Canadian Catches Top 50 Tech Flaw

“I’ve been reading your Top 50 column for more than seven years,” writes Kermit Kallevig, a commercial fisherman from Percival, Nova Scotia. “Or rather, I’ve been waiting for something to read. Not only are your posts rarer than fogbows, the ranking itself hasn’t changed since the last midterm elections. Can you give me one good reason why I shouldn’t cancel my subscription?”

Just one good reason? Goodness gracious, Mr. Kallevig, you deserve a dozen. Your email caught my attention this morning as I was tallying contributions to my crowdfunding sites. “Hmmmmm,” I jotted on a notepad.

The truth is—and what is the Top 50 if not a quest for truth?—I only post when there is a change in the ranking. The ranking has been static since June, 2016, but at least once a day I trot down to the basement here at Catch Basin to inspect the servers and to see if any of our IT staff have returned to work. (They haven’t.) Prompted by your email, I spent a few extra minutes today examining the dials and monitors on our data wall. Everything seemed to be in order, but remembering that scene in The China Syndrome where Jack Lemmon taps a nuclear reactor’s water-level gauge and the needle suddenly dips into the red, I gave the console a good healthy kick. Holy heck! Red lights flashed and VU meters started waving like winter wheat on a windy day.

Here, then, are a few notable updates to the ranking:

  • While Askernish Old and Carne Golf Links continue to share the top spot, Trump Turnberry’s Ailsa Course, a four-time Open Championship venue and one of my favorite links, has dropped out of the Top 10. (On January 6, in fact, Turnberry fell out of the Top 1,000.) Nearby Girvan Links & Parkland, on the other hand, cracks the Top 50 for the first time, debuting at No. 3. Laid out in 1903 by five-time Open champion James Braid, Girvan shares Turnberry’s view of Ailsa Craig and is famous for its seaside stretch of drivable par 4s and unreachable par 3s. (“Come back when the wind is blowing,” the starter told me the last time I played Girvan. “I’ve seen tee shots fly backward into the car park.”)
The 12th hole at Milburn Country Club, Overland Park, Kansas. (John Garrity)
  • Milburn Country Club, home course of 1927 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion Miriam Burns Horn, climbs to No. 30 on the strength of a multi-year upgrade by architect Todd Clark. Christened in 1917, this William B. Langford gem was a PGA Tour venue in the 1950s and a finalist to host the 1951 U.S. Open held at Michigan’s Oakland Hills CC. (The other finalist: Pennsylvania’s Oakmont CC.)
  • Excelsior Springs Golf Club, one of Missouri’s oldest and most revered small-town layouts, climbs 105 rungs to No. 50. Still presentinging the original Tom Bendelow eighteen, which opened in 1915, Excelsior Springs has seen more than a century of golfing greats walk its rolling fairways, from Chick Evans to Lawson Little and Horton Smith to Tom Watson and Payne Stewart. Excelsior Springs now outranks two other well-known Bendelow tracks—three-time U.S. Open venue Medinah Country Club and Olympia Fields Country Club, which has hosted two Opens and two PGA Championships.
  • Pine Valley Golf Club, Pine Valley, N.J., remains unranked.

So again, apologies, Mr. Kallevig, and thanks for exposing our little tech flaw. As Clive James so aptly put it, “It is only when they go wrong that machines remind you how powerful they are.” (To which Stewart Brand replied, “Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road.”)

Top 50 on TV: The 111th Irish PGA Championship will be played at top-ranked Carne Golf Links, County Mayo, Aug. 5-7. Hailed as “the best course in the world” by Sports Illustrated and called “brilliant, simply brilliant” by author Tom Coyne, Carne was the subject of the 2009 best-seller, Ancestral Links: A Golf Obsession Spanning Generations, widely credited for sparking the Northwest Ireland tourism boom.* The pros will play Carne’s Wild Atlantic Dunes course, which features Eddie Hackett’s original back nine (1995) and an equally majestic Kilmore Nine (2013) designed by Jim Engh and Ally McIntosh. Past champions of the Irish PGA include Fred Daly, Harry Bradshaw, Christy O’Connor Sr., David Feherty, Paul McGinley, Pádraig Harrington and Darren Clarke. “Staging the Irish PGA Championship at a stunning course that is already rated … [No. 1 in the World] … is a natural progression,” says Michael McCumiskey, PGA in Ireland regional manager.   

*Full disclosure: I wrote Ancestral Links, as well as the above plug.


Filed under Uncategorized

Doomed Ohio Course Cracks Top 50

“Minerva Lake at No. 50? What am I missing?”

The reader who asked those questions could have been speaking for me. Minerva Lake Golf Club, a 5,497-yard, par-69 Harold Pollock-designed track in Columbus, Ohio, broke into the Top 50 seven weeks ago, replacing Trump Doonbeg of County Clare, Ireland. I had never heard of Minerva Lake, much less played it, so I called Professor Charles Eppes at the California Institute of Science. “Yo, Eppes,” I said, “what’s the scoop on this Minerva track?”

