Category Archives: golf

Irish Links Reaches No. 1 with Opening of New Kilmore Nine

For as long as there has been a Top 50 Blog — literally years — Scotland’s Askernish Old has held the No. 1 position. Laid out in 1891 by Old Tom Morris but abandoned by later generations, Askernish vaulted to the top spot upon its Brigadoon-like reappearance on a spring day in 1991. The Hebridean masterpiece maintained its No. 1 ranking despite subsequent vanishings, and in recent years its 18 dramatic holes have been rediscovered and even played by scores of diehard links aficionados.

Kilmore No. 1

The first hole on Carne’s new Kilmore nine provides a taste of the thrills to follow. (Larry Lambrecht)

Meanwhile, the No. 2 spot has been held just as assiduously by Ireland’s Carne Golf Links, an Eddie Hackett-designed gem on Mayo’s Atlantic coast. Carne’s second-place ranking has long been a puzzle to links lovers, or at least to those who remember that I proclaimed it “the world’s greatest golf course” in a 2003 Sports Illustrated feature. “You must be confused,” wrote a persistent nitpicker with GolfClubAtlas stickers on his steamer trunk — as if confusion were a disqualifying attribute for a course critic.

But now the thinkable has happened. After weeks of stealthy advancement — unnoticed until recently by the wool-gathering analysts at Top 50 headquarters — the Irish course was one good mowing and a couple of tweaks of the Top 50 algorithm from nirvana. This morning, at 9:42 Central Daylight Time, Carne caught Askernish at 10.15/9.85 points on the concentric Perfect-10 scale. For the first time in Top 50 history, two courses share the top ranking.

I, for one, was not caught by surprise. Carne’s rise can be explained by the recent opening of its new Kilmore 9, a spectacular side of golf winding through the Mullet Peninsula’s most breathtaking dunes. Designed tag-team style by American Jim Engh (Sanctuary, The Club at Black Rock, Tullymore GC) and Dublin-based architect Ally McIntosh, the Kilmore 9 was a decade in the making. I monitored its progress from Day 1, and last Tuesday I returned to the Mullet to bang out the ceremonial first drive on behalf of a contingent of American and British golf writers.

Carne’s new holes were worth the wait. Anchored by three dramatic par-3s and a split-fairway par 5 that invites an heroic approach over a gargantuan dune, the Kilmore 9 echoes the grandeur of Hackett’s back nine without copying any of his holes. In fact, I’d argue that no course in the world offers 18 holes of more distinctive character than Carne’s composite links. Kilmore’s par-3 second, for example, starts high on a bank and winds up far below on the lee side of a massive blowout dune, which McIntosh has cleverly tied into a playable bunker.

But that hole is a mini-wow when compared to the WOW of the par-3 seventh, which launches from a sky-scraping dune-top to another dune, 228 yards away, with a wrap-around view of the Atlantic and western Ireland as an unnecessary distraction. “That’s terrifying,” one of my playing partners said at the opening. I thought he was referring to the dizzying drop from the tee to the fifth fairway, until I looked up and saw that he was staring at the distant flag, flapping in a two-club wind.

I realize, of course, that some course-rating systems place greater emphasis on smooth greens. Carne’s new greens won’t be tournament-ready for a few years, and I say, “So what? I can wait.” Neither am I swayed by the $150 million in frills and environmental abuse that Donald Trump lavished upon his Trump International Golf Links in Scotland. Carne’s Kilmore 9 cost €202,000 from start to finish — or roughly what The Donald spent on cocktail shrimp for his grand opening. To which I say: “Sorry, Donald. You can’t crack the Top 50 on the strength of cocktail shrimp.”*

*If you’re talking cash, I might listen.

Anyway, I thought I’d better get this news out before Golf.com finishes its rollout of Golf Magazine’s “Top 100 Courses in the World.”  There might still be time to dump Pine Valley Golf Club from the No. 1 spot and give Askernish and Carne their rightful position in golf’s ever-changing firmament.

Christy O'Connor Sr. plaque

Writers Conor Nagle, John Garrity and John Strawn interrupt their round to visit the Christy O’Connor Sr. plaque at Royal Dublin. (John Garrity)

Top 50 on TV: Inbee Park goes for the “grand slam” of LPGA majors on the 16th-ranked Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland. Meanwhile, they’re still dancing on Grafton Street in the wake of Ireland’s narrow victory over a crackerjack team of mostly-American golf writers in the biennial Writers Cup at 36th-ranked Royal Dublin Golf Club.

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Carne’s 17th Is Still a Beast

“Back from the northwest of Ireland and three rounds at Carne,” writes Jay Morse, a real person and editor of forelinksters.com. “What a classic, wild and ranging layout, in a most stunning setting.”

