Tag Archives: Castle Stuart

Top 50 CEO Comes Clean on Golf Trip

First, a confession. I have been telling friends (and foes) that my recent trek through Scotland and Ireland was a golf holiday. “Fourteen rounds in three weeks!” I say with a self-satisfied smirk, trying to leave the impression that I have nothing better to do with my post-retirement days than chase old-man Bogey up and down a Celtic shore.

Truth is, I was working. And although I would like to ratify that old saw about “my worst day on the golf course being better than my best day at the office” — I can’t. (I work at home, so my best days at the office consist of a lot of napping, snacking, piano playing and careful monitoring of Rumpole of the Bailey and Rockford Files DVDs.)

Next, an apology. To the dedicated staffers here at Catch Basin and to the equally-dedicated Cal Sci mathematicians who manage the Top 50 Algorithm, I publicly announce: “I am sorry.” Sorry for doubting you. Sorry for challenging the raw data. Sorry for sprinkling talcum powder in your pay envelopes.*

*The Company pledges to honor all legitimate claims for emergency room services, doctor visits and treatments for PTSD up to the state-mandated cap of fifty dollars per household.

Third, an explanation. Reader mail, in the past year or so, has consistently challenged the Top 50’s claim to be “the only truly authoritative and scientific course-rating system” by pointing out seeming anomalies. “Pine Valley is not on your list!” complained one correspondent, while another grumbled that “the Augusta National practice range [No. 47] is not even a golf course.” I brushed off most of these criticisms as the product of parochial minds clouded by the puffery of local chambers of commerce and golf-tour operators. But I found it hard to dismiss the charge by a few dozen golf-industry insiders — some of them with college degrees — that my list was top-heavy with links courses in the British Isles. “Five or six Celtic courses is believable,” wrote a Moroccan travel agent. “But 38 of the top fifty? Highly implausible.”

Sunset Golf at Askernish

Links courses: Overrated? Underrated? Properly rated? (John Garrity)

The Moroccan’s claim of 38 was pure hyperbole, but a quick glance at the current Top 50 [see sidebar] reveals no fewer than 16 courses of the British links variety. What’s more, ten of the remaining layouts either have the word “links” in their name or boast of links-style features in their designs — e.g., Pebble Beach, Fancourt, Sand Hills, and Medicine Hole. I have long argued that traditional links courses get the highest marks for one simple reason: They are better golf courses.

Because they are.

But even I began to have doubts last year when Castle Stuart, a brand-new course on the banks of Scotland’s Moray Firth, debuted at No. 10. That was followed by another improbable leap (Kingsbarns to No. 40, pushing the Irish parkland gem, Druids Glen, into the second fifty) and a weird oscillation at No. 50, where Scotland’s Nairn and Ireland’s Donegal have been alternating every hour or so like one of those ballpark banner ads behind home plate.

Was there a flaw in the Top 50 algorithm? Had a mole infiltrated our Catch Basin headquarters? Does Charlie Daniels play a mean fiddle?

I had to find out. And the only way to test the integrity of the Top 50 ranking, as I explained to my wife, was by traveling to the British isles and playing the disputed links courses. Which I did. (Note to IRS: I will not be claiming non-golf expenses as deductions.)

Finally, my report. But that will have to wait a day.*

* Negotiations with Ryan Lawn and Tree have taken longer than expected, due to their lead agronomist’s insistence that sod cannot be laid over the hardwood floor in our TV room.

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Rolex Jumps on Top 50 Bandwagon

Reading the foreword to The Rolex World’s Top 1000 Golf Courses — which has appeared, as if by magic, on my desk in the press tent at the Open Championship in St. Andrews, Scotland — I find myself blushing with false modesty. In the just-published volume’s “Dear Golfers” opener the watchmakers boast that their book, which weighs about as much as a loaded picnic hamper, took three years to complete.

“We have a network of over 200 ‘inspectors,’” the minutemen continue, “composed of enlightened amateurs, professional golfers and journalists specializing in golf course architecture. They have anonymously worked their way around the golfing world, completing an in-depth questionnaire and adding incisive and personalized comments of their own. Our Editorial Committee has given each course a score, geared primarily to the excellence of the site, the course architecture involved, and of course maintenance and condition. After considerable deliberation and verification, we took the entire 33,000 courses currently registered worldwide and ended up with those we consider to be the Top 1000.”

