Tag Archives: Askernish

Price? It’s No Indicator of Quality Golf

“I know your rankings are baloney,” writes a reverse-mortgage broker from Decatur, Ga. “How do I know? Because you’ve got so-called “top fifty” courses that I can play for less than fifty dollars. You know as well as I do that great golf is expensive. As my dad used to tell me, ‘If you can afford to play it, it’s not worth playing.’”

Reading Decatur’s words, I have to chuckle. The Cal Sci algorithm that we use to pick the Top 50 includes practically every variable that might go into a course ranking system, including admittedly off-beat criteria such as flag-material thread count and average-wind-speed-to-ambient-grade ratio. But we have never — I repeat, never — fed the price of a round into our computers.

Think about it. If cost were proportional to quality, you wouldn’t need a course rating. You’d simply Google “most expensive golf” and up would pop your number one course: Shadow Creek Golf Course of Las Vegas, Nevada. ($500 per round.) Right behind Shadow Creek, according to copycat web sites, are Pebble Beach Golf Links ($475) and Old Head Golf Links of Kinsale, Ireland ($400).

17th Green at Pebble Beach

Pebble Beach: Always a delight, but never a bargain. (John Garrity)

Change the search to “most expensive golf clubs” and you get a gaggle of neighboring clubs on Long Island, N.Y., including four-time U.S. Open venue Shinnecock Hills GC, the National Golf Links of America, Atlantic GC, and The Bridge, all of which cost between a half-million and $750,000 to join. (And only if you’re invited!) The ten founding members of Sebonack GC, meanwhile, forked over $1.5 million each to play in the dunes along Great Peconic Bay. Which tells you that your average Hamptons golfer can treat you to a round at Shadow Creek with change found under his sofa cushions.

Of those eight courses, you will note, only Pebble Beach is in my Top 50. That’s because I recognize the absurdity of evaluating a course by its price tag. First of all, green fees can and do change, independent of course conditions. When I first played the  16th-ranked Old Course at St. Andrews, I paid something like 22 British pounds. Today, I’d have to pay a high-season rate of 130 pounds. Is the Old Course 5.9 times better than it was in 1990? Of course not!*

*It’s only 1.07 times better, and that’s due to improved parking around the Links Clubhouse, which opened in 1995.

A second reason to discount price is that it empowers Donald Trump.

A third reason …. but do I have to go on?

My old friend Jaime Diaz, the best print analyst in golf today, supports my views in the current Golf World. In a column headlined “Bigger Didn’t Make Golf Better; Some Tips on Saving the Game,” Jaime lands a few good jabs on the jaw of golf-industry bloat, including the cogent point that modern courses have been stretched to absurd lengths, making the game far too difficult for the average player. His solution: shorten ‘em.

“Longer term,” he goes on, “the greatest opportunity to turn the game around lies in the way people learn it ….”

“Over the years I’ve been increasingly struck by how many of the most accomplished and fulfilled golfers started out playing young and on the cheap, usually at a ragtag course where they could go round and round. More often than not, they learned technique by copying better players, with the final process one of simple and often zone-inducing trial and error. As Michael Hebron, a PGA Master Professional, likes to say, ‘You play to learn, not learn to play.'”

Askernish's "Old Tom's Pulpit" green

Askernish: Full membership for 125 British Pounds per year!

Yes! Now, flick your eyes to the sidebar on the right. You’ll see that the top two spots in the Top 50 are held by Askernish Old and Carne, two peerless links courses whose combined construction costs wouldn’t match what The Donald will spend on clubhouse art for his overblown Trump International Golf Links in Aberdeenshire. Neither Askernish nor Carne have valet parking, bag boys or teaching pros. Neither has a full-service practice range. Or cart paths. Or ball washers. What they have in abundance are spectacular dunes, awesome views, unforgettable holes, and summer days that go on and on and on.

Yes, Askernish and Carne would drop in the ranking if our algorithm gave points for sky-high green fees. But it doesn’t. It gives points for teenagers deciding to skip dinner to squeeze in another 18 before dark.

Tell us we’re wrong.

Top 50 on TV: Uh …. forget what you just read. Two of our priciest courses are on display this weekend at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am — the luxe Pebble Beach Golf Links (No. 9) and the very exclusive Monterey Peninsula Country Club (No. 46). All we can say in our defense is that we’ve never spent a penny at either one of them. (It’s good to be a golf writer!)

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Askernish: Who Needs Winter Rules?