Carne Golf Links

The Kilmore Nine at Carne: a decade of waiting will soon end. (Photo by Larry Lambrecht)

Jay refers, of course, to the second-ranked Carne Golf Links of Belmullet, County Mayo, which has held the No. 2 spot on the Top 50 since I wrote about it in my near best-seller, Ancestral Links: A Golf Obsession Spanning Generations. 

“Thanks to your book,” Jay continues, “we became obsessed with journeying there and made it the only three-round stop of our trip. It’s definitely one of those courses where local knowledge is essential to scoring well, and I’m glad we had a few days in the village of Belmullet, as well.”

Reading between the lines, I infer that Jay found his requisite “local knowledge” in the village, possibly at McDonnells, the legendary pub on Barrack Street, just off the town square. But he goes on to write about Carne’s infamous seventeenth hole, a par 4 that superficially resembles the famous Road Hole at 16th-ranked St. Andrews Old, except that it’s far scarier, much more scenic, and adds the risk of a lost golfer to the mundane possibility of lost balls.

I thought you’d get a kick out of one of our bets. We had twelve guys, and each day we had four bets running — Magic 2’s, Skins, a match-play event, and a no-skill-required “Bet of the Day,” just so all levels of play had a shot at winning. The bet on the last day at Carne was how many pars there would be on #17. The handicaps ranged from the low single digits to a few at 17/18, with the balance at 10-12. Guesses on the number of pars ranged from one to five, and the winning number was just one par. But, interestingly, it only happened as a fluke. I hit my third shot to about six feet, and then another guy in our group pitched his third onto the green. His ball hit my ball and ricocheted to within an inch of the lip for the only par. What’s more, after three days, this was the only par out of the group!

Thanks again John for bringing our attention to Carne. The new nine is apparently opening next week, I guess we’ll have to return.

Carne’s “new nine,” as Jay and I call it, is indeed ready for play after nearly a decade of patient development. Only now it has a name of its own. But we’ll let our friends at Links Magazine scoop us on that:

In a sure sign the Celtic Tiger may be purring again, the long-awaited third nine at Carne Golf Links in Co. Mayo, Ireland, debuts this month, marking the nation’s first significant new-build since the 2008 financial meltdown. The Kilmore nine, as it’s called, will circulate players through the largest dunes on the remote 280-acre property. The new holes, first suggested by original designer Eddie Hackett shortly before his death in 1996, were mapped out by American designer and devoted Carne fan Jim Engh in 2004. His plan was adopted in part by Irish architect Ally McIntosh, who was hired by the club to produce the final design. Like the core 18, the new holes were built on a shoestring budget, with a small local workforce overseeing the low impact construction. With its mountainous sand hills and wild, woolly challenges, Carne could host a future Irish Open if the organizers were ever stuck for a genuine links course with great Atlantic views and loads of charm and character.

I migrate to Carne every summer, so I have played most of the Kilmore holes — but not with greens. Therefore my scores — impressive strings of ones and twos — do not paint a realistic picture of the completed nine. I can say without reservation that the new nine is breathtaking in every sense of the word, which is why I’m packing an oxygen bottle.

Meanwhile, Audible.com has licensed the aural rights to Ancestral Links and is auditioning potential narrators. If Audible asks for my input, I’ll suggest Peter Kessler, who is fond of the book, or myself, because I lived it. Third choice: Gary Van Sickle, because he still has wet socks drying on the radiator at the Broadhaven Bay Hotel.

Top 50 on TV: The Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open returns to fifth-ranked Castle Stuart Golf Links, and so far it has been blessed with fair weather. Nothing like 2011, when record rains caused a cliff to collapse onto a firth-side fairway, causing major inconvenience to players and spectators alike. According to reports, the lumps in the first fairway have been grassed over and the course continues to enchant tour players not named Graeme McDowell.

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Top 50 Staff Blanketed Merion

“I see that Merion Golf Club has soared in your course ranking since the U.S. Open,” writes a gentleman from Pabst Blue Ribbon, Nev. “Is that because Merion looked good  on TV, or did you actually have a course rater on the ground?”

John Garrity at Merion

Top 50 founder and CEO John Garrity led the course-rating team at Merion. (Darren Carroll)

Great question, PBR. I was in Ardmore, Pa., following every shot, and so was Top 50 vice-president and ratings chief Gary Van Sickle, who led a team of qualified second-raters from Catch Basin, our Kansas City headquarters. To insure that we could carry out our mission without undue friction, the USGA assigned us a work station just off the first tee. Believe me, there was no chance that our staffers would nod off with those Pro V1s and Bridgestones whistling past their noggins.

