Cape Wickham. Photo by Larry Lambrecht

American GOLF Magazine has released its 2021 ranking of the World’s Top 100 golf courses, with a continued emphasis on American courses and American designs. This year’s ranking is the second to be overseen by Ran Morrissett, who took over as chair of the panel from Joe Passov.

The Passov years at GOLF Magazine were notable for a gradual eroding of credibility in the eyes of the design purists, and the inclusion of some questionable courses who were clients of a prominent PR representative, and GOLF Magazine course rater. That courses like Oitavos Dunes (55 in 2017) and Ayodhya Links (76 in 2017) were ever able to make the World’s Top 100 shows how the GOLF Magazine system was manipulated. Other clients included Diamante Dunes and Club at Nine Bridges, which have fallen since Morrissett’s arrival, from 36 and 41 respectively in 2017, down to the 90s this year. Both should be nervous about their place on the 2023 list.

While there have been improvements to the process at GOLF Magazine, there remain some very curious results and a heavy American bias. From an Australian perspective, the loss of Barnbougle Lost Farm is disappointing, while the drop of Cape Wickham to #70, and behind the likes of Southern Hills, Cape Kidnappers, Bethpage Black, Baltusrol (Lower), Camargo, Royal Troon, Kiawah Island, Inverness, Royal Lytham & St Annes and Winged Foot (East), suggests the panel is still swayed by big names and major tournament pedigree. Celebrity aside, to suggest any of those courses top Cape Wickham seems more than a stretch. I note my own personal bias, as a designer of Cape Wickham. I also note that both Australian magazine panels (comprised of golfers who play Australian courses) rank Cape Wickham #2 in the country, behind Royal Melbourne (West).

On a more positive note, it’s great to see Bob Harrison’s solo design at Ardfin in Scotland make the Top 100 (#74) and interesting that the old-school looking New Course at Les Bordes (#97), designed by Gil Hanse, was also included. Also interesting, is the fact that the panel continue to feature Ellerston (#83) on their list, despite it being unlikely that any judges were able to play it since the previous ranking was published.

Aside from Barnbougle Lost Farm, other courses to drop off the GOLF Magazine World Top 100 list in 2021 include Trump International Scotland, Machrihanish, Walton Heath (Old) and Yale. They were largely replaced by a host of recently restored American classics, such as Baltusrol (Lower), Oak Hill (East), Yeamans Hall and Old Town Club.

As with most American ranking lists like this one, there are several courses included that would struggle to make Victoria’s Top 10 and others that you wouldn’t seek out to play if they were located in a strong golf market like Scotland, Ireland or England. There is also a clear preference toward super elite, private clubs. The overall experience seems a key factor. Seven of the Top 10 courses in the World, for example, are exclusive American private clubs that most readers will never be able to play. 51 of the Top 100 courses are American, and only 8 of those 51 are public access. By contrast, only 7 of the 49 International courses (Tara Iti, Hirono, Swinley Forest, Morfontaine, Ellerston, Nine Bridges and Les Bordes) are completely off limits to non-members, or non-industry insiders.

As noted in 2019, the absence of Old Macdonald at Bandon Dunes on the final Top 100 remains a surprise, given Morrissett’s, and this panel’s, fondness for all things Doak and all things Macdonald/Raynor. Bandon’s newest course, Sheep Ranch, is also strangely absent.

As noted above, the Macdonald / Raynor designed Yale course, which re-entered the Top 100 last ranking after a 20 year absence, dropped off the list again this year, in advance of a USD $25 million overhaul by Gil Hanse. The bounce back seems curious on the one hand, but arguably helps justify the project on the other. It’s surely harder to argue the need for such expenditure when a course is already regarded as one of the World’s Top 100.

Based on these results, and the fondness many GOLF raters have for template design, Yale seems almost certain to return in 2023. Also look out for Te Arai in New Zealand in 2023 and Cabot Saint Lucia in the Caribbean, both by Coore & Crenshaw, and The Lido at Sand Valley.