Tag Archives: Alan Shipnuck

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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Top 50 Transparency Praised by Founder

A reader from Stone Harbor, N.J., asks if we conduct our course ratings in secrecy. “Do you travel under aliases? Do you inform a course’s staff that you are evaluating their facility and plan to publish an assessment that could be damaging to their reputations and bottom line? Do you go about your business whistling with a smile* while actually twisting your knife in the backs of honest businessmen who are merely trying to provide fun and recreation?”

* This is anatomically impossible, unless you whistle through your teeth; but we do try to project a certain cheeriness.

The e-mail is signed “Diogenes,” so I assume the writer is Greek. And before I address the substance of his letter, I’d just like to say how sorry I am about his country’s sovereign debt crisis and for the shocking deterioration of the 7th-ranked Parthenon and other public buildings. Things look bleak, I know, but a century or so of austerity should square the Greeks’ accounts and get them back out on the golf course.

Anyway, Di asked about “secrecy.” My answer is a flat “No.” We don’t sneak onto golf courses in Zorro masks and capes, and we don’t hide our clipboards and cameras in gym bags. To the contrary, the arrival of a Top 50 rater tends to be a civic happening replete with bunting, ceremony and intemperate drinking. It’s the democratic nature of the Top 50, in fact, that makes it so much fun. What other course-rating system has gallery members draw lots for a chance to evaluate the par-3s? Who but the Top 50 would let the head pro appeal for a better score in return for logoed caps and golf balls?

Besides, if we snuck in and out of venues, would we get so much publicity? Not to be immodest, but my recent rating trip to England got almost as much media attention as the Open Championship at 186th-ranked Royal Lytham & St. Annes. First it was Sports Illustrated’s Alan Shipnuck, who took participatory journalism to a new level by following me around 17th-ranked Royal Birkdale dressed in my clothes. (“If you can learn about someone by walking in their shoes,” he said afterwards, “it has to be even better to walk around in their baggy polo shirts and Dockers.”) Shipnuck’s reverential report can be seen here.

Michael Bamberger

SI’s Michael Bamberger followed our Top 50 rater at St. Annes Old Links. (John Garrity)

Also following me at Birkdale was Michael Bamberger, author of To the Linksland and inventor of the E-Club. In appreciation, I let him rate the 200-yard fourth hole, where each of us missed an ace by a matter of inches. (“Challenging to the extreme,” he concluded, “but brilliant!”) Bamberger then popped up a couple of evenings later as I rated St. Annes Old Links (49). He wrote about it for Golf.com, as did Golf Digest’s Cameron Morfit, whose astute critique of St. Annes can be read here.

To sum up, the Top 50 — far from being secretive — is the most transparent of all the leading course-rating systems. Diogenes may not accept that, but I infer that he’s bitter about some perceived slight or life-destroying tort that he associates with golf course critics. That’s unfortunate, but it has nothing to do with us.

Unless, that is, he is referring to our sister company, America’s Worst Golf Courses (LLC).  Our AWGC raters do conceal their identities, and they usually prevaricate when asked why they are dipping test strips into the ball washers or taking core samples from the greens. “When things get hairy,” I tell them, “it’s best to lie.”

Different company, of course.

Glen Echo's 14th hole

Would Glen Echo’s “Dewdrop” par 3 present a challenge to modern Olympians? (John Garrity)

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but the London Olympics reminds us that golf returns to the Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in the summer of 2016. That should focus attention on 51st-ranked Glen Echo Country Club of St. Louis, Mo., which was an Olympic venue in conjunction with the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. I played Glen Echo some weeks ago and found it to be in tip-top shape and fully capable of hosting the Olympics again, should the Gil Hanse-designed Rio course be thwarted by local politicians. (Glen Echo still has a commuter line running alongside its first hole, so transportation will be a snap.)

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Clearing Up ‘Dwarf Course’ Comment

A reader from Daytona Beach, Fla., gets right to the point: “You don’t know what a ‘dwarf course’ is? What a fool some folks are!”

The reader refers to golf architect Bill Amick’s remark, in my last post, that he was off to West Africa to build a dwarf course at an eco lodge. Or maybe it was an eco course at a dwarf lodge. But the reader, now that I look more closely, is Bill Amick. So I’ll let him explain the term.

I coined that label, dwarf course, because of my mother. She was a wonderful woman and I loved her very much, but she was short. For some reason, she was never fond of me calling her a dwarf. Hey, she should have known that life, like golf, is not always fair. For instance, she could not have become a member of the Augusta National Golf Club. Though that was not because of her limited vertical stature.

Having cleared that up, Bill comments on the rankings:

I was extremely pleased that Ridgewood Golf Club [formerly Chestuee Golf & Country Club] made it into your latest top 20. And I’m proud that, after looking it up, I know it by its current name. It has always been a rule of mine that a golf course architect should at least know the names of the courses he or she has designed. Not knowing would be almost as bad as the over-the-hill touring pro who, having put his signature on a course, had to be pointed in the direction of the first tee for the ceremonial opening round.

And I find Grand Reserve a welcome addition to your aqua-range list. I can’t think of a better use for treated sewer water.

Turning to the new, Bill drops a tidbit or two about his detour through Scotland:

As you know, I made it up to The Trump in Aberdeen [No. 51] to share the ceremonies with my friend Martin Hawtree. And here’s what really burned me. As my taxi was delivering me down the entrance road, The Donald was leaving in his long black limo. He did not wait for me at the clubhouse nor even wave as we passed on the road. I guess some Americans are just rude.

