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What it Takes to Make the Golf Digest 100 Greatest Courses List in 2023

A look at the criteria used to rank the best courses in America.

A look at the criteria used to rank the best courses in America.

By Liam Driscoll. Follow Liam on Twitter.

This week, Golf Digest released its 2023 list of America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses. This who’s who of golf helps to frame what it takes to be considered amongst the pantheon of the great, American defining courses.

Yes, there are evergreens. And yes, they are the ones you’d expect. But the depth to the list, and the new entrants that bud their head each year, forever make the Golf Digest list a compelling read, for golf nuts and novices alike.

The truth of the matter is all of the courses on the Top 100 list (let alone the top 200) are exponentially better than what you or I will typically get a round on. If that doesn’t apply to you, well, congrats.

For as many public courses as there are on the list, they pale in comparison to the number of private tracks. It’s a stark reminder that as much as we love our munis, there’s something else out there afforded to a much smaller circle that presents golf in its highest form. Of course, that’s not to say we can’t love our dog tracks, but bent colonial rolls a little bit differently than crabgrass. And if you’ve only been playing munis and the odd semi-private, the idea of comparing one of the Top 100 against another might seem pointless.

But there is, in fact, a methodology.

Each year, more than 1800 panelists from Golf Digest play the cream of the crop and notable new entries in order to score the courses. These scores reflect year-over-year changes to the course, upkeep, and a broad spectrum of markers that go into a final ranking. Taken from the Golf Digest article on course rankings, the six categories courses are scored on are listed below.

Shot Options/Value (Counted Double)

A score reflecting the courses ability to present a balance of risk and reward, in conjunction with requiring players to hit a broad spectrum of shots. Do you need to make decisions on how to play the holes? Are you penalized for not having certain shots in the bag?

Layout Variety (Counted Double)

The metric that best reflects the architectural value of the course, layout variety scores courses on the diversification in holes, configurations of those holes, hazard locations, and green shapes and contours. Double seems like an apt category weighting. 


The Golf Digest equivalent of a course rating and slope. How tough, but fair, is the course for a scratch player playing from the back tees (not including championship tees)? 


How does the accompanying scenery add to the enjoyability of the round?


A measure of course consistency and attention to detail. How true are rolls on the greens from hole to hole, how firm are they, and how fast and rolling are fairways?


A final characteristic for measurement, course character is scored on the basis of distinctiveness and originality considering when the course was built. 

Aggregating these categories yields an overall score at which the courses are given. Of course, like any respectable ranking system and process, there are reviews by the Golf Digest team. The in-house statistician, Dean Knuth, combs through the rankings to remove extreme outliers, where the rating for a specific category is two standard deviations beyond the mean. This helps to maintain the trustworthiness of the rankings.

What’s left is the most well-respected course ranking list in golf, with a database compiled of tens of thousands of reviews in its long history. 

So as your playing season gets underway, and we get into the thick of it this summer, maybe score a few courses of your own utilizing the rubric above. Take an extra 30 minutes and really try to take it all in. The categories measured are those that most golfers will unconsciously take note of anyway. Maybe you’ll notice some things you hadn’t. Maybe not.

And if you think your local muni might not be worth the effort, well, then maybe you can take it as a sign that it’s time to make your way to one of the best.

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