Van Sickle Minerva 18th

Gary Van Sickle attacks the par-3 18th at Minerva Lake Golf Club. (John Garrity)

Predictably, he rattled off a string of data points and then went off on a tangent about polynomials and “asymptote,” whatever that is. (Charlie is not a golfer, and, quite frankly, his Top 50 algorithm flies a foot or two over my head.) Winding up, he said, “You’re the golf guy. Go play it and find out for yourself.”

That made sense, so this morning I played hooky from the Memorial Tournament (at 58th-ranked Muirfield Village Golf Club, Dublin, Ohio) and played a quick and pleasurable 18 at Minerva Lakes. My playing companions were Wei Over Par columnist and blogger Stephanie Wei and Sports Illustrated senior writer Gary Van Sickle.

Minerva Lake 18th

The par-3 18th at Minerva Lakes. (John Garrity)

I should say at the outset that I am a very demanding critic of golf grounds. In past columns I have found fault with Pine Valley (“Too sandy”), Furnace Creek (“Too hot”) and Ft. Meade City Mobile Home Park Golf Course (“Too awful for words”). But I found Minerva Lakes to be better than its surprisingly high rating. Arboreally blessed and criss-crossed with not-too-penal creeks, the property takes full advantage of ravines, ridges and other natural features. Van Sickle, America’s most-decorated course rater and a former Top-50 staffer, found just the right words when he described Minerva Lakes as “not the goat ranch I was expecting. It’s a classic course that will make you think of A.W. Tillinghast or C.B. MacDonald. Short, but fun from start to finish. Terrific par 3s, too.” Wei was equally impressed, stopping from time to time to Snapchat with her social-media followers.

So it pains me to report that Minerva Lake, which opened at 35 cents per round in 1931, will soon close for good, a victim of encroaching development. Three of the original holes were lopped off decades ago, and now the land is worth more as — well, as anything.

Never mind that a teenage Jack Nicklaus shot a course-record 65 in 1957.

And never mind that the property was once part of Minerva Park, a turn-of-a-different-century amusement park. “The 1897 casino could seat 2,500 people, drew some of the best-known acts of the day, and housed an orchestrion that cost a third as much as the building itself,” wrote Jeffrey J. Knowles in a 2005 history of the course. “There was also a zoo, dance hall, ball diamond, bowling lanes, bandstand, picnic areas, boat docks, museum, steam-driven carousel, wishing well and the Shoot the Chutes water ride.”

Minerva Lakes

Gary Van Sickle and Stephanie Wei gave Minerva Lake several thumbs up. (John Garrity)

Sounds quaint — but no more quaint, apparently, than a 5,500-yard parkland course in an age of 350-yard drives and 75,000-square-foot clubhouses. “I almost wish I hadn’t played it,” I told professor Eppes in a follow-up call. “Yesterday, Minerva Lake meant nothing to me, but now I’m going to miss it.”

“Interesting,” he said. “I may have to adjust the algorithm.”

You, on the other hand, may have to adjust your travel plans to play this sweet little course before it closes. Green fees range from $13 (weekday senior) to $20 (holidays/weekends) with tee times taken seven days in advance. But pay heed to the terse message on the club’s web site: “Minerva Lake will be open through Monday, July 4 2016. After that date, the course will be closed permanently.”

So sad. Minerva Lake remains at No. 50 and will — by executive order — retain that position for the remainder of its existence.


Filed under golf, Uncategorized

Monkeying with the Top 50 Algorithm

A reader from Pine Valley, N.J., asks how much of a course’s rating is based upon conditioning. “You’ve got Augusta National at No. 6 and Prairie Dunes at No. 4,” she writes, “and those courses are immaculately groomed. But you’ve got a bunch of links courses on your list that are downright shaggy and have greens rolling at 5 on the stimpmeter. Can you explain?”

The Country Club

When mowed, The Country Club cracks the Top 5 (John Garrity)

I can. The Top 50 algorithm — perfected more than a decade ago by a CalSci team under the direction of applied mathematics professor Charles Edward Eppes — awards plus-or-minus points for dozens of pertinent variables, e.g., average green size, proximity of sand bunkers to overhanging tree limbs, horsepower of beverage carts, horsepower of beverage-cart girls, etc. But no points are awarded for conditioning.

That’s what makes the Top 50 great. Other ratings systems award top-100 status to glorified turf farms that spend hundreds of dollars per year on fertilizer, pesticides and sprinkler systems. These well-known courses subscribe to the Hey-you-kids-get-off-my-lawn theory of greenkeeping, which elevates agronomy above price, playability and scenery — or, as I call them, “The Big 3.”

Trouble is, conditioning is not only superficial; it’s temporary. Augusta National looked great in April, when it was on TV, but how does it look now, in August? Ditto for the Ft. Meade City Mobile Home Park Golf Course in Ft. Meade, Fla. Ft. Meade’s packed-clay greens are perfectly round in January, at the peak of the tourist season, but by June its greens — if that’s the word — have rough edges, and its fairways — if that’s the word — are covered with fire-ant hills. But those are merely cosmetic changes, and it would be unjust to demote either course because of its appearance.