Royal Dornoch Golf

Royal Dornoch rated a mere 95? Really? (John Garrity)

This, of course, is pretty much the modus operandi of The Top 50, so I accept Rolex’s imitation as the sincerest form of flattery and wish them the best as they attempt to catch up.

But now I read the next paragraph.  “For the first time in the history of golf,” the sundial salesmen crow, “a genuine world ranking has been established; like all rankings it is of course subjective but it is the result of unbiased and independent opinion with no commercial pressure.”

This preposterous claim is easily debunked. The Top 50 has been cranking out genuine world rankings since July of 2007, when, by the watchmaker’s own account, they were still looking up courses on MapQuest. Furthermore, Rolex concedes that its rankings are subjective — unlike the Top 50, which concedes nothing. As for the claim that their ratings are reached “with no commercial pressure,” I can only tip my hat in admiration. Like the Times Square huckster with a hundred watches pinned to the lining of his raincoat, Rolex cranes its neck looking in all directions and finds no corporate involvement.*

*Nothing in this paragraph should be interpreted as a criticism of Rolex, valued sponsor of the biennial Writers Cup matches between teams of golf writers from the United States and Europe.

Those points aside, I give the editors credit for compiling an impressive catalog of meritorious golf courses from all corners of the admittedly spherical earth. In addition to course addresses, phone numbers and dress codes, Rolex provides altitudes and GPS coordinates. (For example, the Moonah Links Legends Course in Fingal, Australia,  sits at an altitude of 15 meters at 38˚24‘24.27” S 144˚51‘14.68” E — information that would have kept me from missing my tee time on my last trip Down Under.) Rolex also designates a “signature hole” for each course — an important detail if you send a lot of COD packages to golfers.

As for the Rolex rankings themselves, what can I say? First of all, they aren’t true rankings. To avoid hurt feelings, the Editorial Committee scored the courses in five-percentile blocks, corralling the top 15 into the “100” category, the next 73 into the “95” category, and the rest of the sorry lot into “90s,” “85s,” “80s,” and “75s.” It’s an original scheme, but you wind up with a 73-way tie for sixteenth that puts Pebble Beach, Pinehurst No. 2 and Prairie Dunes on the same level. (Their scientifically-accurate Top 50 ratings are 6, 51, and 7, respectively.) Furthermore, Rolex’s top-15 reads like an tardy schoolboy’s test paper, correctly guessing only three courses from the Top 50 blog (Augusta National, Cypress Point and St. Andrews Old Course), while canonizing Top 50 no-shows such as Bethpage Black and Torrey Pines South.

The real problem with the Rolex Thousand is that they published it. I love hardcover books as much as the next man — if the next man is Johannes Gutenberg — but I don’t take my grocery lists to the bindery. Golf course rankings, to be meaningful, must be updated every few hours, and only the Top 50 performs this valuable service. Rolex, having to meet printers’ deadlines, doesn’t even mention the new Castle Stuart course in Scotland. The Top 50, attuned to the digital age, has the Highlands masterpiece at No. 10.

Still, I give the Rolex 1000 a solid 95 for effort. It’s not their fault that the Top 50 is a perfect 10.

(10-4.)

Top 50 on TV: The tour pros are still hogging the tee times on the St. Andrews Old Course, No. 16, as I type this on a breezy Sunday afternoon in the Kingdom of Fife. Fortunately, there are three other Top-50 courses within easy driving distance of the R&A clubhouse. (The Balcomie Course at Crail, the Torrance Course at St. Andrews Bay, and Kinghorn.) And that doesn’t include the wonderful Kingsbarns Golf Links (alt. 30 feet), which will debut in the Top 50 as early as next week, pending resolution of drainage issues at Catch Basin, our Kansas City headquarters.

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Castle Stuart: Still Lookin’ Good

A reader from Lake Lotawana, Mo., has a question about tenth-ranked Castle Stuart, the brilliant, one-year-old links course on Scotland’s Moray Firth. “A few months back,” he writes, “you wrote that the Castle Stuart clubhouse has the best men’s room view in all of golf. But you didn’t back up your claim photographically, and you left the impression that Castle Stuart’s high ranking was based solely on clubhouse amenities.”

I’ll address the reader’s points in order. First, the claim that Castle Stuart’s lavatory view is unsurpassed. The Top 50 staff photographs the clubhouse and halfway house interiors of all our ranked courses, and if the facility has windows we document the view from every window. We can’t publish all these photos, obviously, so we go by the old adage, “A thousand words is as good as a picture.” I described the view from the Castle Stuart men’s loo. That seemed, to me, to be sufficient. But if my correspondent needs to have it spelled out for him in pixels, here is a selection of photos taken from the second-floor men’s lavatory of the Castle Stuart Golf Links.