I did get a tour of His course by the Hawtree team, so my visit was not a complete bummer. I was impressed by it all, and in a later message I’ll attach what I write for ByDesign with my impressions of the course.

When I got to Ghana, I’m happy to say, there was no rude American passing me in his long black limo as I entered the property. But I did think of my dear, late mother. Have I ever mentioned that she was not a particularly tall person?

Shipnuck and Bamberger Putting

Shipnuck putts and Bamberger tends the flag on a course not unlike Royal Birkdale. (John Garrity)

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but on Wednesday afternoon I joined my Sports Illustrated colleagues, Alan Shipnuck and Michael Bamberger, for a lovely round at 17th-ranked Royal Birkdale Golf Club. We were playing hooky from our British Open assignments, but Alan made it kosher by writing a broadly-comical yet deeply-moving GOLF.com column about our round. (Deeply moving when he describes me as a “premier ball striker”; broadly comical when he pegs Michael as a “crafty” links player.)

About which Amick, in a follow-up e-mail, complained, “All you golf writers ever seem to do is play great courses. And now we have to read about it?”

No, but I’m sure Bill will want to read this legend that was on the wall of the first Royal Birkdale clubhouse:

“As the earth is not meant to be carted away The divots you cut in the course of your play Should be neatly replaced by your caddie or you, With their roots to the earth and their blades to the blue”

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Scottish Courses Survive Careful Audit

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.”

First Tee at Machrihanish

"Swimmers Beware" -- the first tee at Machrihanish. (John Garrity)

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.)

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Askernish Retains Hold on Top Spot

“My game is coming back since returning from Scotland,” Top 50 staffer Dave Henson writes from Hilton Head, S.C. “Haven’t been in the 70s yet, but low to mid 80s. It seems I developed a strong left hand grip somewhere – probably from trying to drive the ball into 75 mph winds.”

Dave Henson at Askernish

Top 50's Henson celebrates at Rainbow's End. (John Garrity)

My old friend refers to a rather gusty mid-summer round at Castle Stuart Golf Links, No. 9, during my Top 50 Audit of Highly-Ranked Links Courses. That round in the Scottish Highlands, I should point out, was the only one in which conditions were severe enough to actually wreck one’s swing. The winds at Royal Dornoch, Nairn and Askernish never exceeded 40 mph, and there were intervals of relative calm when we could talk in normal tones and Dave could light his pipe without burning his hand. But the most rewarding birdies and eagles, as I think even galeaphobic Dave will agree, are those produced in hurricane-force winds. (See photograph, left.)

Unfortunately, Dave had to return to the States after our three-day inspection of top-ranked Askernish Old, the Old Tom Morris-designed ghost course on the Hebridean isle of South Uist. Health was an issue for my right-hand man, who had to endure the indignities of free and attentive treatment from a nurse-practitioner at a village clinic, followed by the prompt filling of an outrageously cheap prescription for his bronchitis. “Socialized medicine at its worst,” Dave grumbled, pining for the ninety-dollar meds and hour-long waits of home.

Askernish, in contrast to Dave, was in great shape. Greenkeeper Alan MacDonald had the greens rolling at a bouncy 5 or 6, and the fescue roughs were hacked down to a height that would barely conceal a dozing poet. Three years of dedicated labor have pushed most of the rabbit warrens to the boundaries of the course, so it’s no longer a common occurrence to have a border collie chase a hare between your legs as you address the ball. “It’s really coming around,” said Ralph Thompson, the affable chairman of the Askernish Golf Club. “It wouldn’t hurt you to pay the green fee.”

J Garrity putting at Askernish Old

Garrity on Old Tom's Pulpit: "Do you see a break?" (Dave Henson)

Since Askernish is closer to a perfect 10 than any other course, you might expect an air of complacency. Instead, the locals have jumped on an offer from famed course designer Tom Doak to lend staff and material resources to their restoration effort. As the Hebridean winter closes in, Doak’s team will work with MacDonald and British architect Martin Ebert (who designed the six new holes that lead up to Old Tom’s sublime stretch of seaside holes) on a subtle tweaking of the ancient links. As I write this, it’s not clear whether the work will start before or after the local crofters drive their livestock onto the course for their winter keep.

No matter. Based upon its summer condition and Dave’s scribbled report, Askernish retains its number one ranking and improves on its previous record score, edging down .03 points to 10.15.

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but every time I turned on a set last week it was tuned to [the] Golf Channel’s “Golf in America.” For some reason, an audio-visual team had followed SI senior writer Alan Shipnuck and a friend as they played all four courses at the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort — including Tom Doak’s Pacific Dunes, No. 26 — in a single day.* (Spoiler Alert: It ends with Shipnuck walking into his motel room and falling face-first on the bed — a scene that would have been lost to posterity but for the fortuitous pre-placement of the video crew and their equipment.) If you missed this tribute to sore joints and sunburn, I invite you to read Shipnuck’s SI Golf Plus report on his long day, titled “14 Hours, 21.7 Miles, 2 Barking Dogs”, at Golf.com.

*Not to complain, but I’ve played several rounds with Shipnuck in recent months — most notably at Kingsbarns, No. 40, and Erin Hills, No. 23 — without drawing even a flicker of interest from [the] Golf Channel. Maybe their cameras would follow me around if I played all the crummy courses from my near-best-seller, America’s Worst Golf Courses, finishing up at the very worst, the Ft. Meade (Fla.) City Mobile Home Park Golf Course.**

**For TV, I would need an appropriate playing partner. Charles Barkley? Ray Romano? Tiger Woods? Send me your ideas.

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