Tag Archives: Gary Van Sickle

Doomed Ohio Course Cracks Top 50

“Minerva Lake at No. 50? What am I missing?”

The reader who asked those questions could have been speaking for me. Minerva Lake Golf Club, a 5,497-yard, par-69 Harold Pollock-designed track in Columbus, Ohio, broke into the Top 50 seven weeks ago, replacing Trump Doonbeg of County Clare, Ireland. I had never heard of Minerva Lake, much less played it, so I called Professor Charles Eppes at the California Institute of Science. “Yo, Eppes,” I said, “what’s the scoop on this Minerva track?”

Van Sickle Minerva 18th

Gary Van Sickle attacks the par-3 18th at Minerva Lake Golf Club. (John Garrity)

Predictably, he rattled off a string of data points and then went off on a tangent about polynomials and “asymptote,” whatever that is. (Charlie is not a golfer, and, quite frankly, his Top 50 algorithm flies a foot or two over my head.) Winding up, he said, “You’re the golf guy. Go play it and find out for yourself.”

That made sense, so this morning I played hooky from the Memorial Tournament (at 58th-ranked Muirfield Village Golf Club, Dublin, Ohio) and played a quick and pleasurable 18 at Minerva Lakes. My playing companions were Wei Over Par columnist and blogger Stephanie Wei and Sports Illustrated senior writer Gary Van Sickle.

Minerva Lake 18th

The par-3 18th at Minerva Lakes. (John Garrity)

I should say at the outset that I am a very demanding critic of golf grounds. In past columns I have found fault with Pine Valley (“Too sandy”), Furnace Creek (“Too hot”) and Ft. Meade City Mobile Home Park Golf Course (“Too awful for words”). But I found Minerva Lakes to be better than its surprisingly high rating. Arboreally blessed and criss-crossed with not-too-penal creeks, the property takes full advantage of ravines, ridges and other natural features. Van Sickle, America’s most-decorated course rater and a former Top-50 staffer, found just the right words when he described Minerva Lakes as “not the goat ranch I was expecting. It’s a classic course that will make you think of A.W. Tillinghast or C.B. MacDonald. Short, but fun from start to finish. Terrific par 3s, too.” Wei was equally impressed, stopping from time to time to Snapchat with her social-media followers.

So it pains me to report that Minerva Lake, which opened at 35 cents per round in 1931, will soon close for good, a victim of encroaching development. Three of the original holes were lopped off decades ago, and now the land is worth more as — well, as anything.

Never mind that a teenage Jack Nicklaus shot a course-record 65 in 1957.

And never mind that the property was once part of Minerva Park, a turn-of-a-different-century amusement park. “The 1897 casino could seat 2,500 people, drew some of the best-known acts of the day, and housed an orchestrion that cost a third as much as the building itself,” wrote Jeffrey J. Knowles in a 2005 history of the course. “There was also a zoo, dance hall, ball diamond, bowling lanes, bandstand, picnic areas, boat docks, museum, steam-driven carousel, wishing well and the Shoot the Chutes water ride.”

Minerva Lakes

Gary Van Sickle and Stephanie Wei gave Minerva Lake several thumbs up. (John Garrity)

Sounds quaint — but no more quaint, apparently, than a 5,500-yard parkland course in an age of 350-yard drives and 75,000-square-foot clubhouses. “I almost wish I hadn’t played it,” I told professor Eppes in a follow-up call. “Yesterday, Minerva Lake meant nothing to me, but now I’m going to miss it.”

“Interesting,” he said. “I may have to adjust the algorithm.”

You, on the other hand, may have to adjust your travel plans to play this sweet little course before it closes. Green fees range from $13 (weekday senior) to $20 (holidays/weekends) with tee times taken seven days in advance. But pay heed to the terse message on the club’s web site: “Minerva Lake will be open through Monday, July 4 2016. After that date, the course will be closed permanently.”

So sad. Minerva Lake remains at No. 50 and will — by executive order — retain that position for the remainder of its existence.

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Monkeying with the Top 50 Algorithm

A reader from Pine Valley, N.J., asks how much of a course’s rating is based upon conditioning. “You’ve got Augusta National at No. 6 and Prairie Dunes at No. 4,” she writes, “and those courses are immaculately groomed. But you’ve got a bunch of links courses on your list that are downright shaggy and have greens rolling at 5 on the stimpmeter. Can you explain?”

The Country Club

When mowed, The Country Club cracks the Top 5 (John Garrity)

I can. The Top 50 algorithm — perfected more than a decade ago by a CalSci team under the direction of applied mathematics professor Charles Edward Eppes — awards plus-or-minus points for dozens of pertinent variables, e.g., average green size, proximity of sand bunkers to overhanging tree limbs, horsepower of beverage carts, horsepower of beverage-cart girls, etc. But no points are awarded for conditioning.

