Explaining the Top 50 Algorithm

The head pro at one of my top-rated courses has a question about the Top 50 system. “Why,” he asks, “does a course rated lower than ours sometimes get a higher score?”

The question makes me smile.

Like the Spinal Tap guitarist, the club pro equates big numbers with superiority. Eleven is better than 10, 10 is better than 9, etc. He is puzzled, therefore, when the Top 50 gives fifth-ranked Prairie Dunes a score of 9.71, while 29th-ranked Royal Melbourne swaggers off at 11.20.

Askernish Old Golf Course

The unforgettable 14th or 15th green at Askernish Old. (Kieran Dodds)

The answer, as I explained in a Top 50 column back in 2007, is that 11 is not better than 10 — not when 10 is “perfect.” The Cal Sci algorithm I use to produce the Top 50 assumes that input data can be scored either in a linear fashion (picture a football field with the number 10 where the 50-yard line would normally be) or concentrically in two dimensions (the best example being the small-to-large circles used for frog-jumping contests). The Carnoustie Golf Links, for example, had too much rough when the British Open was played there in 1999 — scores soared and a Frenchman almost won — but not enough rough in 2007, as evidenced by the fact that 22 players shot par or better for 72 holes. The two extremes canceled each other out, and Carnoustie stayed put in the ranking at No. 66.

A course’s “score,” as I told the unhappy pro, is the product of dozens of mirrored attributes, some of which can only be expressed in computer language or Cockney rhyming slang. That’s why Furnace Creek Golf Course of Death Valley, Calif., with a seasonally-adjusted score of 18.77, simmers outside the Top 5,000. (No course with a sun-bleached-skeleton logo has ever scored above 8.0 or below 12.0 in the Top 50.) The data for top-ranked Askernish Old, on the other hand, boils down to a tasty 10.19 — a number that is the qualitative equal of a 9.81.

Ft. Meade (FL) Golf Course

The Ft. Meade (FL) City Mobile Home Park Golf Course -- "the worst of the worst" according to former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. (John Garrity)

If this explanation is a bit over your head, take a look at the attached photographs. First you have the fourteenth or fifteenth green at Askernish Old, which is about as close to a “Perfect 10” as you can get … and then you have the clubhouse and second green of the Ft. Meade City Mobile Home Park Golf Course of Ft. Meade, FL, our perennial lowest-rated course. I should add that every whole number, whether plus or minus, follows the Richter Scale model of base-10 magnitude metering, so that a golf course scoring 9.0 or 11.0 is actually ten times worse than a 10.0, a 12.0 is ten times worse than an 11.0, and so on.

Ft. Meade, if you’re curious, scored a 19.68 on my last visit. And that’s after the partial eradication of fire-ant colonies and a rolling of the clay greens.

Top 50 on TV: No. 4, Pebble Beach Golf Links, is one of three courses hosting this week’s AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. Pebble Beach will be seen again in June, when the U. S. Open makes its once-a-decade appearance on the picturesque Monterey Peninsula. (Tiger Woods, who won the Open by 15 strokes in 2000, may or may not play. A source close to Woods asked not to be quoted, adding, “I just asked you NOT to quote me!”) Widely praised for their strategic design and beautiful scenery, the Monterey courses nonetheless have their critics. “If you moved Pebble Beach fifty miles inland,” Jimmy Demaret smartly observed, “no one would have heard of it.”


Filed under golf

7 responses to “Explaining the Top 50 Algorithm

  1. Jim Herre

    Thanks for clearing up your methodology. Makes perfect sense.

  2. TastyCaker

    The piece is great. Love the Cal Sci algorithm. The architect for the Old Course. Nifty cutline for the unforgettable 14th or 15th at Askernish Old. etc.

    As to Ft. Meade Mobile Home Park National — clearly fictitious. The clubhouse is a reject from an Amish shedmaker’s introductory course. And you stuck a coathanger in the No. 2 flag and stuck the pin in something that looks like casual sewer water.

  3. Ed Albert


    You have played a lot more of the noted courses than I have. Of your top 50, I have played #2 Ballybunion, #3 Carne, #4 Pebble Beach, #13 St. Andrews Old Course, #30 Pine Needles, #34 Kapalua-Plantation. Carne is rated #79 in the book Top 100 Courses of the British Isles.
    I liked Pinard, and Royal Portcrawl in Wales, and St. Endoc in SW England.

    In the US I like Pinehurst #6, Bat Hill, The Virginian, World Woods, Linville Ridge(NC),
    Kenmure(NC), and Pinion Hills(NM). I could probaly come up with another 10 or so but these come to mind as I sit here typing them in.

    Ed Albert

    • Ed, I don’t claim to have actually played all the courses in my Top 50. I have yet to play Augusta National, Oak Hill or Jupiter Hills, just to name three from my Top 10. (And those three will be lucky to remain in my Top 10, given their indifference to my opinion.) In fact, I have played only 33 of these gems. Most of the others I have at least visited (usually while covering Tour events), but I have never even cracked an eyelid or set my size-13 feet upon the dramatic landscapes of Whistling Straits and Bandon Dunes. Does it matter? No, because the Top 50 is as scientific as I can make it, given the limitations of the Bomar Brain.

      You, on the other hand, seem to be on speaking terms with starters on both sides of the Atlantic. I might be able to use you as a course rater, if you can pass the 18-page Top 50 Proficiency Test.

  4. Hi John,

    Enjoying the articles and looking forward to the updated top 50 rankings. I hate to keep hammering you on the same topic, but I am, alas, another New England native feeling slighted by this regions exclusion on your list. Hopefully you will be able to take up John Harrity’s invitation at some point and see for yourself what we have to offer up here, although if he has another “shot for the ages” during the round like he did in Carne let’s all agree to ignore it, shall we?

    One point concerning your algorithm. I’m hoping I didn’t miss some nuance in the methodology, but if 10 is the ideal, wouldn’t Turnberry at 10.68 and Augusta at 10.70 (rated 6 and 7 respectively) fall below your rankings 8 through 12 which have scores of 9.48 through 10.63?

  5. John Harrity

    If I hit another “shot for the ages” then I think you should write another book. I would suggest that you name it “Wow”. I like when you mention me in the same sentence as Tiger and Phil.
    All the best,
    p.s. pay attention to Rick Boule’s instruction on the new top 50!!!

  6. Pingback: Spanish Layout Is for Real « John Garrity's Top 50

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