Tag Archives: Donald Ross

Top 50 Has Stones to Challenge Malcolm Gladwell on Rankings

It’s been a while since we answered anonymous voice-mail questions, so here goes.

When can we expect your Top 50 list of Russian courses?

How about when Russia has fifty courses? Or forty. Or thirty. Or ten.

Sorry, I meant China.

The Chinese Top 50 was ready for posting in January, but the staff here at Catch Basin put it on hold pending investigation of our Yunnan Province course-rating team. The Yunnan division raised eyebrows when it touted a new 54-hole country club outside Kunming, the provincial capital. Three courses, allegedly designed by Schmidt-Curley Design of Scottsdale, Az., were supposedly threaded through a primordial landscape of karst peaks, pines and lakes. Playing as long as 7,565 yards, the Leaders Peak course was reported to have no bunkers (implausible) and an island green surrounded by rock instead of water (an impossibility). One of the architects was quoted as saying, “We wanted the stone to be the show.”

12th Hole at Stone Forest, China

Stone Forest: China's answer to Rocky Road ice cream?

Unfortunately, that quote was translated into Mandarin and back into English, so it came to us as “We got stoned at a show.” Horrified, we promptly fired our Yunnan course raters and hired a second-rater from Hong Kong, who now informs us that the original report was accurate in its particulars, if sloppy in its expression. The new golf complex, Stone Forest International Country Club, recently opened for play, and it does, indeed, provide a rocky experience for golfers of all abilities — all within a stone’s throw of Kunming, a city of nearly 6 million at the northern edge of Dian Lake.

Anyway, we’re ready to release our Chinese Top 50 — once our second-rater decides which of the three Stone Forest courses is the best.

Malcolm Gladwell, in a recent New Yorker, makes a devastating critique of U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Colleges” guide and, by extension, all service-journalism rankings. Do you think your pseudo-scientific golf course list is any better than the Consumer Reports and Car and Driver ratings that he demolishes?

Funny you should ask. I, myself, have debunked all three of those sloppy, self-serving lists, and I did so when Gladwell, as a barefoot boy in Hampshire, was still learning to use a curling iron. Three decades ago, for instance, I blew gaping holes in a “Most Livable Cities” survey that had Honolulu ranked 47th among American metropolises, 27 rungs lower than [drum roll} … Warren, Ohio! To correct their error, I recommended that they simply add the category, “Public and Private Garage and Parking Lot Landscaping.” I assume they took my advice, because the following year’s rankings had Honolulu somewhere in the top ten, while Warren was no longer recognized as an American city.

But to answer your question, my Top 50 has nothing in common with the flawed surveys in Gladwell’s article. That’s because it is unassailably “my” Top 50 — not yours, not GOLF Magazine’s and certainly not Gladwell’s.

I hear that Pinehurst No. 2 is reopening after a renovation by the Crenshaw-Coore design team. Will their changes boost the greatest of all Donald Ross courses into the Top 50?

I thought No. 2 was in my Top 50, but the boys in the computer room tell me that it dropped to 111th when I penalized it 400 points for having mats on the driving range. (Sorry, Pinehurst.) I’m a big fan of Crenshaw-Coore’s work, so I wouldn’t be surprised if No. 2 moves up dramatically before it hosts the 2014 men’s and women’s U.S. Opens. I definitely like the natural “dunes look” of the rebuilt bunkers. I just wish they had thrown in a few of Ross’s old “chocolate drop” mounds; that was a swell way of concealing construction debris without having to pay someone to truck it off to the dump.

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but SI.com features a “Behind the Mic” video of Sir Nick Faldo forecasting this year’s Masters, “where the real drama starts.” Faldo correctly points out that intermediate and short-iron play will be the key to winning at Augusta National, along with putting (‘blistering-quick greens”) and driving (“very important”). Rut-iron play, in other words, will not be a factor.

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Oops! Swope In, Brookline Out

No one has found fault, so far, with our recently-updated Top 50. The only quibbles come from the tree-hugging community — effectively dismissed in my last posting — and from an anonymous correspondent who claims he has trouble distinguishing between the late Robert Trent Jones (designer of Valderrama, No. 17, and renovator of Kansas City C.C., No. 50) and his son, Robert Trent Jones Jr. (Poipu Bay, No. 15). Which brings to mind the Joan Rivers acquaintance who didn’t understand the concept of Roman numerals. (“She thought we just fought World War Eleven.”)

Perfect, however, is something we have never claimed to be. Decimal points can be misplaced. Fours can fail to be carried. Checks can — and do — get lost in the mail.* That’s why we constantly re-examine our data, looking for niggling errors, and why we subscribe to a sophisticated “spell-checking program” that makes us look up words that it doesn’t recognize. (See “Valderrama.”) It is Top 50 policy to correct even minor mistakes, there being no better way to preserve confidence in the published ranking.

*Sometimes twice in a row, against all odds.

In that spirit, we submit this clarification of the most recent ranking: No. 45 is Swope Memorial Golf Course, Kansas City, Mo. — not The Country Club of Brookline, Mass., as originally announced.

The elevation of Swope Memorial marks the first time that two A. W. Tillinghast courses from Kansas City have achieved simultaneous rankings. Elegant Kansas City Country Club, the third-oldest country club west of the Mississippi and home course of five-time British Open champion Tom Watson, is better known than its crosstown cousin, but both tracks have pedigrees. KCCC has hosted numerous state, regional and national tournaments, including the inaugural Trans-Mississippi Amateur (1901), won by John Stuart. Hilly Swope Memorial, a municipal course, hosted the 2005 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship and was the PGA’s venue for the 1949 Kansas City Open, won by Jim Ferrier.

The adjustment leaves the highly-regarded Country Club, currently ranked 18th in the U.S. by an anonymous Golf Digest panel, with no ranking at all. To mollify its New England supporters, who relentlessly lobby the Top 50 on behalf of their allegedly underrated courses, we have temporarily moved the Donald Ross-designed 9-hole Tatnuck Country Club course of Worcester, Mass., to No. 68, three rungs above its previous station

We regret, but don’t admit to, the error.


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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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