So no, Merion didn’t jump from No. 32 to No. 18 because it looked good on TV — although it did look very, very good. “Merion is no regular track,” Van Sickle wrote in his 82-page post-tournament report. “Better looking by the minute … the course. A number of holes are on high ground, they’re … all right. The course drains … and the grounds crew has done a phenomenal job. I’m upgrading the course … Should be … brick-hard … this week. Merion will … rise up …”

I usually recuse myself, relying on our Cal Sci algorithm (and a little-known NSA program that monitors country-club budgets) to properly weigh the data, but I fully support our team’s conclusions. Specifically, I liked that Merion’s woodsmen had felled hundreds of trees since my last visit.* Many of those trees had been on the golf course for decades, cluttering the view, clogging the lanes of play and wreaking environmental havoc on Merion’s tees and greens. The cutting of all those trees, along with their removal, gave stately old Merion a fresh, clean look. 

*I covered the 1989 U.S. Amateur for Sports Illustrated.

Merion's 15th hole

Merion’s 15th hole charmed Van Sickle’s platoon of second-raters. (John Garrity)

Was Merion too difficult? Did the USGA cross the line with its punitive setup of skinny fairways, ungraduated rough,treacherous greens and tangly collars?

No.

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but the PGA Tour, minus a weary Justin Rose and an injured Tiger Woods, will cavort in the AT&T National at 51st-ranked Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md. Meanwhile, our chief Asian correspondent, Duke Ishikawa, reports that preparations for the 1914 World Amateur Team Golf Championship are not going smoothly. The WATGC, better known as the Eisenhower Trophy, will be played in Karuizawa Prefecture, Japan, on the 51st-ranked Robert Trent Jones-designed Karuizawa 72 course owned by the Prince Hotels chain. Duke writes:

In the middle of February, this year, we visited the Karuizawa Prince Hotel and talked to the general manager, who told us, “We have reserved our facilities for two weeks during the championship, but no budget from the Japan Golf Association has come yet. That makes for us big trouble, because of uneasiness about the future. We only have a year and a half for preparation.”

“The Eisenhower Trophy is not the Olympic Games or World Cup soccer,” Duke continues, “but it is still a world-class event. The host country has a big responsibility to the other 80-or-so countries. However, the JGA has a very limited income.” Citing “unbelievable rumors,” Duke describes a JGA board of directors riddled with personal agendas and conflicts of interest that render it incapable of properly staging a big-time competition.

We need to know where the money is coming from. Otherwise the JGA is very irresponsible indeed. But the golf business has been so bad in Japan because of big deflation and the bad economy. I interviewed several local golf course managers recently, and all of them said, “We are not going to cooperate with the Eisenhower Trophy in 2014.”

Citing the “low ability” of JGA directors, Duke concludes: “We are just afraid the Eisenhower Trophy will not be successfully held in September, 2014, in Japan.”

Recognizing the seriousness of these concerns, I have forwarded Duke’s Karuizawa-72 file to Catch Basin’s Reassessment Department. Any changes to that course’s ranking will be posted without delay.

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Muddy Merion Holds High Ground

ARDMORE, PA. — With the first round of the U.S. Open interrupted by thunderstorms, the Top 50 in-box has been flooded with questions about our rating system. “You seem to adjust your rankings hourly,” writes a gentleman from Maui’s Iao Valley. “Will Merion wash out of the Top 50 by noon?” Another fellow, corresponding from Cherrapunji, India, which gets roughly 500 inches of rainfall per year, writes, “I can’t wait to see Merion go over the falls.”

US Open Grandstand

Inclement weather has only slightly dampened spectators’ enthusiasm for 36th-ranked Merion. (John Garrity)

Contrary to their expectations, Merion Golf Club clings to its position at No. 36 as thunder booms and rain pelts the fabric roof of the US Open Media Center, where I am moonlighting as a correspondent for my former employer, Sports Illustrated. This despite the fact that Merion’s creeks are spilling out of their banks and its greens resemble rice paddies in monsoon season.

Normally, the Top 50 algorithm takes the relevant weather data from all points of the compass and adjusts the rankings on the fly; and yes, “unplayability,” whether due to rain, wind or subniveal rodents, usually consigns even the greatest courses to the lower tiers. But we operate with a “major championship exemption” that freezes the ranking for iconic golf courses on days of competition. We do this because the majors are televised world-wide, providing entertainment to millions, if not billions. So while a Merion or a St. Andrews Old might be temporarily unfit for golf, they maintain a firm hold on viewers, who love those images of collapsed hospitality tents and workers vacuuming brown water out of greenside bunkers.

The exemption applies only to the days of competition. This past Monday, for example, torrents of rain forced a shutdown of Merion’s 11th hole, the short par 4 where Bobby Jones closed out Princeton’s Eugene Homans in the 1930 U.S. Amateur to complete his Grand Slam. Reduced to 17 soggy holes, Merion promptly plummeted to the second 50.* By Wednesday afternoon, however, sunny skies and brisk winds had dried out Merion sufficiently to restore its Top 50 ranking.