Just for fun, though, I asked the CalSci team to crank out some ratings with turf quality added to the mix. Guess what? It totally scrambles the results.

  1. Augusta National Golf Club, Augusta, Ga. (Alister Mackenzie, Bobby Jones), 10.25
  2. Muirfield Village Golf Club, Dublin, Ohio (Jack Nicklaus, Desmond Muirhead), 10.27
  3. Sunset Hills Golf Course and Driving Range, Sheboygan Falls, Wisc. (Ed Kirchenwitz) 9.75
  4. Kansas City Country Club, Kansas City, Mo. (A.W. Tillinghast, Robert Trent Jones) 9.72
  5. The Country Club, Brookline, Mass. (Willie Campbell, Rees Jones) 10.31

The fastidious National, at No. 1, is no surprise. Neither is No. 2 Muirfield Village, where the turf is so carpet-like that Dan Jenkins, covering the 1977 Memorial Tournament, wrote that spectators “would sooner have dropped cigarettes on their babies’ tummies” than flick a butt onto the fairway.

Sunset Hills, at No. 3, is the shocker — but only if you’re a stranger to southeastern Wisconsin. Situated a few miles from No. 72 Whistling Straits Golf Club, Sunset Hills is a nine-hole par-3 course serving the heavily-traveled Highway 23 corridor connecting Sheboygan with Greater Fond du Lac/Oshkosh. Its designer, Ed Kirchenwitz, was superintendent at Whistling Straits and Blackwolf Run before working his magic on the Sheboygan River flood plain.

Yes, magic. You know it’s magic the instant you step onto Sunset Hills’ first tee, which is as posh as a lawn bowls green and roughly the size of Delaware. The fairways and greens follow suit, punctuated by exotic trees, sensational shrubbery, and a meandering river. And that’s not even counting Sunset Hills’ spacious and densely-turfed practice range, which has the added merit of facing away from the titular sunset, rendering balls visible against the evening sky.

Sports Illustrated’s Gary Van Sickle, who played Sunset Hills on Wednesday evening, said, “When you walk onto a par-3 course between the corn fields, you have low expectations. You aren’t expecting Whistling Straits-type turf.” Neither are you expecting a ten-dollar weekend green fee and a cart fee of five bucks per person — or, as I call them, “The Big 2.”

Anyway, that’s how the rankings look when you give points for checkerboard mowing patterns and topiary. Next time we’ll see how things shake out when I juice the algorithm with parking lot quality.

Top 50 on TV: The PGA Championship has returned to the above-mentioned Whistling Straits, a clifftop design by the legendary duo of Pete and Alice Dye. Renowned for its thousand-plus bunkers and slippery dune grasses, the Straits is scheduled to host the 2020 Ryder Cup “subject to sufficient guaranteed quality hotel rooms.” (Written from the Oshkosh Fairfield Inn & Suites, which provides free fresh-baked cookies on a daily basis.)


Filed under golf

What KC Has that Pinehurst Hasn’t

KANSAS CITY, MO. — Not much going on here at Top 50 headquarters. The leaves have turned russet and gold and have, in some cases, fallen. Folks are stockpiling their Halloween candy. I’ve noticed an odd trend towards blue outer garments, and there’s been a surge of absenteeism, but I haven’t been able to get an explanation from our staff futurists, who were last seen going out the door in their blue outer garments.

Hillcrest No. 2

The second at Hillcrest: Where have all the blue-clad golfers gone? (John Garrity)

I’m reminded of the question that Top 50 employees get all the time: “Why are you in Kansas City?” My first impulse is to roll my eyes skyward and deliver that little mini-shrug that says “Duh.” We rank golf courses! And Kansas City, if you haven’t noticed, is pretty much Ground Zero for great golf. I live within a few hours drive of 4th-ranked Prairie Dunes of Hutchinson, Ks.; alternate-4th-ranked Sand Hills of Mullen, Neb.; 51st-ranked Southern Hills of Tulsa, Ok.; 57th-ranked Bellerive of St. Louis, Mo.; and 61st-ranked Flint Hills National of Andover, Ks..

That’s if I feel like driving. Here in the metro area we’ve got a Donald Ross masterpiece (30th-ranked Hillcrest), an A.W. Tillinghast charmer (51st-ranked Swope Memorial), another Fazio phantasm (43rd-ranked Hallbrook), a Tom Watson standout (71st-ranked The National), a Harry Robb classic (74th-ranked Milburn) and Watson’s home course (the venerable and 51st-ranked KCCC). Which invites the question: Where else would a golf non-profit want to sink its roots? Scotland? Ireland? The Monterey Peninsula?

Then there’s the matter of weather. In my book, Ancestral Links, I asserted that Western Ireland has the best weather in the world — immediately adding, “Not everyone will agree.”

Some will point to afternoon temperatures that rarely top 65 degrees Fahrenheit and damp cloudy days that succeed one another like wet clothes on a line. Others will grouse about the winter storms with their hurricane-force winds and rampaging tides. CBS golf commentator and author David Feherty — a Northern Irishman living in Texas — e-mailed me that I was “daft” for vacationing in Mayo “at this time of year” — i.e., summer.

