Fascinating and controversial, golf course rankings are a source of inspiration and debate. Mark Alexander takes a closer look at these contentious rolls of honour

Visit any golf club this weekend and someone, somewhere will be championing the cause of his or her favourite golf course. It could be the one they have just played or the one they are about to play, but you can guarantee the debate will be passionate and lively.

After all, waxing lyrical about trophy courses or hidden gems is par for the course if you are a golfer, whatever your handicap. Debates about ideal links or the preferred inlanders are the bedrock of the après round chinwag. They are fiery and involved, but they are also congenial and helpful but, sadly, rarely resolved.

And so it would remain if it wasn’t for a breed of periodicals that dutifully identify the best of the best. Indisputable and defining, golf course rankings are the holy grail of the armchair debater. They showcase the relative merits of the Top 100 courses and, more importantly, rank them in order. Who could possibly argue with that?

“There are people who question whether you can compare Sunningdale Old with Turnberry, and the truth is you can’t,” admits Jock Howard, commissioning editor at Golf World magazine. “What it does do is promote discussion – there is no right or wrong. It’s about people’s opinions and that’s what magazines are all about.”

Howard edits the oldest GB & Ireland biennial list which has been meticulously produced 15 times over the years. Compiled using input from golf pros, golf course architects, golf administrators and a selected group of well-informed readers, it is one of the most respected and authoritative registers of its kind. So successful is it that in recent years, this 30-year-old record has been joined by country specific rolls of honour and a broader European inventory.

“A successful ranking is an accurate ranking,” says Howard, “but you have to accept you are going to upset some people. You know when a list is successful when people who don’t have an axe to grind, agree with it.”

Despite the controversy, or perhaps because of it, rankings sell. Across the board, magazine issues containing Top 100 lists are perennial best sellers. What’s more, according to Rob Smith, who oversees Golf Monthly’s biennial UK & Ireland listing, they create an important dialogue between the magazines and their readers.

“The Top 100, indeed the Top 200 that we now produce, takes golfers all over the UK and Ireland to places that perhaps they might not have otherwise visited,” he says. “The rankings generate a huge amount of interest in our letters pages, in our online forums and in all our dealings with our readers.”

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