By Larry Gavrich, Founder & Editor,
Home On The Course, LLC
The Internet is filled with opinions about golf courses, but you can never be sure if the good reviews are posted by self-interested golf course operators trying to gain an advantage for their clubs, or if the negative ones are placed by those same course owners in an attempt to sandbag the local competition. National golf magazines that publish rankings of golf courses may be more honest, but hardly more helpful for the vacationing golfer; they rank no more than a handful of golf courses per state. For the golfer about to spend many hundreds of dollars on a golf vacation, or the retiree contemplating a golf home in the Carolinas, there really are only two sources for honest, unbiased golf course ratings –- the independent North Carolina and South Carolina golf ratings panels.
“The national magazines have never fully recognized the variety of quality golf in South Carolina,” says Mike Whitaker, Executive Director of the South Carolina Golf Rating Panel. “We have so much good golf in the state, and yet the magazines rarely mention any but the top five or so. That is the major reason we formed the panel.”
The South Carolina panel is celebrating its 10th anniversary, but the first such panel in the country was started in 1995 in neighboring North Carolina, and for many of the same reasons. “We have 180 members today,” says North Carolina Golf Ratings Panel Director Kevin Brafford, “and some of them play as many as 200 rounds per year on our state’s golf courses. They are the most reliable source for the quality of North Carolina golf.”
With no axe to grind, the golf panelists, who represent a range of golf abilities –- from scratch [0 handicap] golfers to players who may not break 90 often –- provide unbiased ratings of their states’ golf courses. Women make up about 10% to 15% of the panels’ rosters. The less accomplished golfing panelists ensure that more than just tough golf course layouts are fairly represented. Each panel ranks its state courses on an annual basis and, helpfully, breaks down the overall rankings by region of the state. For a vacationing golfer loathe to drive many miles from course to course over a long weekend or week, these regional ratings are particularly helpful in building a nice rotation of courses within a few miles of your hotel or rental unit.
“We try to promote golf in South Carolina in a positive way,” says South Carolina’s Mike Whitaker, one of the founding members of his state’s panel. “And we are always looking for ways to give as many courses as possible appropriate recognition.” Whitaker says one way the panel does that is by publishing a “special” list each year; currently, the “best finishing holes” in the state are featured, along with the overall top 50 list, at the panel’s web site, SCGolfPanel.org. North Carolina publishes its own unique rankings, such as the “best 19th hole” and “best green complexes.” (Its web site is www.ncgolfpanel.com.)
The South Carolina panel rotates its annual lists of the Top 50 golf courses in the state –- one year all public and private courses lumped together into one list, and the next year only a list of “those [public and resort courses] you can play.” (The 2014 list ranks public and private together.) The annual list from the North Carolina panel, which began in 1995, is comprehensive, public and private, but indicates which golf courses are publically accessible.
Panelists are permitted only to rate golf courses they have played, although they are not required to have visited the course in the immediately preceding year. Mike Whitaker coordinates with South Carolina golf courses to arrange for panelists to rate the courses; however, in both states, not every golf course welcomes panelists, some clubs opting to retain their reputations for exclusivity (and others not willing to rile their members by inviting non-members). But serious golfers are an inventive bunch, and a social game like golf promotes networking; the most active golfers tend to find a way to play the more exclusive private courses.
The two state panels offer their raters multiple golf outings every year, and often many of the states’ golf clubs contact the executive directors with invitations to host the groups. (Kevin Brafford indicates that for the 2015 outings, he already has a waiting list of 18 clubs eager to host his group.) These outings offer opportunities not only for social golf, but also for the panelists to compare their opinions of the course they just played. These 19th hole discussions lead to sharper, more reasoned ratings, some panelists say.
Because both Carolina states stretch from ocean to mountains, with plenty of flat and rolling spaces between, the two state panels helpfully break down their overall ratings into seven “regional” rankings in North Carolina and four in South Carolina. Thus, if you favor a golf vacation in the Carolina beach areas, for example, you can survey the ratings list of courses for “Coastal” in North Carolina, and “Grand Strand” (Myrtle Beach) and “Lowcountry” (Beaufort/Hilton Head area) in South Carolina. Itinerant golfers may choose from a wide selection of accessible (non-private) golf courses in Myrtle Beach (7 of the top 10 rankings) and the coastal area of North Carolina (6 of the top 10). Further inland, the numbers of highly rated accessible golf courses in any one area are considerably fewer.
Pinehurst #2, the famed Donald Ross golf course in the Sandhills of North Carolina and host to this year’s U.S. Men’s and Women’s Open Championships, sits atop the North Carolina rating panel’s list for 2014, followed in order by Grandfather Golf & Country Club in Linville; the Country Club of North Carolina’s Dogwood Course in Pinehurst; Old North State Club in the Badin Lake community of Uwharrie Point; and Quail Hollow in Charlotte, site of an annual PGA tour stop.
The South Carolina top five have an entirely different character than do the North Carolina top five, both in terms of location and accessibility. Three of the South Carolina’s top five are within a couple of miles of the ocean, whereas none of the North Carolina courses are. And those same top-five South Carolina clubs –- Ocean Course on Kiawah Island (#1), May River in Bluffton (#2) and Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head (#5) -– are all open to visiting golfers, albeit at hefty green fee rates and with some strings attached. For example, you must be a guest of the lush Palmetto Bluff Resort (rooms upward of $400 per night) in order to gain access to the May River course. Sage Valley (#3) and Greenville Country Club’s Chanticleer course (#4) round out South Carolina’s top five.
Because banks were willing in the 1980s and ‘90s to lend lots of easy cash to real estate developers in the Carolinas, and those developers hired the top golf architects, some of the best golf courses in each state thread their way through golf communities. Most dedicated golfers are not always fond of the homes that line fairways and back up against greens, ruining pure golf vistas, and golf raters are no different. To the extent these courses’ designers were able to hide the fairways and greens at levels below the houses or compel developers to bury the home sites behind densely wooded areas, some golf community courses rank highly on the panels’ lists, such as the aforementioned Old North State Club in the remote community of Uwharrie Point, and Greenville Country Club’s Chanticleer course, inside the city limits of Greenville, SC. But it is no coincidence that the very top courses in each state, the Ocean Course on Kiawah Island and Pinehurst #2, are virtually free of homes.
With a combined 900 18-hole golf courses, the Carolinas offer the vacationing golfer and the retiree looking for golfing paradise a smorgasbord of playing options; identifying the best few golf courses for a weekend or a lifetime of vacation golf can seem as challenging as a curling four-foot putt to win a match. But the unbiased rankings of the Carolina states’ golf panels bring order to the golf course selection process and provide some tasty choices from the buffet that is Carolinas golf.