But when I say that Western Ireland has the best weather, I mean golf weather. There are destinations that are sunnier (Hawaii), drier (Dubai), warmer (Arizona), cooler (Sweden) or less windy (Zimbabwe?), but those same destinations are often too soggy, too hot, too cold, or too perilous for golf. Tulsa, for example, suffers from both thunderstorms and ice storms, either of which makes Southern Hills unplayable. The Mullet, by way of contrast, rarely thrills to the peal of thunder. Carne’s fairways and greens remain firm and puddle-free in the heaviest of rains.

I’m not backing off that assessment; Ireland does have the best golf weather. But Kansas City has the kind of weather that corporate CEOs look for when they’re shafting one community to to extort tax breaks from another. There’s even a metric for it — a sliding scale of “decent golf weather” — that can be used to predict absenteeism, workplace inefficiency and unbridled unionism. Kansas City, which is either frozen solid or hotter than Hades for months on end, is extremely attractive to employers.

But really, it’s the intangibles that make my home town so special. There’s an ineffable aura about KC, once you escape the gloomy and claustrophobic confines of our outdated air terminals, that makes you want to come back again and again. Norman Rockwell captured it in a painting he called “The Kansas City Spirit.” Hallmark Cards founder Joyce Hall expressed it as “the good in men’s hearts that makes them put service above self and accomplish the impossible.” I call it “the Kansas City Way” and pay my earnings taxes with a smile.

Still, I wish somebody would tell me why everybody’s wearing blue.

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but we’re driving out to Hutchinson tomorrow for a look at 4th-ranked Prairie Dunes. Meanwhile, we’d like to recognize the playing achievements of our course-rating director, Gary Van Sickle, who came “very … close … to [winning]” the U.S. Senior Amateur Championship at Newport Beach, Calif.; his son, Mike Van Sickle, who was co-medalist at the first stage of Q-School in Nebraska City, Neb.; and Top 50 founder and CEO John Garrity, who, along with scramble partner Vince Schiavone, took top honors at the Humane Society of Kansas City Golf Classic, and, along with Atlantic States Ratings Coordinator Dave Henson, won his flight in the Palmetto Hall Plantation Member-Guest.

1 Comment

Filed under golf

Top 50 HQ Faces Further Layoffs

It has been a quiet summer at Catch Basin. The Top 50 staff — those who were not furloughed last spring — spend most of their time in the company cafeteria, sipping tea and reading technical journals. The place typically empties out by 3 p.m., the techies going to their second jobs in the fast-food industry, the golfers bussing out to 30th-ranked Hillcrest Country Club for a few hours of unsupervised recreation. The basement level of the Michael F. Bamberger Computer Center is a sorry sight; the Bomar Brain sits idle, surrounded by stacks of recycled fan-fold paper.

Pennsylvania Run GC

This demanding Kentucky course is mired at T51 in the Top 50 ranking. (John Garrity)

“It’s the worst I’ve ever seen it,” I told a local TV crew last night. “If we don’t get some meaningful data by the weekend, we’re probably gonna lose the whole season.”

Why sugar-coat it? It’s nigh on two months since Louisville’s Big Spring Country Club, site of the 1952 PGA Championship and the 2008 Rolex Writers Cup, crept into the Top 50. Since then, there has been absolutely no movement in the rankings. Every one of the thousands of courses we rate, right down to last-place Ft. Meade City Mobile Home Park Golf Course, is right where it was on June 24, when Big Springs replaced Pennsylvania Run Golf Course, Kentucky’s best clover-fairways layout, at No. 50.

“No change — is that even possible?” I asked one of our Cal Sci consultants, Prof. Amazon V. Hachette.

“It’s not just possible,” he texted back. “It’s very possible. You’re too young to remember, but there were whole decades when the course rankings didn’t budge. The Old Course at St. Andrews, for example, was number one for more than three centuries, and there was a week in the 1920s when everybody, for some reason, stopped playing golf.”

Comforting words. But as I told the good professor, quoting John Maynard Keynes, “In the long run we are all dead.”

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup Playoffs are underway at 51st-ranked Ridgewood Country Club in Paramus, N.J.

Meanwhile, our crack staff of second-raters continues to file reports, even if those reports don’t move the ranking. Our Heart-of-America man, Dr. Gary Abrams, performed an exhausting review of Hillcrest [Donald Ross] and 51st-ranked Swope Memorial Golf Club [A.W. Tillinghast] of Kansas City, Mo. “They’re featuring your Sports Illustrated story at Hillcrest,” Gary begins ….

I was pleased that the condition of the course was better than last year, and it’s still a classic and fun. Swope was amazing. Having not played there for many years, I was blown away by its immaculate condition — as good as any country club.  Uniform rough, great bunkers, greens were tiptop.  Wow.  Can’t wait to go back …. [Fourth-ranked] Prairie Dunes tomorrow …. Love to take you out to Shirkey Golf Club in Richmond, Mo. Think you’ll find it a “primitive” masterpiece.

