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.)

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Monkeying with the Top 50 Algorithm

  1. Mark Nelsen

    John, I just watched your video on Carne. I was in the twosome on hole #11 earlier this year (2015 – we had one caddy with us as well – we were walking) when you were filming the dune climb shot at the end of the video! It was a great story and of course, an amazing course. Great job – love that place and can’t wait to go back. I could spend the rest of my days playing Carne and Old Head and die a very happy man with a pint of Guinness in one hand and a glass of 12-year-old Jameson in the other. Neat, of course – the Irish way.

    • I seem to have overlooked your comment, Mark, for which I humbly apologize. I’ve been tied up with another project for several months and wasn’t monitoring the blog. That said, it was great to hear from you and I appreciate the historical perspective — i.e., you being a witness while I was dancing like an idiot upon that big dune. I obviously share your affection for Carne, and I thank you for supporting our mutual friends in Belmullet. Fairways and greens!

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