AMERICANS ARE OBSESSED with rankings and polls. Whether it's college football, political candidates — or golf — everyone wants to know “Who's No. 1?”

In the past two decades, the number of golf ratings has flourished, with magazines, newsletters, and Web sites all offering their own opinions on the top courses to play.

“Today's golf traveler is much more sophisticated and knowledgeable about golf courses around the world,” says Sam Baker, president of Haversham & Baker, a Cincinnati-based travel and meeting services company specializing in golf. “Many closely follow the rankings as a guide in planning their next excursion.” To the cynic, however, these ratings are too unscientific, too subjective, and too marketing-driven.

Dove Jones, president of Golf Ink, a Charleston, S.C., golf marketing firm, and a golf industry veteran who has served as a panelist for golf course rankings, advises planners to proceed with caution when developing a golf event on a highly ranked golf course. “It's so easy to get smitten with the high ranking of a course and totally lose sight of objectives for a golf event,” she says. “Some courses just aren't designed to handle group events, and that needs to be researched well before the first tee times are made.”

Different Magazines, Different Criteria

For starters, it's important to understand how different course-rating systems work. “Without that understanding, the list is basically worthless,” says Larry Olmsted, editor of The Golf Insider (www.thegolfinsider.com), a newsletter dedicated to luxury golf travel.

Different publications have their own systems. Golf Digest, for instance, has a panel of 844 low-handicap male and female golfers who evaluate courses on a variety of criteria, including shot values, resistance to scoring, design variety, memorability, aesthetics, conditioning, ambience, and walkability. Tradition points are awarded for tournaments and architectural history. For Golf Magazine, raters evaluate courses on a four-point scale, considering elements such as diversity of the course design, degree of difficulty, imaginativeness of design, and other factors. Golfweek concentrates on architectural design elements for its two separate lists. Its 225 raters consider factors such as natural setting and overall plan, interest of greens and surrounding contours, and course condition. The final element is the “walk in the park test,” which refers to the overall golf experience.

Planners might use that “walk in the park” rating to judge how attendees might react to a course. However, says one golf panelist who has rated courses for 10 years and prefers to remain anonymous, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the ratings are subjective, even if certain guidelines are followed.”

Clearly, some lists have their flaws. Olmsted says one of the problems with some Top 100 lists is that classical, centuries-old courses are rated alongside new courses, some of which are only a couple of years old. “It's such an inexact science, and then when you rate classic courses, some with great traditions, against modern ones, the ratings aren't necessarily fair,” says Olmsted.

The anonymous golf panelist confides that there is lots of behind-the-scenes politicking when it comes to best new course lists. “The more savvy marketers identify raters and influential writers and get them to play their courses,” he says. “Occasionally a course can initially make it on a ‘best new’ list because of good media relations.”

What About Corporate Events?

When it comes to organizing a golf event, planners need to evaluate an entire golf destination, not just a single course or resort. For that reason, arguably one of the best research tools for meeting planners is Golf Digest's rating of the “50 Greatest Golf Destinations,” which it produced for its 50th anniversary in 2000. Still available on Golf Digest's Web site, the list is a thorough evaluation of the best cities, towns, and golf regions in which to tee up, as evaluated by 700 low-handicapper panelists. The list begins with Monterey, Calif.; St. Andrews, Scotland; and Pinehurst, N.C. — all top-of-the-line destinations. Others making the top 10 were Phoenix/Scottsdale, Ariz.; Greater Myrtle Beach, S.C.; and Hilton Head, S.C. Surprisingly, Sheboygan, Wis., at No. 7, is rated well above recognized golf havens such as Orlando (28), San Diego (35), and Bermuda (49).

Olmsted's The Golf Insider newsletter is another good research source for planners because it focuses on the golf traveler, not just the serious golfer. “Most golf course rankings concentrate heavily on the design of the course, with minor attention paid to the setting,” says Olmsted. “I believe beauty and visual appeal are a very important part of the experience for golf travelers. If you don't believe me, imagine playing Pebble Beach if there wasn't an ocean framing the course.” The courses with the highest ratings: Pacific Dunes in Oregon, the Alisa course at Westin Turnberry Resort in Scotland, and the Green Monkey at Sandy Lane Resort in Barbados.

Several books that evaluate golf courses are helpful for meeting planners. The most comprehensive is the dictionary-thick Golf Digest's Best Places to Play, which uses a player survey to rate more than 4,000 golf courses in the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean. Resorts with meeting space that got a five-star rating in the book include: The Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, Va.; Pebble Beach Lodge in Pebble Beach, Calif.; Pinehurst Resort in Pinehurst, N.C.; and The American Club in Kohler, Wis.

Zagat Survey last year debuted America's Top Golf Courses, covering 1,000 of the approximately 10,000 public access courses in the United States. One section of particular interest to planners is the list of the nation's 50 best golf values. The book also features short lists of top-rated courses by region, as well as categories for best pro shop, best-conditioned courses, best resort cuisine, best instruction, and best new courses.

For a compilation of top golf resorts, 100 Best Golf Resorts of the World by Karen Misuraca (The Globe Pequot Press) provides profiles on courses, along with information on lodging, dining, and meeting facilities. The book does not rate golf resorts from one to 100; rather, it separates them into geographic regions.