Lavatory view

Castle Stuart's 9th green, as seen from the clubhouse lav. (John Garrity)

View of driving range

The Castle Stuart driving range from the men's shower room. (John Garrity)

9th Green Castle Stuart

Close up of 9th green from loo. (John Garrity)

Panoramic photo

Panoramic loo view, Castle Stuart Golf Links. (John Garrity)

The second point of the e-mail, implying that we ignored the Gil Hanse/Mark Parsinen golf course in our evaluation of Castle Stuart, is totally off the mark. No course in the Top 50, with the obvious exceptions of Sand Hills and Cypress Point,* achieved its elite ranking until it had been played by yours truly, either anonymously or (in the case of courses with outrageous green fees) not. Just last week, in fact, I played Castle Stuart in conditions that some would call extreme — wind gusts of 75 miles per hour — and left convinced that Inverness is home to the greatest new links course in the British Isles and one of the top ten golf courses in the world. It would not surprise me to see Castle Stuart, given a year or two to mature, to wind up in my top three with Askernish and Carne.

*And a couple of others.

I’m not the only one to be enchanted by Castle Stuart. Golf Digest managing editor Roger Schiffman, who played it last week as a member of the U.S. Writers Cup team, used words like “unforgettable … magnificent … stunning … beguiling … arresting …,” stopping only when he forgot whether he was describing the course or the barmaid in the third-floor lounge. George Peper, the author and former GOLF Magazine editor, calls Castle Stuart “the most significant British Isles debut since Loch Lomond in 1993 …. Think Pebble Beach, Pacific Dunes, Royal County Down …. restrained, insightful design combined with a breathtakingly beautiful site ….” Since I arrived in St. Andrews for this week’s Open Championship, I have been approached by total strangers asking if  I have played the new Highlands course that rivals or even surpasses Royal Dornoch Golf Club. “You’ll be blown away,” one of them told me, unaware of the irony.

So, here’s what I’ve got to say to that reader in Lake Lotawana and anybody else who thinks he or she can trip up the Top 50 staff: Forget it. When it comes to golf courses, we cover all the basins.

Top 50 on TV: The one, the only, Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland. The 139th Open Championship begins tomorrow morning on the Fife muny, which is the only God-designed course in the Top 50. The Bottom 50, however, features the unforgettable Ft. Meade City Mobile Home Course Golf Course of Ft. Meade, Fla., which is reputed to have been built by God, Jr., with help from his brother Rees.

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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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Castle Stuart Soars in World Ranking

The surprise of the latest Top 50 ranking (see sidebar) is the new Castle Stuart Golf Links of Inverness, Scotland, which debuts at No. 10.  A collaborative effort by Philadelphia-based architect Gil Hanse and American developer Mark “Kingsbarns” Parsinen, Castle Stuart opened last July to rave reviews from the dead-tree publications: “Destined to become one of the best courses in the world.” (Links Magazine. … “A Masterpiece!” (Bunkered) … “Effortlessly blends the best elements of St. Andrews and Pebble Beach, Ballybunion and Royal County Down.” (Golf World, U.K.)

Castle Stuart Golf Links

The 11th green at Castle Stuart, Inverness, Scotland

“Yes, it is that good,” wrote the Links reviewer, prolific author and former GOLF Magazine editor, George Peper. “Succinctly put, Castle Stuart will be the most significant British Isles debut since Loch Lomond in 1993. It should be well on its way to the top echelon of the world rankings.” I’m guessing that Peper was paid by Links to write that, but you can’t argue with his call.  Castle Stuart, at No. 10, is the highest-ranked new course in Top 50 history.

My own first impression*, garnered on a bright, windy afternoon in late July, was as positive as Peper’s. Most of the holes have views of the miles-wide Moray Firth, from the Kessock Bridge to the Chanonry Lighthouse, and an improbable number seem to be right on the water. It’s an illusion. When you play the holes that parallel the Firth on the higher ground, it’s like playing the cliffside holes at second-ranked Pebble Beach Golf Links; you don’t see the beach or the lowland duffers, you see only sparkling water and breaching whales. (Or, in this case, breaching Loch Ness Monsters.)