*Unfairly so, in my estimation. Seventeen holes of Merion is better than 18 holes of many of the stretched-out tree farms that pass for major-championship venues these days.

I should add that Merion’s ratings bounce-back was in no way influenced by the splendid meal I enjoyed Tuesday evening at Minella’s Diner in nearby Wayne, Pa. (My open-face hot turkey sandwich was piled high with genuine sliced turkey and real turkey gravy, which so surprised me that I teared up and considered overtipping.) Off-site attractions almost never figure into our course assessments, the obvious exception being goods and services provided in return for promotional consideration.

Merion's 16th fairway

Merion’s famous “quarry hole,” the 16th, can take a good drenching. (John Garrity)

Top 50 on TV: Merion last hosted an Open in 1981, but I had the pleasure of covering the 1989 U.S. Amateur, won by Chris Patton. My story began thus:

Until Sunday, the East Course at Merion Golf Club in suburban Philadelphia was hallowed ground—the site of 14 previous USGA championships, the shrine where Bobby Jones completed his Grand Slam in 1930, the vale of tears where Ben Hogan came back from a bloody car wreck to win the 1950 U.S. Open. Henceforth, Merion will also be remembered as the place where a college senior built like Refrigerator Perry won the 89th U.S. Amateur, beating a balding Tennessean in shorts with a swing so ugly that birds stopped chirping to watch.

For the record, the “balding Tennessean” was Danny Green.

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Cal Sci Algorithm Gets Moisture Adjustment

“Has it occurred to you,” begins an email from Death Valley, Ariz., “that Aquaman isn’t real? That he is a character from a comic book? That his opinion on course rankings is worthless because, I repeat, HE ISN’T REAL!!!”

Highland Links

Nova Scotia’s lovely Highland Links gained .0069 points for its many water hazards. (John Garrity)

Well yes, DV — may I call you DV? — yes, that has occurred to me. I’m familiar with the Aquaman comics, but I know the difference between a cartoon character and a first-class course rater, and it’s not as big a difference as you might think. Anyway, I had our Top 50 ratings chief, Gary Van Sickle, look into Aquaman’s background, and he assures me that our scaly friend is strictly above-board (if not above ground). As a further precaution, we require that Aquaman file his reports via Gary’s email account to guard against hacking, spamming and, most importantly, phishing.

Coincidentally, Gary has just forwarded a fresh (not frozen) report from our man in Atlantis:

Dear Mr. Garrity,

I use the title “Mr.” reluctantly. You’re just another annoying air-breather to me. I figure we denizens of the deep can wait you out, though. You’ll pollute the air and die from global warming long before the ocean temperatures rise enough to bother me down here in the air-conditioned Marianas Trench, site of my vacation home. It’s way cool, brother.

I am writing — well, telepathing my thoughts to a dolphin, who then transcribes them to what you earth-breathers call Microsoft Word — to point out a flaw in your ranking system. Two flaws, actually. One, they’re just stupid. But that’s kind of a technical point.

Second, since water is the most important thing on earth and makes up 90 percent of you annoying air-breathers’ body bags, you clearly don’t put enough emphasis on water hazards in your rankings. Courses with more and bigger water hazards are better than courses without. Ever played a really good course in the desert? Didn’t think so.

I have to interrupt Aquaman’s otherwise-cogent analysis to point out that 20th-ranked Desert Hollow in Hurricane, Utah, is a desert course, as is 27th-ranked Redlands Mesa in Grand Junction, Colo., the 44th-ranked Mission Hills Tournament Course in Rancho Mirage, Calif.,  and 51st-ranked Coyote Springs, north of Las Vegas, Nevada. But back to Aquaman.

In fact, if you, Mr. Garrity, could get your CalTech Forbin Project 800X off its lazy digital ass, you could probably reprogram it to rank courses by the amount of water in their hazards, by cubic meters or fathoms or, as we use to measure here in Atlantis, aquabergs. (It’s a little larger than a cubic meter. You can barely fit two inside a seahorse, let’s put it that way. And that seahorse is not very happy about it, let me tell you, sir!)

Measuring the total amount of water actually on a course is going to completely reorganize your thus-far lame rankings. Since I haven’t played all 15,000 courses on your dirtpile, I don’t know what course would rank No. 1. Obviously, the water hazard will have to be surrounded (or at least 80% so) by the course for its contents to count. Pebble Beach, for instance, couldn’t lay claim to the entire Pacific Ocean just because it’s got a few holes along the shoreline. That would be a lot of saltwater volume to boost it in the rankings. The water has to be inside the course boundaries to count.