That’s what makes the Top 50 great. Other ratings systems award top-100 status to glorified turf farms that spend hundreds of dollars per year on fertilizer, pesticides and sprinkler systems. These well-known courses subscribe to the Hey-you-kids-get-off-my-lawn theory of greenkeeping, which elevates agronomy above price, playability and scenery — or, as I call them, “The Big 3.”

Trouble is, conditioning is not only superficial; it’s temporary. Augusta National looked great in April, when it was on TV, but how does it look now, in August? Ditto for the Ft. Meade City Mobile Home Park Golf Course in Ft. Meade, Fla. Ft. Meade’s packed-clay greens are perfectly round in January, at the peak of the tourist season, but by June its greens — if that’s the word — have rough edges, and its fairways — if that’s the word — are covered with fire-ant hills. But those are merely cosmetic changes, and it would be unjust to demote either course because of its appearance.

Just for fun, though, I asked the CalSci team to crank out some ratings with turf quality added to the mix. Guess what? It totally scrambles the results.

  1. Augusta National Golf Club, Augusta, Ga. (Alister Mackenzie, Bobby Jones), 10.25
  2. Muirfield Village Golf Club, Dublin, Ohio (Jack Nicklaus, Desmond Muirhead), 10.27
  3. Sunset Hills Golf Course and Driving Range, Sheboygan Falls, Wisc. (Ed Kirchenwitz) 9.75
  4. Kansas City Country Club, Kansas City, Mo. (A.W. Tillinghast, Robert Trent Jones) 9.72
  5. The Country Club, Brookline, Mass. (Willie Campbell, Rees Jones) 10.31

The fastidious National, at No. 1, is no surprise. Neither is No. 2 Muirfield Village, where the turf is so carpet-like that Dan Jenkins, covering the 1977 Memorial Tournament, wrote that spectators “would sooner have dropped cigarettes on their babies’ tummies” than flick a butt onto the fairway.

Sunset Hills, at No. 3, is the shocker — but only if you’re a stranger to southeastern Wisconsin. Situated a few miles from No. 72 Whistling Straits Golf Club, Sunset Hills is a nine-hole par-3 course serving the heavily-traveled Highway 23 corridor connecting Sheboygan with Greater Fond du Lac/Oshkosh. Its designer, Ed Kirchenwitz, was superintendent at Whistling Straits and Blackwolf Run before working his magic on the Sheboygan River flood plain.

Yes, magic. You know it’s magic the instant you step onto Sunset Hills’ first tee, which is as posh as a lawn bowls green and roughly the size of Delaware. The fairways and greens follow suit, punctuated by exotic trees, sensational shrubbery, and a meandering river. And that’s not even counting Sunset Hills’ spacious and densely-turfed practice range, which has the added merit of facing away from the titular sunset, rendering balls visible against the evening sky.

Sports Illustrated’s Gary Van Sickle, who played Sunset Hills on Wednesday evening, said, “When you walk onto a par-3 course between the corn fields, you have low expectations. You aren’t expecting Whistling Straits-type turf.” Neither are you expecting a ten-dollar weekend green fee and a cart fee of five bucks per person — or, as I call them, “The Big 2.”

Anyway, that’s how the rankings look when you give points for checkerboard mowing patterns and topiary. Next time we’ll see how things shake out when I juice the algorithm with parking lot quality.

Top 50 on TV: The PGA Championship has returned to the above-mentioned Whistling Straits, a clifftop design by the legendary duo of Pete and Alice Dye. Renowned for its thousand-plus bunkers and slippery dune grasses, the Straits is scheduled to host the 2020 Ryder Cup “subject to sufficient guaranteed quality hotel rooms.” (Written from the Oshkosh Fairfield Inn & Suites, which provides free fresh-baked cookies on a daily basis.)

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What KC Has that Pinehurst Hasn’t

KANSAS CITY, MO. — Not much going on here at Top 50 headquarters. The leaves have turned russet and gold and have, in some cases, fallen. Folks are stockpiling their Halloween candy. I’ve noticed an odd trend towards blue outer garments, and there’s been a surge of absenteeism, but I haven’t been able to get an explanation from our staff futurists, who were last seen going out the door in their blue outer garments.

Hillcrest No. 2

The second at Hillcrest: Where have all the blue-clad golfers gone? (John Garrity)

I’m reminded of the question that Top 50 employees get all the time: “Why are you in Kansas City?” My first impulse is to roll my eyes skyward and deliver that little mini-shrug that says “Duh.” We rank golf courses! And Kansas City, if you haven’t noticed, is pretty much Ground Zero for great golf. I live within a few hours drive of 4th-ranked Prairie Dunes of Hutchinson, Ks.; alternate-4th-ranked Sand Hills of Mullen, Neb.; 51st-ranked Southern Hills of Tulsa, Ok.; 57th-ranked Bellerive of St. Louis, Mo.; and 61st-ranked Flint Hills National of Andover, Ks..

