The GCE Scale

Ranking Golf Courses for Enthusiasts

The GCE Scale is a ranking system for golf courses. It provides a framework for comparing the relative merits of a group of courses and for producing an ordered list, such as "Top 100 Courses I played".

The system is made up of four categories, that are scored independently. A score can be between 0 (worst) and 10 (best); intermediate values (such as 3.5 or 8.5) are also allowed. The GCE Scale is then calculated by adding up the four category scores and dividing the result by 4. The final number will be expressed with a plus or minus qualifier, if it borders on the next or previous number (except 0 and 10, which are always flat values):

 Actual Total
 GCE Scale
 9.6 - 10  10
 9.3 - 9.5  9+
 8.9 - 9.2  9
 8.6 - 8.8  9-
 8.3 - 8.5  8+
 7.9 - 8.2  8
 7.6 - 7.8  8-
 1.3 - 1.5  1+
 0.9 - 1.2  1
 0.6 - 0.8  1-
 0.0 - 0.5  0

The target audience for the GCE Scale are "Golf Course Enthusiasts" (hence the acronym), who are thought to be golfers with an eye for the architecture, design and routing of a course. The four scoring categories are meant to reflect exactly those aspects and are called Quirk, Scenery, Shot Values and Flow. For a detailed explanation, see the column on the right.

Under is a list of more than 250 courses, all ranked via the GCE Scale and published in the form of a Google Map. This list contains only the total GCE Scale numbers, but here is an excerpt from that list, which also shows the category scores:

Shot Values
Cruden Bay 9 10 9 10 9+
St Enodoc 8 9.5 9 10 9
North Berwick
8.5 8.5 9 8.5 9-
Royal Dornoch
7.5 8.5 9
8.5 8+
7.5 8 8 8.5 8
Hamburger (Falkenstein) 8 7.5 8 7.5 8-
Hardelot Les Pins 7.5 7 8 7.5 7+
8 7 7 7 7+
Millstätter See
8 7.5 7 6 7
Bad Ems
6.5 6 7 8 7
Menaggio e Cadenabbia
7.5 7.5 6 6.5 7
Cihelny 6 7 6.5 7 7-
Bad Orb
7 6.5 7.5 5.5 7-
Granville 6.5 6 6.5 7 6+
Harre Vig 5.5 7.5 5 7.5 6+
Royal Golf Club des Fagnes 6.5 6 6 5.5 6
Ängelholms 5.5 6 5.5 6.5 6
Bled 6 6.5 5 5.5 6-
Lugano 5.5 6 6 5 6-
Punta Ala 6 6.5 5.5 4 5+
Alcanada 4.5 6 5 5 5
St Andrews (Strathtyrum) 3 5.5 4.5 5.5 5-
La Wantzenau
4 4 5 4.5 4+
Idstein Nord
4 5 3.5 4 4
Golfrange Frankfurt
4.5 2.5 3.5 3.5 3+
Bad Gögging
2 3 2 2.5 2+
... is a measure of how unusual a golf course is. The general idea is that innovative design elements can make a course more interesting to play, if they are not used for their own sake, but play an actual role in the strategy of the hole. Surprise is part of this concept as well, if it is not overdone. It certainly is suprising to lose a ball after a blind shot, but that kind of quirk is not an asset to a golf course.

Questions to ask when evaluating quirk: is there anything memorable about this hole? Have I seen a tee shot / a green approach like this on many other courses? Are creative hazards deployed or just standard bunkers and ponds?

In the Quirk category a wacky track in the Scottish highlands can outperform a long and stern Tour venue, if it is simply more fun to negotiate.

... speaks of the natural surroundings, the landscape the course is set in. Residential developments, industry, traffic noise etc. are out, whereas sweeping views and the serenity provided by a peaceful location are in. But it's not just the landscape and its scale, it's also the smaller design details on a hole - the artificially created features, if you will. Mounding, ditches, sleepers, plants, the bunkering - all of those and more can be used to provide pleasing (as well as hideous) visuals.

Questions to ask when evaluating scenery: does the course sit easy on the land or is it an artificial enclave, disconnected from the natural surroundings? Is it possible to identify a hole just by looking at it? Do the more extravagant parts still blend seamlessly into the general visual concept?

An otherwise modest layout can shine in the Scenery category just by the merits of its location, whereas a perfectly shaped course can fail for the same reason.

Shot Values
... refer to the technicalities of the actual golf. There should be a smorgasbord of shots being typically played on a course and one measure of that is the length of the holes. Variety is especially important on the par 3s, where the club used into the green is independent of the success of any previous shots. On the longer holes some oscillation between reachable and not reachable (in relation to personal par) keeps things interesting. A dash of diversification off the tee never hurts either. However, merely having challenging shots and risk/reward scenarios designed into the course is not enough, the greenkeeping practices must also support them. And while that does not have anything to do with manicured fairways, it must be possible to play the game as it was intended to be played (and as is reasonable) on this particular tract of land.

Questions to ask when evaluating shot values: how many different clubs did I hit? Were there opportunities to employ creative shotmaking or was it just bread-and-butter golf? Was the conditioning appropriate for this type of course or did it reduce the number of strategic options?

Seemingly small things like overwatering or untrue greens can instantly degrade a course's Shot Values, but are much easier to fix than lack of thought or general incompetence on part of the architect.

... is the effect of a routing that gets the player into a calm and yet purposeful mode. It is hard to establish a consistent rhythm on a discontiguous site or one that is cut into pieces by cart paths. But if the holes do flow into each other and the place exhibits a certain ambiance, then there is a good chance for flow to manifest itself. There are two ways to design for flow: the first method is to create secluded holes, for example by routing the course through a forest or between high dunes. It can feel like an exploration of sorts, if every corner turned presents new and exciting views. However, the danger is to lose width and the freedom to move about. There is no flow to be found in confinement. The second method uses large open spaces, so that other holes and players will be visible from every part of the site. But if those nearer details take a back seat to the expansiveness of the landscape, then flow can result as well.

Questions to ask when evaluating flow: when I walked, did I do that on the actual fairway and towards my ball or was there a lot of unspecific ground to cover? Was it just the golf course and me or did numerous distractions keep popping up? Were there unexpected twists and turns or did I basically just play back and forth over a uniform piece of land?

The concept of Flow can elevate a simple track, that does not try to be something it isn't, and demote a bunch of scattergun holes sprinkled onto bits of spectacular terrain.