Golf Digest Releases Their 2015/2016 Best in State Rankings

To follow up on my last post about the top 100 public courses in the country, released several weeks ago by Golf Digest, the golf ranking magnate now released their other most important list: The biannual “Best in State Rankings.

This is a big list for Wisconsin, as it brings in to consideration not only the eight great courses that made the top 100, but was expanded this year from 10 to 15.

To put this in perspective, 28 states have lists of 10, while Wisconsin, Indiana, Maryland, Oregon and Hawaii each have a list of 15. The more great courses a state has, the more that are included on the list.

With the expansion to 15 courses, five previously unranked courses were added to the 2015/2016 list:

  • Troy Burne in Hudson, at number 8
  • The Links course at Lawsonia in Green Lake, at number 12
  • Oneida Golf and Country Club in Green Bay, at number 13
  • The Bog in Saukville, at number 14
  • Wild Rock in Wisconsin Dells, at number 15
The courses that I was most excited for upon the unveiling of the updated lists were Erin Hills, which moved from number five to number two, SentryWorld whose renovation moved it significantly up to number five from number ten, and Wild Rock which moved in to the list (but, if you ask me, not high enough up it!).

Interestingly, SentryWorld was named the number five best overall course in the state of Wisconsin, which is where I also projected it to be. Somehow, though, it was not listed in the rankings for the top 100 public courses in the country. The Irish course at Whistling Straits (#6 in the state, #47 in the country), The Bull at Pinehurst Farms (#9 in the state, #70 in the country), the Meadow Valleys course at Blackwolf Run (#10 in the state, #72 in the country), and the Links course at Lawsonia (#12 in the state, #85 in the country) were all included in the national list, but are ranked below SentryWorld in the state one.

The reason? SentryWorld’s late and limited reintroduction last year was too late to include the Robert Trent Jones, Jr. renovated track in the national list, but enough time was given to the Golf Digest rating team that they were able to include it in the state-by-state one.

18th hole tee shot at the renovated SentryWorld
Also interestingly, Troy Burne was excluded from the list of the country’s top 100 while being named number eight in the state and ahead of most of the same courses that SentryWorld also beat out.
One of the most interesting things about the Wisconsin rankings: Wisconsin has the highest percentage of public courses in its rankings of any of the states that have 15 or more courses included. In fact, 73% of the courses in Wisconsin’s best-of list are public.
Most public courses in the best-of rankings:
     1. Alaska: 5/5 public (100%)
     2. North Dakota: 4/5 public (80%)
     –   Mississippi: 8/10 public (80%)
     4. Wisconsin: 11/15 public  (73%)
     5. Maine: 7/10 public (70%)
     –   New Mexico: 7/10 public (70%)
     7. Vermont: 6/10 public (60%)
     –   Oregon: 9/15 public (60%)
     –  West Virginia: 6/10 public (60%)
   10. Hawaii: 8/15 public (53%)
Of the big destination golf states, only Wisconsin, Oregon and Hawaii are in the top ten.
Conversely, many more states have 20% or lower representation by public courses. In fact, only 27% of all the courses listed in the best-of category for each state are public nationally. Leading the way for the private club heavy states are:
    50. New Jersey: 0/20 public (0%)
    —  Rhode Island: 0/10 public (0%)
    —  Arkansas: 0/10 public (0%)
    47. Massachussetts: 1/20 public (5%)
    46. Pennsylvania: 2/25 public (8%)
    45. New York: 3/30 public (10%)
    —  Connecticut: 1/10 public (10%)
    — Missouri: 1/10 public (10%)
    — Oklahoma: 1/10 public (10%)
    — Tennessee: 1/10 public (10%)
    40. Illinois: 3/25 public (12%)
    — Ohio: 3/25 public (12%)
    38. Georgia: 3/20 public (15%)
    37. Texas: 5/30 public (17%)
    36. Florida; 7/35 public (20%)
    — Maryland: 3/15 public (20%)
    — Utah: 2/10 public (20%)
    — Kansas: 2/10 public (20%)

Certainly, this disparity between the number of public vs. private courses in each state has something to do with the Kohler golf empire (Whistling Straits, Blackwolf Run). However, the numbers are quite intriguing and to me signifies that the state of golf in Wisconsin for the everyday player is probably healthier than in most states.