Shirkey, designed by Golf Course Superintendents Association of America co-founder

Chet Mendenhall, received a 4-1/2-star rating from Golf Digest and is currently ranked No. 304 on our list.

Bruce Selcraig

Journalist/investigator Bruce Selcraig is a giant among links experts. (John Garrity)

And then there’s this from investigative reporter Bruce Selcraig of Austin, Texas, our chief links correspondent, widely-published writer and former staffer for the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations  …

Hey, John: Just played Narin & Portnoo Golf Club in County Donegal. Liked it a lot, never noticed that it was just 6,000 yds from the middle tees, only 6,200 from the tips. Lots of gorgeous holes, a huge beach the equal of Portsalon Golf Club’s. An unfortunate caravan park marring #17 and the first tee, but, you know, Loretta Lynn’s got to live somewhere. Fun, challenging.

Bruce adds, “Maybe I’m getting soft in my old age and declining stickhood, but I now think designers who put everything on mountainsides and don’t let you see a natural place for the ball to go are bozos, while designers who want their courses to please people for the next 200 years — Eddie Hackett! — are to be revered. Ahem.”

And this last bit from Bruce:

I walked onto the Old Tom Morris course at Rosapenna Golf Resort at 8 p.m. for some evening golf and had giant fun. Very traditional old links, flat mostly, surrounded by large dunes. The evening light made it memorable.

If you’re keeping score, Narin & Portnoo, Portsalon and Rosapenna’s Old Tom Morris course and Pat Ruddy-designed Sandy Hills links are currently ranked — some would say stuck —  at T117.


Filed under golf

Wallasey Links Lives Up to Its Data

HOYLAKE, ENGLAND — Ben Crane is a five-time winner on the PGA Tour. He’s also a keen judge of golf courses, which is why I fumbled to get my log book open when Ben started gushing about 38th-ranked Wallasey Golf Club. “Does it get any better than this?” he asked on the fourth tee, which rides a dune high above a fairway that follows the shoreline south along the Irish Sea.

Ben Crane at Wallasey GC

“Does it get any better than this?” Ben Crane on the 4th tee at Wallasey GC. (John Garrity)

“This is as good as it gets, isn’t it?” He spread his arms like Moses. “I mean, are you telling me there’s something better than this?”

This was yesterday evening, at the end of a long, sunny day that saw the recent FedEx St. Jude Classic winner fail by a whisker to get into the Open Championship as a first alternate. Many of his peers were still on the course at 51st-ranked Royal Liverpool, a few miles down the coast. “I’d love to have gotten in,” he said, “but I wasn’t going home without playing some links golf.”

For a complete and more nuanced account of gallant Ben’s visit, I give you this by my playing partner and SI colleague, Michael Bamberger. Read it at your leisure, and then come back for my obligatory take on the Wallasey links.

Stock, Crane and Bamberger

A walk on the wild side at Wallasey links with (l to r) caddie Joel Stock, PGA Tour pro Ben Crane and SI senior writer Michael Bamberger. (John Garrity)

Ah, good to have you back. I’ll start by answering Ben’s question: Yes, it does get better than Wallasey. After all, there are 37 higher-ranked courses in the Top 50. But that’s the data talking, and I, like Ben, am suspicious of data, even when it’s cranked out by an instrument as dependable as the Bomar Brain. To be honest, I’ve been uneasy about Wallasey’s high ranking ever since it debuted at No. 48 a few years ago. I pestered my staff with questions: “What can you tell me about the place? Why did you waive the deduction for no drinking fountains? How long should a tick bite remain inflamed before I call a doctor?”

Beyond the raw numbers, all they could tell me was that Wallasey was the home club of Dr. Frank Stableford, the man who invented the Stableford Rules for golf scoring. Well, hoop dee dooI’ve invented more than a dozen scoring protocols, none of which require me to record every stroke I take on a hole.

That said, I found Wallasey to be enchanting. With its big shaggy dunes and glorious sea views, it’s a close cousin to top-ranked Askernish and Carne, my two favorite courses. Furthermore, it is quirky. One fairway crosses directly in front of another tee. There’s a 90-degree dogleg-right par-4 that skirts a grove of trees — trees on a links? — and climbs a steep hill to a blind green. There’s a long par-4 that requires a blind approach shot of around 200 yards into a natural amphitheater that was probably popular with the Druids. Quirky links, to my way of thinking, are the best kind.

Don’t ask me to choose between homely Royal Liverpool and fetching Wallasey, because I’ll take Wallasey every time. And so will Bamberger, who’s right back out there this afternoon with his pal Mike Donald, runner-up to Hale Irwin at the 1990 U.S. Open. “The course is an absolute delight,” Michael B. writes in his Crane piece. He singles out the fifth — “a par 3 that played about 160 yards into the wind off the Irish sea, from an elevated tee” — as “a gem.”

We’ll have to wait for Mike Donald’s take. But if he gives it a thumbs up, Wallasey could ascend a rung or two before I reach Ireland.

