Our star courses deserve better ranking system
LET'S find a better way to rank our golf courses -- that's the message from course architect and former Irish Close champion Declan Branigan.
Branigan, a former international who won the Irish title twice, the West of Ireland championship on two occasions and two East of Irelands, is not a fan of golf courses being rated in numerical order.
As a course designer and golfer, the Louth man appreciates the quality of all kinds of golfing facilities, and feels that the system of 'top 100 rankings' favoured by golf magazines is unfair.
What is particularly interesting, is that Branigan has been a member of those ranking list panels, so he has inside knowledge on the strengths and limitations of the exercise.
His biggest problem with the system is the potential financial cost to golf clubs, particularly those rated well down the list.
One conversation he had with a group of Scandinavian visitors to Seapoint illustrates the point.
"I asked them straight out how did they make their choice of courses to play in Ireland and they said: 'We google the top courses, then we select the region we want to visit, then we look at the courses we will play in that region and then we make our decision purely on the rankings'.
"And I said to them, 'would you not try some other courses that locals might recommend?', and they just said, 'look man, we are over here for eight days. It's a short time and we might never come back, so we're not going to take a chance on a course that might not meet our expectations. If it doesn't meet the expectations of the ranking panel in Ireland, we don't expect it to meet our expectations'."
This is a complex issue. Firstly, the magazines, Irish and international, that compile ranking lists make huge efforts to avail of a cross-section of knowledge and expertise.
Top players, officials, media, and in one case, a squad of 'ordinary' golfers are deployed in an effort to cast the net of knowledge and opinion as wide as possible. The magazine issues containing ranking lists always evoke interest among the golfing public and on one level, they can be regarded as entertainment and a talking point.
Against that, there's no doubt that clubs love to use a positive boost from the rankings to market their facility, but does the numerical system mean that hugely worthy clubs and courses are missing out?
Branigan believes that it does. "Although I have spent some years on the panel, I have always had huge reservations about the practice of ranking golf courses in ordinals for two reasons.
"First, the ranking position can have a massive bearing on the finances of a club, and second, the voting panel represents only a tiny percentage of the golfing public.
"Now I would have respect for the views of all the people on the panel and for their expertise. Nevertheless, despite the weight of these views, it is still difficult to make a case that would support the impact such views have.
"I would accept that we have many examples of such rankings in various publications at home and abroad, but this does not make it right.
"If the ranking is high, it will, without a shadow of a doubt, lead to an increase in the number of visitors to that club.
"This will result in a reduction in visitors to other clubs in a given area.
"Furthermore, highly ranked courses can charge a higher green fee rate and this is accepted by visiting golfers due to the ranking. Hence my claim concerning finances.
"One might argue as to what exactly the problem is here, that surely a golf club that has gone to huge efforts, in most cases involving considerable expense, should reap the benefits of their efforts. And I would agree with this, although I believe there are fairer ways of doing it.
"If we take the top 10 golf courses, in my opinion there would not be that much to choose between them as they are all high-quality golf experiences.
"Despite this, one is ranked at No 1 and the other at 10, which is a huge gap.
"Many people would certainly make efforts to organise their golfing holidays to allow them to visit the No 1 course as long as it was not hugely expensive, the end result being that even though both are magnificent golf courses, one will enjoy a massive advantage that is not down solely to quality.
"It's the same for all of the subsequent sections, but it does get worse as you scale down the rankings."
What's the solution? Branigan calls for a star rating system, in the same way as hotels are rated. He knows it might not help the circulation of golf publications, but feels it would be fairer to all.
Remember, he's talking only about the golf course, not about ancillary facilities such as clubhouses, hotels and saunas on site.
"It would be relatively easy to do it but it might not sell copies, as they say.
"It is my opinion that golf courses should be ranked as hotels are, on a star system, with the top courses getting five stars and so on.
"It's much easier to decide on whether a golf course is a five-star layout rather than whether it's No 6 or No 10 and so on.
"This should be the way to go. Nobody would ever risk rating restaurants or hotels in ordinal numbers, so why do it with golf courses?"