The key to a January golf trip in Scotland is flexibility. My original itinerary had me right off the plane at Glasgow and down the road to ancient Prestwick for a quick 18, followed on successive days by rounds at Askernish, Castle Stuart, Royal Dornoch, Nairn, Carnoustie, the Old Course at St. Andrews, Kingsbarns, Kinghorn, Crail, Musselburgh Links and Muirfield (same day), Turnberry, Western Gailes and Girvan — with 9 squeezed in at Maybole, if time allowed, on the way back to Glasgow. However, heavy snows across the country convinced me that I should alter my plans and spend the entire two weeks playing top-ranked Askernish Old.

Golfer on Askernish Old course

Postman Paddy Forbes leans into the wind at Askernish Old. (John Garrity)

“Is Askernish even playable?” an American friend asked in an e-mail. “I’ve heard that the Western Isles are brutalized by Atlantic gales this time of year. Plus, you’ve got what, four hours of daylight? And don’t they have cattle and sheep on the fairways?”

Re-reading his words after a fortnight of challenging but delectable golf, I have to laugh. First of all, I don’t think the wind ever got above 60 or 65 miles per hour while I played, and those were gusts, not sustained winds. Twenty or 25 mph was more the norm, and with the average midday temperature topping 40-degrees fahrenheit, four layers of clothing provided a nice balance between comfort and mobility. Squalls sweep in from the Atlantic with some frequency, but the local golfers have taught me how to squat with my back to the gale until the horizontal rain exhausts itself. That generally takes a few minutes, and it is common to see the sun pop out while you are collecting tee markers that have been uprooted and sent tumbling down a dune.

Askernish Old

Askernish Old is a dog-friendly course. (John Garrity)

Neither is the Hebridean day as short as my friend suggests. The sun appears over the hills a little after 9 a.m. and takes a languorous turn across the southern sky, never rising more than thirty-degrees above the horizon, before plunging into the Atlantic a little before four p.m. A four-ball venturing out at noon finishes at twilight, making for an enjoyable 500-yard stroll in the moonlight to the two-room clubhouse.

Askernish does accommodate more livestock than you’ll find on a typical American course, but I’ve never heard a visiting golfer complain because he was able to find his ball in the well-grazed rough. The greens are protected with single-strand fences that give the cattle a tiny shock when the batteries are connected. “They’re not hooked up at the moment, but it doesn’t matter,” one of Askernish’s 18 resident members told me last week. “The cows think they are!”

Fivesome at Askernish

Five members of the regular Friday nine-ball at Askernish. (John Garrity)

Another friend asked me if winter rules were in effect. No, they are not. The fairways at Askernish, an authentic links course, are as sound in January as they are in July, so there is no need to improve one’s lie. The roughs are easier to play from, thinned out as they are by dormancy and grazing. The one local rule of any consequence, involving naturally-applied fertilizers, had an R&A committeeman scouring his decisions book last week, looking for references to “manure” or “cow poop.”

“The rule at Askernish is simple,” club captain Donald MacInnes told him with a smile. “Pick up your ball, lick it, and drop it.”

Golfers at Twilight

Club captain Donald MacInnes drives the 18th by moonlight. (John Garrity)

Tee times are not a problem this time of year. On a given winter’s day, you might see a lone golfer striding up the par-5 sixth, parallel to the beach, with a wool cap pulled over his ears and no shadow in tow. On a god-given winter’s day, such as Friday afternoon was, you’ll encounter a four-ball sunning in the bowl of the multi-tiered 16th green (“Old Tom’s Pulpit”) while a sixsome, accompanied by frolicking dogs and darting lapwings, takes turns firing at the flag from cliff’s edge on the dogleg ninth (“Brochan”).

Askernish is not for everyone, I suppose. Maybe just for golfers.

Anyway, I’m heading home. If you’d like some help planning your own low-season Scottish golf tour, send me your e-mails. I’ll forward them to the proper tourist agencies. And if you don’t get an immediate response, be understanding. Their staff is probably wintering on the Costa del Sol.

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Courses I Need to Play, Part One

Inspired by “Travelin’ Joe” Passov, I’ve been trying to come up with my own wish list of “Courses I Need to Play.” The fact that I’m having trouble finding ten testifies to how lucky I’ve been over the years. I’ve played Mollymook. I’ve played Formby Ladies. I teed it up in the inaugural event at Medicine Hole. If my current bout with tendonitis were to end my golfing days, I’d have no cause for complaint.