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but the Open Championship continues at 51st-ranked Royal Liverpool Golf Club, a curious, small-dunes links with knee-high mole-cricket runs delineating arbitrary out-of-bounds boundaries. It’s no Wallasey, but it possesses an undeniable 19th-century charm. We have advised the R&A that it be kept in the Open rota — only, perhaps, on a less-frequent basis.*

*We provided our recommendation on a pro bono basis and have not yet heard back from the R&A.


Filed under golf

Ross Course Captures World’s Attention

“What’s the hottest course on your list?” asks a reader from Oatmeal, Texas. The answer, I discovered after tapping a few keys on my Bomar Brain, is Furnace Creek Golf Club of Death Valley, Calif., where summer temperatures top out at around 130 degrees with overnight lows of 100. That’s one reason why Furnace Creek has never cracked my Top 50.

Hillcrest's 2nd hole

Hillcrest’s No. 2 is sometimes mistaken for Pinehurst No. 2, but there is a significant difference in elevation. (John Garrity)

“Let’s face it,” writes the author of the 1994 best-seller, America’s Worst Golf Courses, “on any list of potential golf course sites, Death Valley — at 214 feet below sea level — has to be near the bottom.”

Ask any blade of grass. Summer soil temperatures at Furnace Creek reach 200 degrees: good for baking brownies, but not much help to turfgrass. Perversely, winter temperatures in Death Valley dip well below freezing, nudging the Bermuda grass greens and fairways into dormancy. Rainfall? Less than two inches a year. In these conditions, even sand traps don’t survive. The local sand is so high in mineral content that it hardens like concrete when wet; imported sand blows away in the Valley’s furious windstorms. Consequently, all the bunkers on this desert course are grass.

Furnace Creek’s course rating, according to AWGC, is 67.4. Its USGA Slope? “Pretty much uphill in every direction.” “– And by ‘hottest,’” my desert correspondent continues, “I mean ‘trending’ — as in Billboard’s ‘with a bullet’ designation for songs moving fast up the charts.” This is an example of a reader wasting the Top 50’s time. Was I supposed to read the entire email before answering the question? That’s like asking the dock hand if you can jump the narrow gap to the ferry as it’s pulling away, adding that while you look out of shape now, you were a high-school hurdler and occasional ballroom dancer, and even now you can probably …. oops, too late. But we are here to serve, so I’ll answer the question. The Top 50’s trendiest course is Hillcrest Golf & Country Club of Kansas City, Mo. In the past couple of months, Hillcrest — a 1916 Donald Ross design — has catapulted from 42nd to 30th in the ranking, pushing it past better-known Ross masterpieces such as  Mid-Pines Inn & Golf Club (No. 32), Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club (No. 42), and 51st-ranked Pinehurst No. 2, site of the upcoming men’s and women’s U.S. Opens. The Top 50 isn’t alone in singing Hillcrest’s praises. Last week, Sports Illustrated devoted four pages and the talents of esteemed golf photographer Kohjiro Kinno to a Hillcrest feature titled BACK ON COURSE. (“Once given up for dead,” reads the subhead, “a challenging Donald Ross layout in the heartland is thriving again.”) SI singles out Hillcrest’s “infamous 1st hole, a 243-yard par-3 that Ray Floyd once called the toughest opening hole that he had ever played.” Also mentioned: the fact that Arnold Palmer once went around Hillcrest in 83.* “Every so often,” SI’s man writes, “I am reminded that Ross courses are widely revered …”

They’re not all masterpieces, and some of them have had mustaches painted on them by posterity, but playing one of the 399 courses attributed to Ross is like fingerpicking a vintage Martin guitar. Something of the designer is inevitably expressed, something sings … and you don’t need a lot of talent to appreciate the craftsmanship.

How true! On the strength of that paragraph alone, I and the entire Top 50 staff promptly signed up to receive the new SI Golf+ Digital e-magazine, which is free to humans and delivered weekly via email, app or *Full disclosure: I wrote the story.

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but the above-mentioned Pinehurst No. 2 will hog our screens for the next fortnight. No. 2, too, has gotten the attention of various Sports Illustrated platforms. You can start with photographer Bob McNeely’s black-and-white renderings of the Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw course tweaks in the SI Golf+ U.S. Open Preview. I also recommend the June issue of GOLF Magazine, specifically the comprehensive U.S. Open preview section (“Why Pinehurst Will Be the Toughest Venue Yet”), which includes a clever send-up of Phil Mickelson tournament coverage (“Tomorrow’s News … Today!”)** You’ll split your sides with laughter. **I wrote it.

Leave a comment

Filed under golf

Turnberry Deal Risky for Trump

Nothing catches the Top 50 by surprise, so we did little more than spray a mouthful of hot cocoa when we read that Donald Trump has bought third-ranked Turnberry Resort of Ayrshire, Scotland. On the advice of counsel we quickly snapped up some tee times on Turnberry’s famed Ailsa Course, hoping to get in a few rounds before The Donald installs his waterfalls and concrete cart paths. Otherwise, we’ve gone about our business, rating golf courses with scientific rigor and unshakable integrity.

