A golf interview

Rocco Forte Hotels

With Chris Bertram 

How did you get into golf course rankings?

I have been a golf writer since 1986 and, when I went freelance, I saw an opportunity to specialise in ranking courses for the Golf World’s top-100 franchise, which I had worked on when I was with the magazine and didn’t think they had covered courses in continental Europe that well. I have no technical background in course architecture and I’ve not been to college to study it, but I do have the ability to compare usually over 90 of the 100 courses that end up in our ranking, and I think that’s actually the most important thing as a normal golfer.  

What’s the first thing you look at when you arrive at a golf course?

We have two kinds of rankings, for courses and for resorts, and when we review a layout it is solely about what happens on the course. It doesn’t matter how friendly the welcome is, how nice the goody bag is, how nice the drinks are or how good the showers are in the clubhouse, it is simply what happens between the first tee and the 18th green. I certainly don’t expect any special treatment and, in fact, I prefer the opposite and the less fuss made the better as far as I’m concerned, and then it’s all about what happens from the first tee.

What’s the single most important aspect of golf course design, in your opinion?

The best way to answer this is to describe the different categories we use when marking a golf course. We have six categories and there are 100 marks in total, and almost half of these are in the design category. It has 40 marks and is split into three sub-sections: the landscape (20 marks); the green complexes and the routing (both 10 marks). Another key aspect for a lot of golfers would be the setting, which accounts for 15 marks. Presentation is a category that a lot of golfers would probably have higher than we do, which we mark out of 10. The two aspects of the presentation that we look at are whether the maintenance is at ease with the surroundings and the condition of the tees, fairways, bunkers and greens. People may disagree with this but the difficulty we have with presentation is that we can’t just visit every course that we rank every year in the week when it’s in optimum condition.


What’s a more subtle detail of a golf course that is often overlooked that has a big impact on rankings?

I will just name three other categories that we have in our marking system, at least two of which I would use as my answer to this, and they are memorability (15 marks), playability (10 marks) and consistency (10 marks). Playability is an obvious one as I don’t think many people want to be beaten up by a golf course these days. The other two are often overlooked and they are sections that I’m personally very keen on. For consistency, I like at least the majority of holes to deliver great golf and not to be let down by a few poor ones. Memorability, I think, is a key factor in assessing golf courses, and if you can remember six, seven, eight, maybe more, golf holes a week, a month, a year or perhaps even 10 years later, I think that’s a good sign that that a golf course is quite special and should be doing well in a ranking.


Kyle Phillips designed both courses at Verdura Resort and recently redesigned the East Course. What characteristics of his architecture do you enjoy?

This is probably a slightly biased answer as I know Kyle fairly well but I always say that, if I had to ask someone to design a golf course to save my life, he would be right up there. I haven’t seen the redeveloped courses yet but it’s very high on my wish list to see what he’s done to rework the courses. I think one of Kyle’s biggest attributes is that he gets the most from the land and creates courses that encourage good play and don’t penalise the golfer unnecessarily. They are very playable and you just don’t get a bad Kyle Phillips hole.


What’s the best hole that you’ve ever played?

I would go for the 17th on the Old Course at St. Andrews. It’s a par-four that really is a par-five for almost everyone, even for some of the best players in the world, and just has everything: the strategy, the atmosphere, the feeling of being somewhere special. After the thrill of driving over the Old Course Hotel, most people will be looking for a lay-up position with their second shot where they can chip up the green, and running through your head are thoughts of all the greats that have played that hole, and some of them making a mess of it, and some of the famous events that have happened there. It just has everything.


With the Ryder Cup coming to Rome in 2023, what impact do you think this will have on Italy as a golfing destination?

Italy’s a fantastic golf destination as it is and we’re going to be doing an Italian ranking of courses and resorts next year. The 2023 Ryder Cup will raise the profile and will highlight Italy as a golf destination to people that might not have thought of it as one before, but I would say that Italy is doing that from a position of strength. There is something to suit everyone all over the country, whether it’s seaside or inland, historic or modern, and any golfer that visits will find a depth of golf that they probably didn’t think existed.


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