But Joe is right, there are courses — Cypress Point and Pine Valley come to mind — so enticing that you would pay to play them. One of those courses, for me, is the Indian Army 9-Hole Golf Course outside Leh, Ladakh, on the Tibetan plateau. I stumbled upon Indian Army 25 years ago while covering a polo match in Leh. The course was a bit outside town on a dusty road that crossed a moonscape of boulders and rubble punctuated with Buddhist burial markers. A barbed wire fence and gun placements emphasized that it was a private course, but I couldn’t help but stare longingly at the crooked bamboo flagsticks impaled on gravel greens next to coffee-can holes. Not a blade of grass on the property, but, as Gary Player often said, “It’s the finest course of its kind I’ve ever seen.”

Ft. Meade Golf Clubhouse

Golf at Fort Meade: an unrealized dream? (John Garrity)

Even higher on my list, maybe at No. 1, is the Fort Meade City Mobile Home Park Golf Course in Fort Meade, Fla. Fort Meade has finished dead last among the world’s courses in every Top 50 survey, a record not likely to be broken. On the other hand, it is the best 9-hole, par-3, clay-greens course in the South. I’ve walked Ft. Meade on a couple of occasions, taking in the surrounding banyan trees and fire-ant sand hills, but I’ve never gotten the opportunity to play. Just once I’d like to stride up that final fairway with a club in my hand, crossing in front of the tee boxes for the previous eight holes, and stepping onto the profoundly round and flat ninth green, at the foot of the municipal water treatment plant.

Another not-to-miss track that I have toured without playing is the new Machrihanish Dunes course in Machrihanish, Scotland. While not exactly the black sheep of the Kintyre Peninsula, the Dunes course does have black sheep on the property, their job being to keep the marram grass on the dunes to a playable length. At 79 pounds per round in peak season, Machrihanish Dunes is the priciest layout on my must-play list, but I’ll claw back some of that by neglecting to leave any money in the honesty boxes of my other choices.

I’m also pining for the Papa Westray Golf Course in the Orkney Isles of Scotland. Although panned by one critic as “worse than Ronaldsay,” Papa Westray provides tourists with the opportunity to experience the world’s shortest scheduled flight, a less than two minute hop from Kirkwall. But first I have to experience the Lost City Golf Course of Sun City, South Africa — if only to play the famous 13th hole, which is fronted by a stone pit full of hissing crocodiles.

But that’s only five courses, isn’t it? (Seven, if I poach Cape Kidnappers and Hirono from Joe’s list.)

Well, I’ve got time to work on my list after dark — of which I’ve seen plenty this week, my four golf clubs having found their way to top-ranked Askernish Old in the Outer Hebrides. I’ll post my reflections on the world’s best golf course in a day or two, weather permitting.

Top 50 on TV: I’m on an island in the North Atlantic. Ask a friend or check your local listings.

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Scottish Golf Trip off to Frigid Start

It snows in Scotland? Nobody told me! Flying into Glasgow yesterday, I looked down on a rumpled, white blanket that could have been the Rockies. And when I collected my suitcase and four-club quiver at baggage claim, I noticed that there were no hulking golf-travel bags on the carrousel. Not many bags at all, for that matter. (Or travelers!) One young couple had skis. They were either just back from Switzerland or arriving from the Canary Islands and headed for the ski lifts at Carnoustie.

“Call Prestwick,” I told Gustov, my traveling secretary. “Cancel today’s round.”

I guess I should have talked to my old friend, Joe Passov, before signing up for my “Highlands and Islands Low-Season Golf Package.”  “Travelin’ Joe,” as he is known to the readers of GOLF Magazine and Golf.com, is the world’s foremost authority on golf travel, having played, by his own count, 1,423 courses — only half of which are within twenty miles of his home in Scottsdale, Ariz. A true globetrotter, Joe knows Scotland and Ireland like the back of his hand. He would have warned me about the ice and slush surrounding the Glasgow Marriott.

Speaking of Joe, he penned a Golf.com column last week called “Travelin’ Joe’s Wish List: 10 Courses I Need to Play.” Number 1 on his list was Pete Dye’s “Teeth of the Dog” course at Casa de Campo — which I have not played, either — and Number 10 was Friar’s Head, a Crenshaw-Coore design in Baiting Hollow, N.Y., which I only mention because I love the sound of “Baiting Hollow.”

