“I have to disagree with Swope Memorial,” Dan B writes. “This is a decent local municipal course, but it does not belong in any national discussion, regardless of who designed it or what tournament it may have hosted.”
Dan’s spirited rebuke is music to my ears! The whole point of the Top 50 is to get students of great golf design to come out of their shells and start squabbling like litigants on Judge Judy. If you were to visit us here at Catch Basin, you’d find Top 50 staffers shouting in hallways, hurling logoed caps at each other and throwing the occasional punch over the most arcane disagreements. Tempers flare because most of these disputes are, at their core, matters of individual taste. Are the greens at North Dakota’s Medicine Hole, No. 38, better than the greens at Augusta National, No. 7? I would say no — particularly during Masters week. But my assistant with the frayed knuckles asks: Better for whom? The average Badlands golfer will take four or five putts on Augusta’s 9th green — which, Omar will argue, is proof of faulty design.
Similarly, there are those who, like Dan B, wonder how a midwestern muni like Swope Memorial, No. 45, can topple a legendary layout like The Country Club. We are all prey to this “we know who or what is best” attitude. It’s the same conventional wisdom that told us that a 20-year-old American street urchin named Francis Ouimet couldn’t possibly outplay the British golf titans Harry Vardon and Ted Ray for the 1913 U.S. Open title.
The Top 50 algorithm, I’m proud to say, does not look down its nose at underdogs. When you take a closer look at a mutt like Swope Memorial — give it a flea bath, say, and a good brushing — you may find that it has a pedigree to compare with that of any Brookline Pomeranian. Did you know, for instance, that the legendary newsman O.B. Keeler, Bobby Jones’s mentor and Boswell, was a regular at Swope Park during his brief tenure at the Kansas City Star? Keeler wrote about the parkland gem in its 9-hole, pre-Tillinghast iteration, circa 1910, but you could easily apply his words to today’s 6,274-yard championship layout:
It was as simple and straightforward a golf course as nature could devise, uncomplicated by fancy architectural notions. An intermittent sort of stream with trees guarded the first green, and another stream in a steep-walled valley, with a spread of swamp to the right, had to be crossed on the one-shotter, No. 4. … The fairways were good enough, and the rough wasn’t particularly rough, though the putting surfaces never seemed adequate and we were forever complaining about them. Withal, they were not to be despised as excuses. ‘You know how those greens are,’ you could tell your friends.
That sounds a lot like the Swope Memorial I play on my senior-discount, weekdays-and-weekend-afternoons annual pass — particularly that passage about a “steep-walled valley with a spread of swamp,” a spot I seem to find with some regularity. The greens, of course, have improved greatly since Keeler’s time, though they may not be as “sophisticated” as those at The Country Club.
As I recall it [Keeler continues], the original public course at Swope Park ought to have been about as easy a nine holes as the most gingerly neophyte could have asked on which to start cutting down his medal average of 7 strokes to the hole. Yet the shameful confession may as well be made, that not only did I fail to achieve the average of 4 that originally was established as my Ultima Thule*, but also that I cannot recall ever playing a single round of nine holes at an average of 5 — certainly not the full round of 18 holes — in the three years I fought, bled and courted apoplexy about that course.**
*The Latin words Ultima Thule, in medieval geographies, denoted any distant place beyond the boundaries of the known world. The term was later appropriated by the Swedish Viking-rock band, Ultima Thule, which sold one certified platinum and three gold albums in the 1990s.
**From O.B. Keeler’s The Autobiography of an Average Golfer, Greenberg, 1925.
I could go on quoting Keeler to my advantage, but the proof is in the playing, so to speak. I happily invite any Country Club member out to Swope Memorial as my guest, on the understanding that I get a round at The Country Club in return. Who knows? If it impresses me, Brookline might find its way back to the Top 50.*
*Golfweek’s latest course ranking (3-12-10) has The Country Club at No. 20 on its list of so-called Classic Courses. That sounds impressive until you notice that Golfweek excludes all courses built since 1960 — they have a Top 100 of their own! — and totally ignores golf courses outside the U. S. If I were The Country Club, I’d find a second and challenge Golfweek to a duel.