scores, but treat their day on the course the same way as pros on the PGA Tour treat a practice round, such as hitting shots into multiple areas of the putting surfaces and roll putts to a number of locations on each green.

A high ranking for a course can be nothing more than the cult of personality when it comes to architects. Tom Doak, the team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, Rees Jones and Fazio each have their diehard fans.

My advice to courses looking to make or move up a list would be this: Do not crank up the green speeds, no one likes to three putt, never mind take four whacks at it.

Treat the raters like you would any guest coming to the course, no better no worse. If you have greens with good movement, put some holes in locations that will lead to some fun putts.

Most of all, though, relax. Depending on the publication, between 20 and 45 votes are needed for a course to qualify for the lists. One bad day will not seal a layout’s fate.

“They care that we’re top 100,” Sisk says of his members. “Does it define them? No.”

He attributes the attitude to the overall way people in Milwaukee view themselves. According to Sisk, who grew up in Connecticut, they are happy to be a low-key city and have no desire to emulate or compete with Chicago or any other city for that matter.

Sisk, though, admits he does pay attention to Milwaukee’s ranking. “I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t because it’s my baby,” he says.

According to Sisk, the average tenure for members of Milwaukee’s board of governors lasts from their late 30s or early 40s into their 70s. Change to the course is slow and deliberate. Renaissance Golf Design has been overseeing a restoration, but rather than having all the modifications come at once, the alterations are happening gradually over a number of years.

Like his counterparts, Sisk says he is his toughest critic.

“No member puts more pressure on me than I put on myself,” he says.

However, he does think the rankings make problems for superintendents, which could be avoided. “How about the magazines list the top 10 in order and the next 90 in alphabetical order,” he suggests.

Klein and Whitten say the ratings can be used to improve the quality of a golf course, and that should be the goal, not a number on a list.

“Ratings have a role as an education device,” Klein says.

According to Whitten, the rankings can be used to ask and answer questions, such as why a course may need a new irrigation system. Instead of focusing on a number, clubs should emphasize maintaining their golf courses correctly.

“Don’t be spending money just to win an award,” Whitten advises.

Klein gets to the bare truth of what the rankings are, and it would behoove clubs to remember his point.

“It’s not a science. It’s not a truth. It’s a judgment,” he says.