The surprising thing about Joe’s list? It includes two courses that I have played: Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach, Fla., currently No. 14 in the Top 50, and Prairie Dunes Golf Club in Hutchinson, Ks., No. 6. Here’s Joe on Seminole:

Perhaps the finest routing Donald Ross ever did, this ultra-exclusive Palm Beach-area enclave also features one of the greatest clubhouses in golf. Hogan used to practice here every day for a month leading up to the Masters. I’d just like to do it once.

Ha, ha, Joe! I have done it … once!

Here’s his take on Prairie Dunes:

All that’s missing is an ocean at this linksy-looking layout in landlocked Kansas, which played host to the 2002 U.S. Women’s Open (Juli Inkster) and the 2006 U.S. Senior Open (Allen Doyle). I question if the wind and rough make it unplayable for 10-handicaps.

Having covered both those tournaments for Sports Illustrated (and currently playing to a 10 handicap), I can assure Joe that my favorite mid-continental course is more than kind to second-tier golfers, thanks to fast, flawless greens that practically funnel the ball into the hole. But he’s right about the absent ocean. And it’ll take another thousand years of climate change to fix that.

Anyway, since I can’t play golf this afternoon, I think I’ll sit down with a notepad and a bottle of Diet Irn-Bru and try to compile my own Top-10 list of courses that have eluded my grasp. I’ll post that list from the next stop on my winter golf itinerary: top-ranked Askernish.

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but Jonathan Byrd bagged his second consecutive PGA Tour win at last week’s Hyundai Tournament of Champions, held on Maui’s Plantation Course at Kapalua, No. 34. The AP report of his win makes no mention of snow.

 

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Scottish Golf: ‘Tis the Season?

Having opened all my presents and sung all my carols, I’m packing for my next golf trip: a January excursion to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. It will be a solo trip, I’m sorry to say, because both staff and family have been frightened off by press reports of blustery weather in Europe. One correspondent went so far as to send me a photograph of second-ranked Carne Golf Links blanketed with snow.

“Carne,” I reminded my dubious wife, “is in Ireland.”

On the bright side, she’s helping me pack.

Carne Golf Links in Snow
Second-ranked Carne is a winter bargain. (Ask for the holiday discount.)

Winter, I have argued to no avail, is the perfect time for a Scottish golf trip. Low-season hotel rates apply, green fees have been slashed, and you can practically name your tee time. (“Dawn” is a good choice, since the Scots can only squeeze about four hours of daylight into a January day.) These are not second-rate layouts, either. My Highlands-and-Islands itinerary includes Askernish (1), Castle Stuart (9), Royal Dornoch (43) and Nairn (51).

“You might want to e-mail them to see if they’re open,” said Dave Henson, the Hilton Head-based bureaucrat who runs my course-rating division.

“A waste of bandwidth,” I said dismissively. Dave has apparently forgotten our rainswept round at Nairn last July, which preceded our romp around Castle Stuart in 65-mph winds, which led to our being stranded on the island of Skye because an Atlantic gale had shut down ferry service to the Western Isles, where we were subsequently assaulted by sleet and drive-by bagpipers. “The Scots,” I reminded him, “don’t stop playing golf whenever the Heathrow baggage handlers put on mittens.”

Besides, the computer room at our Catch Basin headquarters is closed until the Basement Magic folks finish their work on the southern wall. The Bomar Brain is covered with a big blue tarp, the ping pong table is pushed against the vault door, and the Top 50 leader board is frosted with a layer of white sanding dust.

“Rankings cant change twixt now & e of year,” a Cal Tech liaison just informed me in a text from sunny California. “Go off & play!”

So I’m off to Scotland. But don’t worry, I’ll continue to file Top 50 posts on a close-to-weekly basis.

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but Golf Channel is showing endless re-runs of “Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf,” including a hard-to-forget (no matter how hard you try) match between Jack Nicklaus and a wheels-coming-off Johnny Miller at San Francisco’s Olympic Club (52). Other Shell episodes seem to have been staged on courses built just for the show in exotic corners of Asia and Africa. When the Top 50 is up to speed again, I’ll ask my technicians to prepare a list of “Top 10 Most Eloquent Jack Whitaker Descriptions of Sparsely-Grassed Resort Courses.”

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Carne: Ready for the Foam Finger?