But in the sub-basement of Catch Basin, our Kansas City headquarters, the excitement is palpable. We’ve fired all the cubicle cuties who handled consumer complaints and replaced them with a corps of hard-edged, Wall Street bond salesmen. These guys, veterans of various pump-and-dump schemes and penny-stock swindles, are already making cold calls to avid core golfers.

Why? I’ll tell you why. It’s because Trump — a so-called “business genius” who now owns and operates 17 golf properties — has made the worst decision of his storied career. He has acquired Turnberry’s elegant cliff-top hotel, it’s true, and he now owns the resort’s three golf courses, including the incomparable Open Championship links that hosted 1977’s legendary “Duel in the Sun.” But he didn’t buy Ailsa Craig, the muffin-shaped island that dominates the view from the Turnberry lighthouse.

Trump’s tailor, if he’s sharp, is already embroidering the word “SUCKER” on the lapels of The Donald’s tux.

Turnberry Resort

The Turnberry Resort before its purchase by Donald Trump. Miguel Angel Jimenez and his caddie were not part of the deal. (John Garrity)

If you’re a loyal reader of this post, you know that my Top 50 Charitable Trust plans to purchase Ailsa Craig with funds donated by loyal readers of this post. The eighth Marquess of Ailsa has priced the iconic rock at $2.4 million, which is more than reasonable when you consider that the island is the exclusive source of microgranite for Olympic-class curling stones. Imagine its worth if some genius entrepreneur — not Trump! — captures the international market for game-improvement curling stones.

It was not profit, however, but a desire to preserve the view from Turnberry and protect a hunk of Scottish heritage that motivated our fund-raising drive. But now, with Trump in control of the relevant strip of Ayrshire coastline, we see a greater opportunity. As owners of Ailsa Craig, we will point out to Trump how our property enhances the value of his property and, with that in mind, mention how the perceived value of his Open venue might decline if someone were to erect a giant curtain around the island,* spoiling the view. Knowing how much the Donald detests environmental degradation — proved by his opposition to an offshore wind farm near 51st-ranked Trump International Golf Links of Aberdeenshire — we’re sure he’ll embrace an annual fee of a million bucks for viewing rights to Ailsa Craig. Or, if he’s so inclined, he can buy the island from us at a modest markup — say, $20 million?

*Recognizing that it would be costly to erect an actual fabric curtain around a 1,100-foot-tall island, we envision a World War II-style smoke screen laid down by speedy patrol boats. On many days, of course, the Scottish weather renders the island invisible at no additional cost.

We still have some work to do. As of 5 p.m. Thursday we’re roughly $2.399 million shy of our goal. That’s why it’s so important that you answer your phone, even when the screen says “No Caller I.D.” It could be one of our boiler-room boys, calling to get your pledge to our TRUMP TRUMP FOR THE GOOD OF SCOTLAND campaign.

And remember: No contribution is too small.

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but the PGA Tour’s Wells Fargo Championship is winding up at the 51st-ranked Quail Hollow Club, site of the 2017 PGA Championship. Quail Hollow’s Tom Fazio course, recently renovated by Tom Fazio, has long been a personal favorite, although I have never had the pleasure of playing it. Next week’s venue, 51st-ranked TPC Sawgrass, has never been a personal favorite, but I have had the pleasure of playing it. Coincidence?


Filed under golf

Masters Icon Gets Top-50 Treatment

AUGUSTA, GA. — This week’s post may be too technical for some readers, but we are the most scientific course ranking, so there. And while it’s common knowledge that we employ advanced metrics, a Cal Sci algorithm and the mega-computing powers of the Bomar Brain, it’s less well known that we yoke our inputs to to various independent and proprietary data bases, not limiting ourselves to authorized sources. This week, for example, our Kansas City headquarters has a real-time link to the trove of Masters statistics generated by the Augusta National Golf Club.

Augusta National's 16th

The 16th green of Augusta National with the late, lamented Eisenhower Tree barely visible at far left. (John Garrity)

Some of this data is too arcane to be of much use — cumulative ATM fees! — but much of it is germane. A few weeks ago, our Catch Basin second-raters* were about to penalize Augusta National a tenth of a point for the ice-storm death of its so-called Eisenhower Tree. “That tree was one of the game’s most-recognized icons,” said the guy in a white lab coat whose name I can never remember. “It dictated how the 17th was played. Imagine the Road Hole without the Road Hole Bunker, or the Valley of Sin without legalized prostitution.”

*”Second-raters” is not meant to be pejorative. Our field evaluators are called “first-raters” because they collect their data on course visits. 

Fortunately, a cooler head prevailed. “Speed is important,” I told my basement staff, “but nobody of importance will play Augusta National between now and the Masters. Why don’t we just wait until the tournament starts and then adjust our ranking with the aid of fresh statistics — which is, after all, what we do.”

My words made a strong impression on the paid employees, particularly the ones with children and mortgages. Anyway, Augusta National began today, April 11, in sixth place, the same position it held when branches started breaking. I, meanwhile, have set up a command center in Row F of the Masters press building, right next to Gary Van Sickle, the Top 50’s v.p. and executive course rater.