I believe this numerical and logical renumbering is the best way to rank your courses. I think we all agree that the courses that contain the most of my finny friends — which I can command to do my bidding, by the way — are obviously the best golf courses.

Which reminds me, if you don’t mind a small plug, I’m beginning a new side business besides my mundane duties as King of Atlantis and Father of AquaBitch. I’m getting into the ball-retrieval business. You lose a ball in a water hazard that has live underwater denizens, and I order them to retrieve it for you. Simply sign up for an online account at AquaBalls.com, pay an annual service fee, and then we invoice you for each individual retrieval. We can also sell you other balls that have been deposited in the water and remain unclaimed. That’s an extra charge, however, plus a service and handling fee. It’s all very reasonable, and as part of our contract you need only worship me for a prescribed few minutes each day.

I look forward to seeing your computer’s revised rankings. I hope it happens soon because I’d hate to see a brigade of killer whales go ape-shit on you the next time you play in Kansas City. That would be tragic.

As usual, all the best.

Aquaman, King of Atlantis (Father of AquaBitch and that no-good, lazy AquaLam-o-Lad)

Persuaded by Aquaman’s reasoning, we have tweaked the Cal Sci algorithm to account for water-hazard capacity and adjusted the rankings accordingly. To our surprise, the rankings remain exactly the same, with one exception: Kansas City’s Hillcrest Golf Club moves up one spot.

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but the Crowne Plaza Invitational begins today at 51st-ranked Colonial Country Club in Forth Worth, Texas. Known as “Hogan’s Alley” (because the popular TV show, Hogan’s Heroes, was shot there in the 1960s), Colonial has been ranked Fifth Best Course We Play on Tour by PGA Tour players. (Courses No. 1 through 4 in the survey were Augusta National GC, Harbour Town Links, Riviera CC and Pebble Beach Golf Links, all of which have been in the Top 50 at one time or another.)

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Disgruntled Reader Tees Off: “Fraud!”

“You were giving me golf-course recommendations for a trip between Mobile and Pensacola,” writes a pissed-off reader from Argentina, “and you suggested Hilton Head Island, 525 miles from my destination. If that wasn’t bad enough, you didn’t finish your post. I was so frustrated that I left my clubs at home, spent my days in America at the beach, and lost all my savings at Gulf Coast casinos. I’m telling my friends in Rosario that the Top 50 is a big, fat fraud, and they should go back to Travelin’ Joe Passov if they want honest golf-travel advice.”

Chechessee Creek

Chechessee Creek’s par 3s are plenty challenging, even for course raters. (John Garrity)

Wow.

My first impulse is to remind this overheated reader that I told him that golf itineraries were Travelin’ Joe’s specialty, not mine. (My exact words: “The Top 50 does not recommend golf courses; it ranks them.”) My second impulse is to ask Mr. Rosario for an apology. I went out of my way to help him out, but I don’t feel much love from his “big, fat fraud” crack. I talked to my close friend, Vijay Singh, and he thought I should consult a lawyer — his lawyer, to be precise — regarding defamation and libel issues. I’m not ready to take that step, but Rosey should consider the fact that the Top 50 has never lost a court fight.*

*Ft. Meade City Mobile Home Park Golf Course v Garrity was settled amicably, and I have never violated the restraining order. 

My third impulse is to withhold the final recommendation for our gaucho’s Gulf Coast golf tour, but that would be a disservice to my Top 50 subscribers. So, for their sake, Roseman, not yours, I’m recommending the 51st-ranked Chechessee Creek Club in Okatie, S.C. Designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, Chechessee Creek is probably the finest example of swamp sorcery this side of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail.

The minimalist philosophy is at work here, although I prefer the term “understated.” There are no waterfalls, no tabletop tees, no fairway-bunker complexes that rival the Sahara. It’s simply a challenging, well-constructed golf course that just happens to be situated in a backwoods setting where the plunky notes of Dueling Banjos filter through the pines.

“Chechessee Creek Club is a throwback to the times when golf was simpler,” writes a blogger who calls himself Golf Club Atlas’. “The absence of artificial mounding harkens to the Golden Age of course design when dirt wasn’t pushed around just for the sake of ‘framing’ holes.”

Michael Bamberger

Blurbmaster Bamberger was deeply moved by the Creek. (John Garrity)

Obviously, some dirt is necessarily pushed around in the playing of golf. My foursome of clod connoisseurs included Top 50 v.p. Gary Van Sickle, southeast ratings chief Dave Henson, and Sports Illustrated senior writer Michael Bamberger, who moonlights as blurb superintendent for the Top 50 book division. (Full disclosure: Caddies were compulsory, so we actually paid something for our rounds. The Golf Writers Association is weighing whether we should be suspended for the infraction.)