My man, Horton, woke me this morning with a whispered “Sir? Sir?” and a gentle shake of my shoulder. Instantly, my eyes sprung open. My head rose from the pillow. The room was dark. The digital clock on the elephant table read 2:07 a.m., but I couldn’t remember if I had set the clock back before retiring.

Still whispering, Horton said, “Your instructions were to waken you –”

“I know what my instructions were,” I said sharply. “What do you have?”

“It’s Carne.” The two words fell from his tongue like leaves from a sugar maple. “I’ve sent for Dr. Eppes.”

That, faithful readers, is how I got the news that the Carne Golf Links of Belmullet, Ireland, had ascended to No. 2 in my Top 50 ranking. I was thrilled to get the news, Carne being perhaps my favorite course in the world.* But I was also annoyed, Horton’s reference to Charlie Eppes reminding me that the creator of our Top 50 algorithm and his bookworm bride have been incommunicado for months, having disappeared into central Europe at the end of his term as a visiting lecturer at Oxford.

*Full disclosure: I am an honorary lifetime member of the Belmullet Golf Club, which gives me playing privileges at Carne. I am also the author of a book — about Carne and other matters — titled Ancestral Links: A Golf Obsession Spanning Generations, available in trade paperback from New American Library.

It got worse after sunrise, when the technician who operates the Bomar Brain in our basement computer room informed me that Carne has actually been the world’s second-best golf course for some three weeks. “Carne passed Augusta National the day you were out buying Halloween candy,” he murmured, staring at his feet. “You, uh …. I mean, I guess nobody noticed. But we posted it right away.”

Exasperated, I went upstairs, opened the hall closet, and screamed. (The winter coats muffle my oaths.)  When I was calm again, I summoned Horton and reluctantly fired him. “Thank you,” I said, “for your 28 years of faithful service.”

“It was an honor, sir.” He gave me one last gracious bow from the waist and departed by the front door, taking a handful of bite-size Butterfingers with him.

Coincidentally, I recently received a digital press release from Sorcha Murray, Carne’s commercial manager. Headlined “Now Golfers Can See What They Are Missing!”, it announces that Carne’s original 18 can now be viewed via “3D Flyover,” a bird’s-eye-view computer simulator similar to those employed on golf telecasts. “The famous Carne Golf Links course on the Belmullet peninsula can now be explored from the sky,” the release continues. “The fascinating character of each hole can be seen winding through the dunes on one of Ireland’s top courses designed by Eddie Hackett, one of his last courses and probably his best.”

Having examined the Flyover on the Carne home page, I have to give it a mixed review. The rugged terrain and spectacular scenery are reduced to computerscapes, the kind of low-resolution imagery you get with home-landscaping software. The dunes, clouds and beaches are generic. The great sandy blowout to the right of the seventeenth fairway is rendered as a grassy ravine such as you’d find on a West Texas course. The inconsequential pot-pond near the third green is depicted in Caribbean blue, as if it were an actual water hazard.

On the other hand, I have always wondered what Carne would look like from the sky, having seen ravens pluck golf balls off its greens and flap off toward the sea. Watching the Flyover again with my bird brain, it looks awesome.

Anyway, congratulations to all my friends at Carne. And if you should someday notice that you’ve vaulted over Askernish Old and taken the top spot, please send me a heads-up. I don’t like being left in the dark.

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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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Castle Stuart Passes Latest Test

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.

Castle Stuart

Whitecaps on the Firth? The 11th at Castle Stuart (John Garrity)

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.)

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Spanish Layout Is for Real

“How do your course raters document their findings?” asks a reader from Lower Venice, Italy. “Is it merely checked boxes on pages? Do you obtain sworn affidavits? How do we know that your raters have even visited the courses on the list — or, more importantly, the courses not on your list?”

Good question, Vinny. I can answer it by reminding you that our course raters have photographed every hole on every golf course in the world, from top-ranked Askernish Old right down to our perennial bottom-ranked layout, the Ft. Meade City Mobile Home Park Golf Course of Ft. Meade, Fla. Furthermore, Top 50 raters are bonded and they have to produce a signed chit from the superintendent or head pro of each club before they can collect their honoraria.*

*We typically pay our raters in carnival script to minimize the possibility that they will be caught short by international currency devaluations.

