Tag Archives: Furnace Creek

Ross Course Captures World’s Attention

“What’s the hottest course on your list?” asks a reader from Oatmeal, Texas. The answer, I discovered after tapping a few keys on my Bomar Brain, is Furnace Creek Golf Club of Death Valley, Calif., where summer temperatures top out at around 130 degrees with overnight lows of 100. That’s one reason why Furnace Creek has never cracked my Top 50.

Hillcrest's 2nd hole

Hillcrest’s No. 2 is sometimes mistaken for Pinehurst No. 2, but there is a significant difference in elevation. (John Garrity)

“Let’s face it,” writes the author of the 1994 best-seller, America’s Worst Golf Courses, “on any list of potential golf course sites, Death Valley — at 214 feet below sea level — has to be near the bottom.”

Ask any blade of grass. Summer soil temperatures at Furnace Creek reach 200 degrees: good for baking brownies, but not much help to turfgrass. Perversely, winter temperatures in Death Valley dip well below freezing, nudging the Bermuda grass greens and fairways into dormancy. Rainfall? Less than two inches a year. In these conditions, even sand traps don’t survive. The local sand is so high in mineral content that it hardens like concrete when wet; imported sand blows away in the Valley’s furious windstorms. Consequently, all the bunkers on this desert course are grass.

Furnace Creek’s course rating, according to AWGC, is 67.4. Its USGA Slope? “Pretty much uphill in every direction.” “– And by ‘hottest,’” my desert correspondent continues, “I mean ‘trending’ — as in Billboard’s ‘with a bullet’ designation for songs moving fast up the charts.” This is an example of a reader wasting the Top 50’s time. Was I supposed to read the entire email before answering the question? That’s like asking the dock hand if you can jump the narrow gap to the ferry as it’s pulling away, adding that while you look out of shape now, you were a high-school hurdler and occasional ballroom dancer, and even now you can probably …. oops, too late. But we are here to serve, so I’ll answer the question. The Top 50’s trendiest course is Hillcrest Golf & Country Club of Kansas City, Mo. In the past couple of months, Hillcrest — a 1916 Donald Ross design — has catapulted from 42nd to 30th in the ranking, pushing it past better-known Ross masterpieces such as  Mid-Pines Inn & Golf Club (No. 32), Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club (No. 42), and 51st-ranked Pinehurst No. 2, site of the upcoming men’s and women’s U.S. Opens. The Top 50 isn’t alone in singing Hillcrest’s praises. Last week, Sports Illustrated devoted four pages and the talents of esteemed golf photographer Kohjiro Kinno to a Hillcrest feature titled BACK ON COURSE. (“Once given up for dead,” reads the subhead, “a challenging Donald Ross layout in the heartland is thriving again.”) SI singles out Hillcrest’s “infamous 1st hole, a 243-yard par-3 that Ray Floyd once called the toughest opening hole that he had ever played.” Also mentioned: the fact that Arnold Palmer once went around Hillcrest in 83.* “Every so often,” SI’s man writes, “I am reminded that Ross courses are widely revered …”

They’re not all masterpieces, and some of them have had mustaches painted on them by posterity, but playing one of the 399 courses attributed to Ross is like fingerpicking a vintage Martin guitar. Something of the designer is inevitably expressed, something sings … and you don’t need a lot of talent to appreciate the craftsmanship.

How true! On the strength of that paragraph alone, I and the entire Top 50 staff promptly signed up to receive the new SI Golf+ Digital e-magazine, which is free to humans and delivered weekly via email, app or Golf.com. *Full disclosure: I wrote the story.

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but the above-mentioned Pinehurst No. 2 will hog our screens for the next fortnight. No. 2, too, has gotten the attention of various Sports Illustrated platforms. You can start with photographer Bob McNeely’s black-and-white renderings of the Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw course tweaks in the SI Golf+ U.S. Open Preview. I also recommend the June issue of GOLF Magazine, specifically the comprehensive U.S. Open preview section (“Why Pinehurst Will Be the Toughest Venue Yet”), which includes a clever send-up of Phil Mickelson tournament coverage (“Tomorrow’s News … Today!”)** You’ll split your sides with laughter. **I wrote it.

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Explaining the Top 50 Algorithm

The head pro at one of my top-rated courses has a question about the Top 50 system. “Why,” he asks, “does a course rated lower than ours sometimes get a higher score?”

The question makes me smile.

Like the Spinal Tap guitarist, the club pro equates big numbers with superiority. Eleven is better than 10, 10 is better than 9, etc. He is puzzled, therefore, when the Top 50 gives fifth-ranked Prairie Dunes a score of 9.71, while 29th-ranked Royal Melbourne swaggers off at 11.20.

Askernish Old Golf Course

The unforgettable 14th or 15th green at Askernish Old. (Kieran Dodds)

The answer, as I explained in a Top 50 column back in 2007, is that 11 is not better than 10 — not when 10 is “perfect.” The Cal Sci algorithm I use to produce the Top 50 assumes that input data can be scored either in a linear fashion (picture a football field with the number 10 where the 50-yard line would normally be) or concentrically in two dimensions (the best example being the small-to-large circles used for frog-jumping contests). The Carnoustie Golf Links, for example, had too much rough when the British Open was played there in 1999 — scores soared and a Frenchman almost won — but not enough rough in 2007, as evidenced by the fact that 22 players shot par or better for 72 holes. The two extremes canceled each other out, and Carnoustie stayed put in the ranking at No. 66.

A course’s “score,” as I told the unhappy pro, is the product of dozens of mirrored attributes, some of which can only be expressed in computer language or Cockney rhyming slang. That’s why Furnace Creek Golf Course of Death Valley, Calif., with a seasonally-adjusted score of 18.77, simmers outside the Top 5,000. (No course with a sun-bleached-skeleton logo has ever scored above 8.0 or below 12.0 in the Top 50.) The data for top-ranked Askernish Old, on the other hand, boils down to a tasty 10.19 — a number that is the qualitative equal of a 9.81.

Ft. Meade (FL) Golf Course

The Ft. Meade (FL) City Mobile Home Park Golf Course -- "the worst of the worst" according to former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. (John Garrity)

If this explanation is a bit over your head, take a look at the attached photographs. First you have the fourteenth or fifteenth green at Askernish Old, which is about as close to a “Perfect 10” as you can get … and then you have the clubhouse and second green of the Ft. Meade City Mobile Home Park Golf Course of Ft. Meade, FL, our perennial lowest-rated course. I should add that every whole number, whether plus or minus, follows the Richter Scale model of base-10 magnitude metering, so that a golf course scoring 9.0 or 11.0 is actually ten times worse than a 10.0, a 12.0 is ten times worse than an 11.0, and so on.

Ft. Meade, if you’re curious, scored a 19.68 on my last visit. And that’s after the partial eradication of fire-ant colonies and a rolling of the clay greens.

Top 50 on TV: No. 4, Pebble Beach Golf Links, is one of three courses hosting this week’s AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. Pebble Beach will be seen again in June, when the U. S. Open makes its once-a-decade appearance on the picturesque Monterey Peninsula. (Tiger Woods, who won the Open by 15 strokes in 2000, may or may not play. A source close to Woods asked not to be quoted, adding, “I just asked you NOT to quote me!”) Widely praised for their strategic design and beautiful scenery, the Monterey courses nonetheless have their critics. “If you moved Pebble Beach fifty miles inland,” Jimmy Demaret smartly observed, “no one would have heard of it.”


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