Anyway, we scored Chechessee Creek as follows: Van Sickle, 4½ stars. Henson, 8 out of 10. Bamberger, “a rollicking trek through the Faulknerian recesses of the marginal South … shade-dappled, mossy … It’s magical!” Garrity, 11.94.

Your loss, Rosey. I hope you enjoyed the beach.

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but we added to our already-stuffed trophy case when our founder and CEO, John Garrity, won the amateur long-drive contest at last week’s Time Warner Cable Long Drive Championship Pro-Am at 50th-ranked Eagle Bend Golf Club in Lawrence, Ks. His winning drive, had anyone bothered to measure it, would have been well over 250 yards.

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Gulf Coast Golf Trip of a Lifetime

“I was about to submit a query to Travelin’ Joe Passov,” begins an e-mail from Rosario, Argentina, “when it occurred to me that you know more about golf courses than anybody in the world. What courses do you recommend for a budget-conscious tourist driving from Mobile, Ala. to Pensacola, Fla.?”

Michael Bamberger

Michael Bamberger attacks a sucker pin at Palmetto Dunes’ RTJ Oceanfront Course. (John Garrity)

Normally I would hit the delete key — or better yet, forward the query to Travelin‘ Joe, just to rile him up. The Top 50 does not recommend golf courses; it ranks them. Sometimes, as with Askernish or Carne, we both rank and recommend a course, but only under exceptional circumstances and with the understanding that we can play there for free. To do otherwise would compromise our integrity.

This time, because I’m feeling generous, I’ll waive established policy and create a golf itinerary for our thrifty Argentinian.

Let’s start with the fact that Mobile to Pensacola is a journey of roughly 60 miles. Assuming that one has a week to kill and that one’s rental car can achieve speeds of up to 60 miles per hour, I’d start with a round at sixth-ranked Augusta National Golf Club, site of last week’s Masters. But if that is not feasible — either because our impecunious friend doesn’t know a member or because, as happens to be the case, the club has closed for the summer — I can enthusiastically recommend 50th-ranked and almost-as-good Orangeburg Country Club of Orangeburg, S.C.

I played Orangeburg last Monday with Top 50 executive vice president Gary Van Sickle and Global Golf Post correspondent Ron Green Jr. and found the Ellis Maples/Richard Mandell layout to be in tip-top shape. The very-green greens were deceptively slick, and the waste areas were pristine, thanks to a pinecone-picking program that is the envy of the South. Best of all, our threesome played 18 holes in less than three hours — slightly better than the average pace of play at the 2004 South Carolina Four Ball Championship, hosted by the OCC.*

*Orangeburg is a private club, so you may have difficulty securing a tee time. The guest green fee is apparently negotiable; we paid nothing.

Since our route has taken us a bit north and well east of Pensacola, it only makes sense to drive 114 miles further to catch a glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean from Hilton Head Island, S.C. The golf choices here are extensive, topped by the 36 holes at 51st-ranked Palmetto Hall Plantation Club, home club of Dave Henson, our Southeast Region Ratings Coordinator; but we think our penny-pinching Rosarian will get the most bang for his buck* on the 51st-ranked Robert Trent Jones Oceanfront Course at the Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort, voted “2003 Golf Course of the Year” by the South Carolina Golf Course Owners Association.

*The April green fee with cart and taxes is $170.33, but our sunburned traveler can play after 2 p.m. for $105.53. (We paid nothing.) He might also consider the Arthur Hills and George Fazio courses at less than a hundred bucks each, leaving him enough for dinner at the acclaimed Hilton Head Diner

Palmetto Dunes flag

The winds at Palmetto Dunes are maintained at 12 mph or less, except for tournament play. (John Garrity)

Van Sickle and I played the RTJ course last Tuesday with Sports Illustrated senior writer Michael Bamberger, and we found it to be a fair, fun test with a seafront appeal that puts it in the top rank of American resort courses. “The par-4 seventh was my favorite hole,” said Bamberger, extolling the wood-bulkhead-enhanced grandeur of the lakefront fairway. “I could hit that tee shot over and over again.” Van Sickle swooned over the beachside green complex on the par-5 tenth, which blends white-sand bunkers and tuft-topped palms to unique effect. “I’d like to play this in bad weather,” said Van Sickle, mildly put off by the sunny, 75-degree conditions.

Hilton Head is 525 miles from Pensacola, so our weary traveler will want to bunk overnight at the Marriott Hilton Head Resort & Spa, which is a mere drive-and-a-pitch from RTJ’s eighteenth green. I could use a little rest myself, so I’ll complete my Gulf Coast recommendations next time.

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but the RBC Heritage is being played 525 miles from Pensacola on Pete Dye’s 52nd-ranked Harbour Town Golf Links. It’s the course with the lighthouse.