Here’s the Masters stat we’re keeping our eyes on: scoring average by hole. Between 1942 and 2013, the 17th, “Nandina,” was the tournament’s tenth most difficult hole, yielding an average of 4.15 strokes per player per round. It played easiest (3.9485) in 1996, due to the premier of Howard Stern’s radio show in Texas, and most difficult (4.3480) in 1951, following the spying convictions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Last year, No. 17 was, predictably, the tenth most difficult hole at 4.22.

But now we’re watching as post-Eisenhower-Tree data streams in. As of 4:51 p.m. EDT, No. 17 ranks eleventh in difficulty with an average of 4.172 pppr. In language the layman will understand, this means that the 17th has dropped a full 1.0 in seasonally-adjusted difficulty, relative to the other 17 holes. Put another way, it means the hole is easier than before.

Easier is better than harder — ask any weekend golfer — so I have directed the Catch Basin staff to credit Augusta National with a “fun credit” of .05 points. This will not affect its current ranking, but we’ll be monitoring the National’s metrics all week and making adjustments as necessary.

(Thanks to SI senior writer Alan Shipnuck for his helpful advice about carrying numbers. We’ll look into it.)

Top 50 on TV: The Masters, as usual, is being played at sixth-ranked Augusta National Golf Club. It’s a little-known fact that when the first Masters was played, in 1934, the club was too poor to pay Horton Smith his victor’s prize. Instead, they offered him a friends-and-family discount on future rounds of golf, which he foolishly declined.

Leave a comment

Filed under golf

Shoulder Pain Benches Top 50 CEO

“There are many rumors circulating on the internet regarding your shoulder injury,” writes a Top 50 fan from Sequoia Heights, Fla. “The silliest so far blames frozen golf balls, but Drudge is peddling some conspiracy theory going back to your college-radical days at Stanford. I’m guessing you’re keeping mum on purpose, to drum up more publicity. Am I right?”

John Garrity

Top 50 Founder and CEO John Garrity (right) at Madrid Central Station before his injury. (Photo by Edoardo Molinari)

Van — may I call you Van? — you couldn’t be more right. When I saw how much attention Tiger Woods gets for his career-threatening injuries, I decided to milk my recently-torn labrum for all it’s worth. Here’s how it works: Whenever a fellow journalist asks me why my right arm is dangling like an adventitious prop root, I smile enigmatically and walk away. This has gotten me front-page coverage in more than a hundred newspapers and three different citations on Bill Maher’s HBO program.

Frankly, it’s too easy — which is why I’m calling an end to it right now. Here’s the complete story, as revealed in my exclusive interview with Sports Illustrated senior writer Gary Van Sickle:

Q: Do you, in fact, have an injured shoulder?

A: Yes.

Q: Which shoulder?

A: I … [unintelligible] … agreement that we wouldn’t talk about that. You [redacted] only when ….

Q: How did you hurt it?

A: Actually, that’s kind of a funny story. In February, we had a brief thaw in Kansas City, so I went out to play a few holes at [42nd-ranked] Hillcrest. It was a breezy day, temperature in the fifties, the sun popped out now and again. However — and this makes me laugh ‘til my arm hurts — I didn’t consider the fact that my bag, and the golf balls in it, had been stored in an unheated garage at Catch Basin.But I noticed that none of my shots were flying more than a few feet off the ground — even the wedges! Naturally, I tried to hit them harder, but I got the same results. It wasn’t until I plopped three balls onto the iced-over pond on No. 14 that it hit me: I was playing with frozen golf balls! Hilarious, right? The next morning, of course, I woke up to the sensation of my shoulder caught in a bear trap.

Q: Your right shoulder?

A: Listen, if you’re going to [redacted] this bull—- [unintelligible] ….

Q: Fine. I’m out of here.

A: [Unintelligible] Right shoulder, yeah.

Q: What are you doing in the way of rehab?

A: I’m working with a trainer/therapist at my local 24 Hour Fitness. Most of the exercises involve gentle stretching to the sound of snapping ligaments and ripping muscle fibers.

Q: Is this your first shoulder injury?

A: No. Ten or fifteen years ago I shredded my left rotator cuff in a putting accident.

Q: A what?

A: I was playing [51st-ranked] Haig Point with some SI colleagues. What happened was, my cart was parked just off the green, so I was pulling my putter out of the bag while starting to walk toward my ball. Unfortunately, the putter grip got caught between some other shafts and didn’t clear the top of the bag. I called attention to it by screaming and falling to the ground.

Q: Did you finish the hole?

A: I think I’ve said enough on this subject.

Q: What impact will your injury have on Top 50 operations? Will course rating continue?

A: Of course not. You and the rest of the staff are furloughed until further notice.

Q: Well, [redacted] you. [unintelligible] …

A: My pleasure, Gary.

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but the Arnold Palmer Invitational Starring Adam Scott is being played at 51st-ranked Bay Hill Club and Lodge in Bay Hill, Fla. Tiger Woods withdrew early in the week, sidelined by persistent back pain, and former Masters champ Bubba Watson withdrew after a first-round 83, citing allergies.


Filed under golf