I just purchased a copy of the new golf club history, The Evolution of the Links at the Royal County Down Golf Club, which is one of the most spectacular golf club histories I have ever read. It's expensive, but I recommend it highly.
The book was written by Richard Latham and he has a sidebar in the book regarding a ranking he stumbled across as he was doing his research for the book. Contained within a 1908 edition of Golf Illustrated he found a ranking of the top courses which was compiled by the most prominent golfers in the world. The rankings were fairly broad-based, comprising the opinions of 230 professional and 314 amateur golfers.
The list is below:
- The Old Course at St. Andrews
- Sandwich (also known as Royal St. George's)
- Hoylake (also known as Royal Liverpool)
- North Berwick
- Westward Ho!
- Royal County Down (known as Newcastle then)
- Portrush (now known as Royal Portrush)
- Luffness New
- Brancaster (now know as Royal West Norfolk)
- Lytham and St. Annes
- Dollymount (now known as Royal Dublin)
- Walton Heath
- Harlech (now known as Royal St. David's)
Obviously, their conception of the 'world' in 1908 did not include the New World or Australia/New Zealand.
I've had the privilege of playing sixteen of the courses on the list and don't really take exception to the ranking, which I find even today quite respectable. Before the Muirfield fans get up in arms, remember that the course we know today evolved considerably from the course as it was in 1908.
At the risk of repeating myself, both Prestwick and North Berwick were at the time, and I still believe are today, two of the best golf courses in the world.