By the way, the image bank at Catch Basin is not limited to golf course photos. We ask our globetrotting nitpickers to document every aspect of a facility, from the front gate to the darkest corner of the superintendent’s shed. Just this morning, for instance, we downloaded hundreds of photos from Real Sociedad Hipica Espanola Club de Campo in San Sebastian de los Reyes, Spain, site of this week’s Madrid Masters. The RSHECC has two championship golf courses with mountain views, a splendid ivy-covered clubhouse, a sprawling parking garage, and a terraced practice range that offers three levels of grass tees plus a mats-only range with both covered and rooftop tee lines.

South Course Starter's Shed

Sketches of Spain: The starter's shed at RSHECC South. (John Garrity)

“I was particularly taken with the starter’s shed on the first tee of the South Course,” our rater told me by satellite phone. “It made me feel nostalgic in some hard-to-describe way, so I gave the facility a few hundred discretionary points.”

The beauty of the Cal Sci algorithm is that we can adjust for this bonehead’s misapplication of the ratings formula, leaving RSHECC with a more appropriate bonus of 25. We’ll post the club’s new ranking when we get fresh numbers back from Pasadena, probably on the Memorial Day weekend. (No, the Top 50 does not “holiday.” The full-capacity golf weekends are when we are needed most.)

By the way, Real Sociedad Hipica Espanola Club de Campo translates as “The Royal Spanish Horse Society Country Club.” I asked our rater to send me a hat, but he claimed their hats don’t make it through the embroidery process.

Top 50 on TV: The PGA Tour finishes off its Texas Swing at Colonial Country Club, No. 24. I planned to post a course photo, but I got distracted scrolling through our gallery of “Colonial C.C. Bark Beetles,” which takes up about 5 gigs of storage space. If you’re desperate to see what Colonial looks like these days, check back here later. Otherwise, you can tune in to the Nick Faldo Networks (Golf Channel and CBS), which will cover all four rounds of the $6.2 million Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial.

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A Gripe from the Branch Office

“I can’t hit a 1-iron, but I’ve proven countless times that I can hit a tree.” — Anon.

“Have you got something against trees?” asks a tree surgeon from Dubai.

The question puzzled me at first, but an hour’s perusal of the new Top 50 enlightened me. Four of the top five courses (and six of the top ten) are as treeless as the polar ice caps. The wind-blown machair at top-ranked Askernish Old supports a stubble of knee-high marram grass, but a South Uist horse thief will never hang there — nothing to hang him on, so to speak. Ditto for the dramatic dunes of Carne (No. 3), which support no vegetation taller than a garden gnome. Even Pittsburgh’s legendary Oakmont Country Club (No. 47), come to think of it, didn’t crack the Top 50 until its members chopped, sawed, toppled, bulldozed and ground up a few million board feet of shade trees in preparation for the 2007 U.S. Open.

But to answer the tree doc’s question, no. We’ve got nothing against trees. Many of the Top 50 courses are extravagantly shaded, and no fewer than seven* are named for nature’s biggest nuisances: Oak Hill (No. 9), Cypress Point (No. 13), Pine Needles (No. 30), Castle Pines (No. 33), Calusa Pines (No. 46), Oakmont (No. 47) and Laurel Valley (No. 49).

* Eight if the “Poipu” in Poipu Bay (No. 15) is Hawaiian for the arthritic, scarlet-blossomed view-hogger that ate my Pro V-1 four years ago.

Carne Golf Links

No bark on Carne's infamous 17th, but it can certainly bite. (John Garrity)

It’s just a fact that links courses are the most highly-regarded golf courses, and a true links has no, or hardly any, trees.* How else to explain Castle Stuart’s debut at No. 10, leapfrogging hundreds of parkland courses? Or St. Andrews Old at No. 16, despite a closing hole that is indistinguishable from the visitors’ parking lot.

*Despite its name, the Pebble Beach Golf Links (No. 2) is not a true links. It is a cliffside course, the distinction being obvious to anyone who has ever sliced his tee shot on Pebble’s sixth hole.

Personally, I’m about as pro-tree as they come. I have trees in my front yard and trees in my back yard, and if you see me discreetly raking my spiky sweet-gum balls under the neighbor’s fence, it’s because I want to share my arboreal bounty.

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but the Honda Classic is being played on the Jack Nicklaus-designed Champion Course at the PGA National Resort & Spa in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. Nicklaus has two courses in the Top 50, both of which have hosted PGA Tour or Champions Tour events. The first person who can e-mail me the names of those tournaments will be mocked for spending too much time in front of the flat screen. (Or awarded a free copy of my book Ancestral Links: A Golf Obsession Spanning Generations, just out in paperback. It all depends on my mood.)

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