In neighboring Illinois, for example, only three of the 25 courses included by Golf Digest are public. The other 22 are not playable to the average Joe.

Across the country it went like this, with what I would consider to be a natural progression from highly rated public courses to more highly rated private clubs.

What’s the reason? Is it the decline in play across the country? Certainly, the old money in the New England area has a lot to do with it, as private club heavy states like New Jersey (home of “The greatest course in the history of the world,” Pine Valley), Massachussetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Hampshire are all 30% or less publicly represented.

While these states are well represented on the national best-of overall golf courses lists, they are not considered to be golf destinations like Wisconsin, Oregon, Hawaii, Florida, Arizona, South Carolina, Michigan and even to a lesser extent Mississippi and California are.

So why are Florida (20% public), Arizona (25% public), California (29% public), South Carolina (30% public) and Michigan (40% public) so poorly represented from a “Courses You Can Play” standpoint? They are all rich in amazing golf courses (even though Arizona was unrepresented in the top 100 public), but sans Michigan the other three are not only golf destinations by retirement destinations. Folks from the Midwest retire to Florida, Arizona, California and South Carolina in droves, with money and looking to be a part of golfing communities there.

Michigan is an outlier, but I think it can be explained rather simply: Michigan has unbelievable golf. Both for public and private courses, the natural coastline along Lake Michigan, the bluffs and dramatic elevation, and everything else about Michigan’s topography makes the terrain unrivaled with regards to the possibilities that go in to golf course design. If you were to take Sweetgrass or TimberStone (with healthy greens, unlike the way they were this year) and put them in most other states, they would be top five to ten courses. Similarly, Greywalls would be top five almost anywhere.

So what about Illinois? Illinois is complicated for golf. There are certainly a lot of golf nuts in the state, and if you talk with someone who knows a LOT about golf, they will say it is an unbelievable golf state. How? As anyone who has driven through the state can attest to, it seems to be quite flat and unmemorable. However, it is also ridiculously rich with some of the best private golf clubs (and very few good public courses) in comparison to the rest of the country, as evidenced by Golf Digest’s Top 100 [Overall] Golf Courses:

14. Chicago Golf Club (Wheaton, IL)
39. Medinah Country Club, No. 3 (Medinah, IL)
46. Butler National Golf Club (Oak Brook, IL)
60. Canyata Golf Club (Marshall, IL)
66. Olympia Fields Country Club, North (Olympia Field, IL)
81. Rich Harvest Links (Sugar Grove, IL)
99. Shoreacres (Lake Bluff, IL)

How do you beat that for private club selection?

Well, New York, with three public courses in their top 30 and 27 private clubs, for example, has:

4. Shinnecock Hills Golf Club (Southampton, NY)
8. National Golf Links of America (Southampton, NY)
9. Winged Foot Golf Club (Mamoroneck, NY)
10. Fishers Island Club (Fishers Island, NY)
16. Oak Hill Golf Club, East (Rochester, NY)
23. Friar’s Head Golf Club (Baiting Hollow, NY)
38. Sebonack Golf Club (Southampton, NY)
43. Bethpage State Park, Black (Farmingdale, NY) – PUBLIC!
49. Garden City Golf Club (Garden City, NY)
59. Winged Foot Golf Club, East (Mamoroneck, NY)
71. Quaker Ridge Golf Club (Scarsdale, NY)
95. Hudson National Golf Club (Crot-on-Hudson, NY)
98. Maidstone Club (East Hampton, NY)

New Jersey and Ohio are represented awfully well, too.

Is it good when the rankings shift so heavily from public to private golf courses on a national level? I honestly can’t tell you, but I do know that I am happy our great state of Wisconsin is so well represented on the public course level. I think having phenomenal golf courses available for the aspiring golfer to play allows them to see the beauty of great golf architecture, and opens their eyes to what makes great golf… Great.

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