There are countless ways to rate courses. Letter grades. Number grades. Lists. In Tom Doak’s Confidential Guide, he lays out a “Doak scale” of grading golf courses that, per his own admission, is intended to split hairs between the best of the best for those who are travelling and want to see the best courses the world has to offer.
Others rate based on value, or course conditioning, or some un-quantifiable combination of all that and more.
I’m eternally frustrated trying to give number or letter (or star, or whatever) grades to courses. Rankings are even more difficult.
The old saying is that, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” It’s only sort of true. Comparison is a natural and necessary thing—you want to know if you’re eating sweet berries or poisonous ones, for example. On a much less serious note, it is helpful to know if a new course you’re visiting is more of an “all are welcome, play in you’re jeans” muni, or a “you will be asked to leave if you dare to change your shoes in the parking lot” private club.
But where the old axiom is true is that I’m not interested in splitting hairs. I’ve read way too many message board posts about whether this or that course is really Top Ten worthy, or if it should be bumped all the way back to (gasp) number 12 or something. Maybe if I’d played 70 of the world’s Top 100 I could get interested in that kind of granular debate, but I doubt it.
Full disclosure: I haven’t played many of the world’s great courses but even among the handful I have played that find themselves on any kind of list, I’m not much interested in ranking them. Is Pebble Beach better than Pasatiempo? How does Kapalua rank against Desert Forest? I’m just not overly invested in making a definitive list. They’re all great, in their way, and all have their flaws. I’d be positively giddy to be playing any of them today.
One day I stumbled on the idea of ranking by deciles. If you know an area well and have played a large number of courses in that area, you can rate the courses there into ten groups—if you’ve played 60 courses then you’ll have groups of 6, if you’ve played 120 courses then you’ll have groups of 12, etc. In doing this exercise I find you do tend to find pretty natural breaking points. A 1st Decile course is almost always going to be a high quality course, a 3rd Decile course will be good but with some potential downsides.
I love golf and I love golf courses. Yes, I’d be giddy to have a tee time at any of the courses I’ve put in the 1st Decile of any of these states. But the fact is I’d be happy to tee it at most of the courses in the 8th Decile, as well. I hope the reviews make that clear. An aging muni can be a perfectly wonderful place for a round of golf, provided your expectations are set accordingly.
Deciles are also helpful for a potential player who might have played one course in a region and see that it is a 4th decile course and then have a frame of reference to understand about how good other courses are relative to that.
Of course, this only works for regions where one has played a significant amount of golf and a fairly broad number of courses. As such, I have only broken courses into deciles for the two states where I have lived—Arizona and Colorado. For California, I broke courses in quintiles (five groups), but be aware since I’m a tourist golfer in California I’m mostly playing good courses when I travel there. Even courses in California’s 4th quintile are pretty good courses!
For other states I went ahead and ranked the courses I have played in the traditional manner.
Ultimately, the ranking, whether by list or decile, is of secondary importance to the review itself. Doak is famous for his rankings but his reviews, brief as they often are, tend to be very instructive. He got a lot of grief for giving The Castle Course a zero rating and yet some of the articles on the “controversy” didn’t even bother to delve into his reasoning for why he felt the course deserved that mark of shame. I don’t know that I have any especially controversial opinions in my rankings, but if I do expect to see the reasoning in my review.