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Hillcrest Hole Finally Gets to Stretch

“The wall comes down this week,” writes Kurt Everett, general manager of 43rd-ranked Hillcrest Golf & Country Club.

Just the promise of demolition boosted Hillcrest two rungs in the Top 50 ranking. When the greenside stones actually topple on the course’s once-great ninth hole, Hillcrest will likely soar to unprecedented heights. “The celebrations that greeted the destruction of the Berlin Wall will pale in comparison,” I considered writing to Everett. “The Great Wall of China will regain its stature as ‘world’s silliest if well-intended barrier.’”

Hillcrest's temporary green

The wall on Hillcrest’s ninth was not Donald Ross’s idea. (John Garrity)

Faithful readers of this blog know the history. Hillcrest Country Club, the only Donald Ross layout in Missouri, had a challenging ninth of 420 yards that was regarded as one of the best holes in the Kansas City area. The ninth tested the nation’s best players for decades, including the years when Hillcrest hosted the PGA Tour’s Kansas City Open. But some time ago, at the insistence of a club executive who dabbled in the bridesmaid-dresses resale market,* the Ross green was bulldozed and a new green installed some 50 yards closer to the tee. A stone bulkhead elevated the new green complex from mere deformity to flat-out laughing stock.

*The bridesmaid crack is relevant because the old green site was deemed the perfect spot for a wedding bower — if your dream wedding includes beeping golf carts and two foursomes of braying sandbaggers settling bets.

Hillcrest, Kansas City

Hillcrest’s green transplant began in earnest last week. (Photo by John Bozarth)

More recently, after a dalliance with bankruptcy and conversion to daily-fee status, Hillcrest’s new management decided to restore the original Ross green. That green emerged last fall and is now deemed ready for play. That, in turn, makes the bogus green redundant and its stone facade irrelevant. The ghost of Ronald Reagan was seen on the ninth tee last week, shaking his fist and shouting, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Now, down it comes. It pains me that I can’t attend the actual wall-banging, but I’m moonlighting at The Masters for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com. Still, I’ll know when the wall has fallen.

It will be reflected in the ranking.

The Masters returns to Augusta National for a record 77th time. (John Garrity)

The Masters returns to Augusta National for a record 77th time. (John Garrity)

Top 50 on TV: It’s Masters week, so the golf industry is bivouacked outside 6th-ranked Augusta National Golf Club. Since we were there last, a wall of it’s own has fallen with the admission of the club’s first female members. Reagan’s ghost, we are told, had nothing to do with this long-awaited deconstruction.

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“Where’s Gary?” Asks Top 50 Fan

“Your chief course rater has been notably absent lately,” complains a reader from Leh, Ladakh. Or should I say “asserts,” since the reader goes on to unfavorably compare Gary Van Sickle’s work to that of our under-the-sea specialist, Aquaman. “Judging from your persistent overlooking of incomparable Pine Valley,” writes the man from the moonscape, “it’s Van Sickle who’s all wet.”

Srinagar golfer and caddie

The golfer in Kashmir will find Srinagar’s Royal Springs Golf Course more attractive than mountainous Ladakh’s Indian Army course. (John Garrity)

Do I need to defend Gary? He’s covered the PGA Tour for several decades, he’s won countless writing awards for his work at Sports Illustrated and the Top 50, his son Mike is an aspiring tour player, and he’s a scratch golfer himself. Short of getting a degree in landscape architecture or actually designing a course himself, what more can Gary do to enhance his credentials?

Besides, Gary had nothing to do with Pine Valley Golf Club’s 52nd-place ranking. Nor am I responsible for the New Jersey landmark’s inability to crack the Top 50. (How could I be? I’ve never set foot on Pine Valley’s “sacred” soil, or even changed shoes in its highly-regarded parking lot.) The Top 50 is based on the informed judgement of entire teams of course raters, most of them over the age of 18, but no one person dictates the daily ranking. That task belongs to the Top 50 Algorithm, created by the renowned Cal Sci math genius, Charles Eppes.

As for Gary’s whereabouts, he’s neither “absent” nor “lost.” He dropped out of sight for a few months to tackle a really challenging assignment — rating fictional golf courses. He started with The Majesty in Rock Harbor, Wisc., a lakeside stunner that features prominently in the John Haines novel, Danny Mo.  “Couldn’t find it,” Gary reported after a week on Door County’s 24th-ranked highway system. He has had subsequent difficulty finding Michael Murphy’s Burningbush Golf Links, Dan JenkinsGoat Hills Golf Course, and Caddieshack’s Bushwood County Club.

“I was starting to think these golf courses weren’t real,” Gary told me in a recent call, “until I flew down to Texas to rate Turk Pipkin’s Pedernales Golf Club. It’s a 9-holer in Spicewood, and the locals call it Willie Nelson’s Cut-N-Putt. I give it four jalapeños!”

