Prestige vs. Results: Our Major Matrix shows which famous courses actually hold the best events
The question was simple: When you take the best-known courses in the world, the ones that have hosted multiple majors, which ones actually give us the best, most compelling tournaments? Do the real heavyweights in terms of prestige, like St. Andrews and Pebble Beach, also deliver the best results? Do they sneakily let us down? Are there courses that don't get the same recognition, but somehow pack the drama every time they get a chance?
Take, for instance, this week's Open venue, Royal Liverpool. On one hand, it's not considered a very spectacular layout, despite its long and storied history as an early driver of the English game. And yet, with champions like Walter Hagen, Bobby Jones, Peter Thomson, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, it delivers top-notch winners with regularity, and its championships are almost always close.
To measure these factors, we devised a simple chart we're calling The Majors Matrix, which you can see below. There, each course is plotted by by two qualities: Prestige, and results. You can click each course to see a rundown of its various attributes. Before you scroll down, though, we recommend reading a bit about our methodology. Here's how we did it:
The Majors Matrix
1. We analyzed every course that has hosted more than one major championship since 1920. (Apologies to Prestwick and its 12 holes, host of the first 12 Open Championships.) In all, this gave us a nice even number of 40 courses. There was one exception, and it was a big one.
2. Augusta National is not included. Obviously, Augusta is dripping in prestige, but because it has hosted literally every single Masters, there's no fair way to analyze its results in comparison to all these other courses. As with many aspects of golf, Augusta stands alone.
3. To measure prestige, we considered a couple factors. First, how old is the club? Second, how many majors has it hosted, and did it ever host a Ryder Cup? Third, what's the general perception? You can think of that last category as something akin to "intangibles," or "vibes." Pebble Beach, for instance, isn't quite as old as some other courses on the list, but … well, it's Pebble Beach. On the flip side, courses like Inwood or Canterbury in the U.S. have a decent amount of history, but aren't in the conversation very much anymore. Even a place like Muirfield, one of the most historic places in the world, gets knocked down a few pegs by virtue of having been out of the loop for a few years.
4. To measure results, we looked at a series of factors like the list of major winners at the course (you get more points for Tiger Woods than Shaun Micheel), the average margin of victory after 1920 (to measure the general drama of the event), and then, yes, our precious intangibles/vibes, which sometimes overrides the first two factors.
Let's use Pebble as an example again. The average margin of victory there is above three strokes, which is high for this list, but that's inflated by Tiger's massive 15-shot victory, which, though it was a blowout, was a wild, exciting spectacle in and of itself. Beyond that, Pebble has routinely produced close majors, with champions like Woods, Jack Nicklaus, and Tom Watson. Kiawah is similar—it has a high average margin, but that's because it was the scene of Rory's coming out party. The only other major at Kiawah was Phil's wild late-in-life victory, and the War by the Shore, a banger of a Ryder Cup...in other words, Kiawah is high. Turnberry is a somewhat similar example; the list of winners is just okay, but it has one of the most famous final round battles in golf history, the famous "Duel in the Sun" between Watson and Nicklaus, and that elevates it into our top half. Or take Carnoustie, where the recent winners have been a little underwhelming, but where we had the ridiculous Jean Van de Velde collapse, and Ben Hogan winning the only time he ever played in the event.
5. In the results category, a club's history and/or a small sample size is not held against it. Valhalla, one of the least prestigious clubs, ranks quite high because of the quality of its championships (Tiger's playoff win over Bob May, Rory's win in the darkness in '14, the American resurgence at Azinger's Ryder Cup). Inwood hasn't hosted a major in a long time, but the two times it got a chance, it produced a match play winner in Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones' first major (in a thrilling playoff). Historical courses like Shinnecock and Winged Foot, on the other hand, rank lower than average because its list of champions are relatively unremarkable and the margins weren't always close. The Olympic Club in San Francisco might be the ultimate example of this; the five U.S. Open winners were Jack Fleck, Billy Casper, Scott Simpson, Lee Janzen, and Webb Simpson. No offense to any of them, but compared to some of the heavier hitters, it's not that remarkable. Still, literally all five of those majors were close (either a one-shot win, or a playoff), which kept it out of the bottom 10.
6. Please keep in mind that this is all relative. A course ranked low in prestige on this list is still one of the most prestigious courses in the world, and a course with "low-ranked" winners is still full of great champions. Still, you are very welcome to get extremely mad at the list; that's half the fun.
Is it the British Open or the Open Championship? The name of the final men’s major of the golf season is a subject of continued discussion. The event’s official name, as explained in this op-ed by former R&A chairman Ian Pattinson, is the Open Championship. But since many United States golf fans continue to refer to it as the British Open, and search news around the event accordingly, Golf Digest continues to utilize both names in its coverage.