A reader from “Lake Wobegon” — a transparent alias for Lake Michigan, which provided the backdrop and fog for last week’s PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, No. 18 — asks for my definition of the word overrated. “If I can figure out what dictionary you’re using,” he writes, “I can maybe understand your omission of Pine Valley, Pinehurst No. 2, Medinah No. 3, Cherry Hills, The Country Club, Riviera, Inverness, Oakland Hills, Firestone South, Winged Foot, Congressional and Baltusrol from your ridiculous rankings.”
Simply by perusing Wobegon’s list of “slighted” courses I can tell a lot about the man. (There can be no doubt he is a man.) He lives on the far side of fifty, plays to a single-digit handicap, drives a Cadillac Escalade, walks about with a sweater around his neck, drinks Johnny Walker Black, has a home library with more than 200 golf books and a wing chair, votes Republican, has a trophy wife, and files an amended tax return two years out of five. He is, in other words, a man very much like myself.*
*I drive a Honda Insight hybrid, never touch alcohol and vote Democratic, but I roughly conform to the stereotype.
So I can understand Wobegon’s reluctance to accept that Time has passed him — and his beloved Canon of Great Golf Courses — by. (“It strikes! one, two,” declaims Ben Jonson. “Three, four, five, six. Enough, enough, dear watch, Thy pulse hath beat enough.” ) All the courses he names have resided for a while in the Top 50, only to flow down and off the list like water going over a falls. As for my definition of overrated, I go with American Heritage: “to rate or appraise too highly.”
Which brings me back to the Castle Stuart Golf Links of Inverness, Scotland. Castle Stuart, open only a few months when it debuted last year at No. 10, has since risen to ninth, raising suspicions that insiders with personal agendas might have influenced the rating.*
*Specifically, critics have pointed to my middle name, which happens to be Stuart, and to my most recent book, Ancestral Links: A Golf Obsession Spanning Generations, which has three chapters on the golfing history of the Royal Stuart family, ending with a thwarted visit to the Castle Stuart construction site in the autumn of 2007. My critics, of course, are complete asses.
As mentioned in an earlier post, Dave Henson and I played only five holes at Castle Stuart on the Fourth of July, due to winds of up to 70 mph and precipitation in the form of horizontal rain, sleet, snow, hail and frozen desserts. Returning three days later at mid-morning, we were happy to see the sky cleared of clouds and the sun spreading its warmth; the only hangup was the wind, which was inexplicably stronger, gusting to 75. Dave was dubious about playing, but I assured him that Mark Parsinen and Gil Hanse had taken wind into account when they designed Castle Stuart. “Just remember to keep one foot on your trolley when you’re hitting a shot,” I told him. “And don’t hit your driver into the wind.”
Dave, whose former post in the Labor Department had him giving advice rather than taking it, apparently thought I was joking. He spent most of the round picking up his toppled bag, chasing his trolley as it rolled toward cliffs, and watching his drives get swatted down by the gale. I, on the other hand, played most of my shots with a hybrid-4, employing a hinge-and-hold technique that produced a steady tattoo of 130- to 150-yard wormburners. “It’s golf as it was meant to be played,” I told my frazzled friend, mentally pocketing skin after skin.
Despite the extreme conditions, Castle Stuart was playable. The ball rolled on its own accord on just one green, the twelfth, which clings to a promontory above the beach. The broad fairways, meanwhile, were receptive to smartly-struck drives, and the green complexes tended to collect and contain wayward shots rather than repel them. Aesthetically, Castle Stuart most resembles Top 50 evergreens Pebble Beach and Whistling Straits. The first three holes on each side run low along the water but in opposite directions, bringing the wind into play in contrary fashion. Subsequent holes ride the higher ground, and it’s only when you walk over to cliff’s edge that you see the holes below. The views, needless to say, are spectacular, and there are so many memorable holes that it’s hard to pick out a favorite. The postcard hole is probably the par-3 11th, played from a cliff-wall tee to a hanging-over-the-water green guarded by a nasty pot bunker.
Anyway, having played the course twice now — once last summer in a modest breeze and more recently in wind-tunnel conditions — I can confidently say that Castle Stuart, at No. 9, is not overrated. If anything, it is underrated. (“To rate or evaluate too low; underestimate.”) Personally, I put it right up there with Askernish Old and Carne, my two favorite courses.
Top 50 Alert: Erin Hills Golf Course of Erin, Wisc., recently picked to host the 2017 U.S. Open, debuts at No. 23, the highest first-time ranking for a course since Castle Stuart debuted at No. 10. Built on farmland outside Milwaukee, Erin Hills echoes the trend toward rural courses with links-style characteristics, a la Prairie Dunes, Sand Hills, Whistling Straits and Medicine Hole. In fact, the bag drop/caddyshack at Erin Hills is an actual barn. (Note to USGA: Provide paved parking for Escalades.)