To sum up — which is pretty much my only alternative, since subterranean water issues at our Catch Basin headquarters have interrupted my usual stream of posts — the Top 50 rankings have withstood a rigorous audit by yours truly. And as they say in the NFL, “The ruling on the field stands.” My three weeks in Scotland and Ireland, during which I played an unprecedented 14 rounds of golf, convinced me that our Cal Sci algorithm has not lost a step. Every traditional links course on my itinerary met or exceeded my expectations, and several made such a strong impression that they have since advanced in the ranking.
Kingsbarns Golf Links, for example, jumped from No. 51 to No. 40 after I played it with SI colleagues Gary Van Sickle and Alan Shipnuck the week of the Open Championship. Gary, one of our unpaid course raters, leaked the preamble of his Top 50 report to Golf.com. “I had read the glowing reviews of Kingsbarns,” he wrote ….
…. a relatively new course on the ocean a few miles east of St. Andrews, but had no idea just how good it was until I played there …. Kingsbarns combines the rolling terrain and scenic views of Turnberry with the linksy charms of the Old Course …. If you could play just one course in the area, well, it would be a difficult choice. No course in the world has the history or the charm of the Old Course, located between the ocean and the middle of town in St. Andrews, but Kingsbarns’ beauty is striking. You don’t need a camera at the Old Course once you’ve snapped the obligatory first-tee photo with the clubhouse in the background, but at Kingsbarns you need a camera for nearly every hole. You can debate whether it’s the best course in St. Andrews, but it is unquestionably the prettiest.
Alan was similarly smitten, saying, “I would PAY to play Kingsbarns again.” That testimonial alone accounts for .13 of the course’s current score of 11.65.
But Kingsbarns was not the only Scottish course to advance. The Balcomie Links at Crail, just up the road from Kingsbarns, tiptoed from No. 37 to No. 33 (accompanied by Tom & Jerry-style pizzicato strings), while Machrihanish Golf Club, on Scotland’s Atlantic coast, floated from No. 38 to No. 35.
Crail, as most everyone knows, is one of my personal favorites, an Old Tom Morris links course with more quirkiness, charm and natural beauty than a hundred modern designs. I played it at 7 on a Monday morning with p.r. phenom Dove Jones and my buddy Mike Kern of the Philadelphia Daily News, and we zipped around in a little more than three hours. “If I never play another round of golf,” Mike said afterwards, “I’ll be happy to say that my last round was at Crail.”
That same afternoon, to everyone’s amazement, I motored clear across Scotland — a good six-hour drive — and checked into a B&B opposite the 18th green at Machrihanish. I don’t usually make golf dates that require commutes lasting longer than a Hollywood marriage, but I couldn’t turn this one down. I was meeting another SI colleague, Michael Bamberger, who just happens to be a longtime Machrihanish member, having joined after falling in love with the course during the writing of his classic, To the Linksland. Michael and I played on Tuesday afternoon, starting our round with the most exhilarating first-tee shot in golf — a gulp-inducing carry over a sandy beach, complete with sunbathers and kite-fliers — to a Cape-style fairway swinging sharply left. The delicious irony was that Michael had to ask me where to aim his tee shots and what trouble to avoid. It turned out he hadn’t been to Machrihanish in 19 years, while I had played it as recently as 2007, while researching Ancestral Links: A Golf Obsession Spanning Generations.
At the end of the round, I couldn’t resist asking him, “So — what do you think of it?”
“I really like it,” Michael replied, smiling like a grade-schooler. He added, “Which is something of a relief, considering all the years I’ve been paying dues.”
He declined, however, to fill out my 64-page course rater’s questionnaire, pleading jet lag. So I’m left with the Bamberger quote from To the Linksland that is painted on the wall above the bar in the Machrihanish clubhouse: “If I were only allowed to play one course for the rest of my life, Machrihanish would be the place.”
Personally, I think they should have used his other quote. (“If I promise to play Machrihanish only one more time as long as I live, will you let me join?”)
Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but the top pros from the U.S. and Europe have flown to Wales to face off in the Ryder Cup at the Celtic Manor Resort. The Twenty Ten Course, one of three Celtic Manor tracks, was built specifically for the Ryder Cup and claims to have “six signature holes.” This, of course, is not possible, four being the maximum allowable. (See Oxblood, Rodney, “Fundamentals of Golf Course Marketing,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Iowa.)