*I have no financial, professional or prurient interest in the Castle Stuart development, but my middle name is Stuart and I claim, by royal birthright, to be the rightful monarch of both Scotland and England via my great-great-great-great-etc.-cousin, Mary Stuart — a.k.a. Mary, Queen of Scots — and the other golfing Stuarts, including James IV of Scotland — “the first golfer known to history” — and James I of England, who is best remembered for appointing the first royal club maker.  For more on the Stuart golfers, see the just-released paperback edition of my book, Ancestral Links: A Golf Obsession Spanning Generations.

I’ll discuss the course layout in later postings, but there’s no reason to withhold the fact that Castle Stuart dominated our “top lavatory view in golf” category, displacing Newport Country Club of Newport, R.I. The shower stalls and urinals on the third floor of Castle Stuart’s art-deco clubhouse provide panoramic views of the course and the shoreline through eye-level, wraparound windows. Dropping to No. 3 is the locker room pissoir at California’s venerable Cypress Point Golf Club (No. 13). “An awning somewhat restricts your view,” reports Sports Illustrated’s Gary Van Sickle, “but you can see a big tree and some of the ocean.”

Equally surprising is the disappearance from the Top 50 of the Jupiter Hills Club of Tequesta, Fla., which held the No. 10 spot now occupied by Castle Stuart. Knowing how computers work, I suspect that the Jupiter Hills listing has somehow been covered up by Castle Stuart, concealing a tenth-place tie.

We’ll get to the bottom of that. In the meantime, Jupiter Hills moves to No. 1 on the Challenged and Disputed List, replacing Liberty National Golf Club of Jersey City, N.J..

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New Top 50 Just Around the Corner

The computer room at Catch Basin is operating normally again, the flooding issues having been resolved and the possum captured and relocated to a creek in southern Jackson County, Mo. That leaves only a couple of obstacles to be overcome before we issue the long-awaited Top 50 update. The first is a minor software glitch: incompatibility issues involving Cal Sci’s mainframe computer and our 1970s-issue Bomar Brain. We’re working on that.

The other obstacle is human frailty. It turns out that a previously dependable course rater — a 10-handicap Midwesterner with a degree from a recognized university — submitted corrupted data for a handful of European golf courses. Most of the errors are inconsequential. He reports, for example, that the new Castle Stuart links in Inverness, Scotland, is a 9-hole parkland course, when it is, in fact, an 18-hole linksland course on the Firth of Moray.

One of his findings, however, has distorted the rankings in an unacceptable way. The course in question belongs to the venerable Pau Golf Club of southern France, currently No. 3,676. Opened in 1856, Pau (pronounced “Poh”) is the oldest course on the European mainland. Apparently dazzled by its antiquity, our renegade rater ignored Top 50 protocols and awarded bonus points for “hundreds of beautiful hardwood trees” and “French-speaking clubhouse staff.” We have discovered, however, that he did not make an actual tour of the golf course.

Pau Golf Club

The Pau Golf Club of France has a wash basin fit for a Caesar. (John Garrity)

Is that a problem? Oh, Mama! In the ball-washer section of the evaluation report, our man gave Pau a rare five-brush rating, calling the club’s Roman-era stone wash basin “the best crankless ball-washer in golf and the only orb overhauler worthy of installation in the British Museum.” Unfortunately, he treated the Roman basin as a dedicated ball washer — which it most definitely is not. Pau members use it to clean their clubs, to scrub their shoes and, for all we know, to brush their teeth.

Rest assured that the overreaching course rater faces severe sanctions. But I’ll need an extra week or so to correct Pau’s score and then recalibrate the updated Top 50.*

*To readers who wonder how a mid-ranked European course can impact the Top 50, I will simply point out that our list, unlike other course rating systems, is configured from the bottom up — i.e., we start with the lowest-ranked course (Ft. Meade City Mobile Home Park Golf Course) and work our way up to No. 1 (Askernish Old).

By the way, England’s Joe Lloyd — winner of the 1897 U.S. Open at the Chicago Golf Club — was Pau’s first head pro. (Or, as they say in France, le premier professeur de golf.) Lloyd also spent many summers pro-ing at the beautiful Essex Country Club in Manchester, Mass., where he was succeeded by Donald Ross, creator of Oak Hill (No. 8), Seminole (No. 14) and Pine Needles (No. 30).

Essex, one of many New England clubs yearning to break into the Top 50, will host the 2010 Curtis Cup.

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