But as I pointed out above, Gary doesn’t get to assign the actual rankings. Pedernales currently languishes at No. 51.

Ladakh, by the way, has only one ratable course, the 9-hole Indian Army Coffee-Can Links on the road between Leh and Thiksey Monastery. Rock-strewn and grassless, it is one of the few courses ranked below the Ft. Meade City Mobile Home Park Golf Course of Ft. Meade, Fla.

Gary didn’t rate that Ladakhi course, either. I did.

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but Duke Ishikawa sent in this report on the Arnold Palmer Invitational at the Bay Hill Club & Lodge in Orlando, Fla.: “Cherry blossoms are in full bloom! Beautiful time of the year!”

Okay, Duke’s covering the API from Tokyo. But that makes sense, since Japan’s Ryo Ishikawa shot an opening-round 69 to tie Tiger Woods and eight others for fifth place. “This is Ryo’s eighth start of the season,” Duke continued. “He only made two cuts, but one was at Puerto Rico. His scoring average is 175th, his money is 183rd, both nearly at bottom. But he still keeps special invitation to next month’s Masters, which is unfair.

Simon Clark works for Ryo this week because Ryo’s regular caddie, Kato, returned home for a while. Another Japanese worked for Ryo the last three tournaments, but he did not work out. Simon worked for Ryo two tournaments last year in Japan. Ryo finished 35th in the Japan Open and sixth in the Casio World Open. Some Japanese media say, ‘Ryo’s fifth place in the first round at API must be the result of Simon.’ I don’t know yet. Ryo has been playing pretty bad in his second round. I really hope he will make a cut this week.”

Duke signed off in his inimitable way: “That’s all my basic information about the Ryo and Simon (not Garfunkel) relationship. Hope this makes you fill up of your curious stomach.”

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Rating Feherty in my Spare Time

“What do you do when you are not rating courses?” asks a reader from balmy Tucson, Ariz.

Short answer: I’m always rating courses. Behind the wheel with cell phones pressed to both ears, I’m rating. Standing in line for Taylor Swift tickets, I’m rating. Even when I appear to be asleep at my desk, I’m rating. (I dreamt that Tom Doak’s Streamsong Blue would debut at No. 48 — and it did!)

Feherty and Garrity

Formal gigs are de rigueur for Feherty (left) and Garrity. (Photo by Angus Murray)

But if the reader wants to know what I do in my spare time, I don’t know where to begin. I spend hours poring over old scorecards and manuscripts for my Golf Ghost stories. I play cocktail piano for tips at hotels and country clubs. I bait traps for the rodents I hear running behind the walls at Catch Basin, my Kansas City manse.

Currently, I seem to spend the better part of my week in black tie. One night I’m at the Grammys, the next I’m at the White House Correspondents Dinner. Can they hold a Ryder Cup Gala without me? Yes, but only if my SI colleague Alan Shipnuck agrees to fill in.

But rest assured, when I’m schmoozing with Brad “‘Til Death” Garrett at a Las Vegas benefit, my brain is thirty miles up the road at the Las Vegas Paiute Golf Resort. Or across town at Steve Wynn’s 51st-ranked Shadow Creek. Or combing the Strip for archeological evidence of a mythological Desert Inn Golf Club.

My paid subscribers deserve my best, and I’m determined to give it to them.

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but my profile of top-ranked celebrity interviewer David Feherty has jumped from the pages of GOLF Magazine to the pixels of Golf.com. Here’s some bonus Feherty that didn’t make it into my piece:

On improving at golf: “I have no idea how I got to be any good, because I never really worked that hard. But I worked very hard in my MIND. I practiced by thinking. And imagining. I think that’s a very underrated form of practice. I tell people all the time, don’t work so hard. Make swings in your mind, imagine what it feels like when it’s comfortable. Take comfortable swings and see where the ball goes. And then learn how to aim it. It’s really not that complicated.”

On the trajectory of his playing career: “I always felt I was on the edge of disaster. There would be high points, and then I’d get shit-faced for a month. Then I’d have to go back to work again.”

On religion: “The history of organized religion is nothing but torture, bloodshed, misery and ignorance. Yet people still cling to it; it’s precious to them. The present is precious to me because I know it’s the only thing I’ll ever have.”

On injuries curtailing his golf: “I don’t want to play socially, and I used to make excuses — ‘Oh, my back is killing me’ — but now my left arm is semi-paralyzed. But I’ve got my Troops First Foundation, where I’ve got men with no arms or legs playing golf, and those are the days I play. I say, ‘Oh, my shoulder’s badly separated,’ and some kid will hand me his leg and say, ‘That’s separated.’”

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