That’s if I feel like driving. Here in the metro area we’ve got a Donald Ross masterpiece (30th-ranked Hillcrest), an A.W. Tillinghast charmer (51st-ranked Swope Memorial), another Fazio phantasm (43rd-ranked Hallbrook), a Tom Watson standout (71st-ranked The National), a Harry Robb classic (74th-ranked Milburn) and Watson’s home course (the venerable and 51st-ranked KCCC). Which invites the question: Where else would a golf non-profit want to sink its roots? Scotland? Ireland? The Monterey Peninsula?

Then there’s the matter of weather. In my book, Ancestral Links, I asserted that Western Ireland has the best weather in the world — immediately adding, “Not everyone will agree.”

Some will point to afternoon temperatures that rarely top 65 degrees Fahrenheit and damp cloudy days that succeed one another like wet clothes on a line. Others will grouse about the winter storms with their hurricane-force winds and rampaging tides. CBS golf commentator and author David Feherty — a Northern Irishman living in Texas — e-mailed me that I was “daft” for vacationing in Mayo “at this time of year” — i.e., summer.

But when I say that Western Ireland has the best weather, I mean golf weather. There are destinations that are sunnier (Hawaii), drier (Dubai), warmer (Arizona), cooler (Sweden) or less windy (Zimbabwe?), but those same destinations are often too soggy, too hot, too cold, or too perilous for golf. Tulsa, for example, suffers from both thunderstorms and ice storms, either of which makes Southern Hills unplayable. The Mullet, by way of contrast, rarely thrills to the peal of thunder. Carne’s fairways and greens remain firm and puddle-free in the heaviest of rains.

I’m not backing off that assessment; Ireland does have the best golf weather. But Kansas City has the kind of weather that corporate CEOs look for when they’re shafting one community to to extort tax breaks from another. There’s even a metric for it — a sliding scale of “decent golf weather” — that can be used to predict absenteeism, workplace inefficiency and unbridled unionism. Kansas City, which is either frozen solid or hotter than Hades for months on end, is extremely attractive to employers.

But really, it’s the intangibles that make my home town so special. There’s an ineffable aura about KC, once you escape the gloomy and claustrophobic confines of our outdated air terminals, that makes you want to come back again and again. Norman Rockwell captured it in a painting he called “The Kansas City Spirit.” Hallmark Cards founder Joyce Hall expressed it as “the good in men’s hearts that makes them put service above self and accomplish the impossible.” I call it “the Kansas City Way” and pay my earnings taxes with a smile.

Still, I wish somebody would tell me why everybody’s wearing blue.

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but we’re driving out to Hutchinson tomorrow for a look at 4th-ranked Prairie Dunes. Meanwhile, we’d like to recognize the playing achievements of our course-rating director, Gary Van Sickle, who came “very … close … to [winning]” the U.S. Senior Amateur Championship at Newport Beach, Calif.; his son, Mike Van Sickle, who was co-medalist at the first stage of Q-School in Nebraska City, Neb.; and Top 50 founder and CEO John Garrity, who, along with scramble partner Vince Schiavone, took top honors at the Humane Society of Kansas City Golf Classic, and, along with Atlantic States Ratings Coordinator Dave Henson, won his flight in the Palmetto Hall Plantation Member-Guest.

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Masters Icon Gets Top-50 Treatment

AUGUSTA, GA. — This week’s post may be too technical for some readers, but we are the most scientific course ranking, so there. And while it’s common knowledge that we employ advanced metrics, a Cal Sci algorithm and the mega-computing powers of the Bomar Brain, it’s less well known that we yoke our inputs to to various independent and proprietary data bases, not limiting ourselves to authorized sources. This week, for example, our Kansas City headquarters has a real-time link to the trove of Masters statistics generated by the Augusta National Golf Club.

Augusta National's 16th

The 16th green of Augusta National with the late, lamented Eisenhower Tree barely visible at far left. (John Garrity)

Some of this data is too arcane to be of much use — cumulative ATM fees! — but much of it is germane. A few weeks ago, our Catch Basin second-raters* were about to penalize Augusta National a tenth of a point for the ice-storm death of its so-called Eisenhower Tree. “That tree was one of the game’s most-recognized icons,” said the guy in a white lab coat whose name I can never remember. “It dictated how the 17th was played. Imagine the Road Hole without the Road Hole Bunker, or the Valley of Sin without legalized prostitution.”

*”Second-raters” is not meant to be pejorative. Our field evaluators are called “first-raters” because they collect their data on course visits. 

Fortunately, a cooler head prevailed. “Speed is important,” I told my basement staff, “but nobody of importance will play Augusta National between now and the Masters. Why don’t we just wait until the tournament starts and then adjust our ranking with the aid of fresh statistics — which is, after all, what we do.”

My words made a strong impression on the paid employees, particularly the ones with children and mortgages. Anyway, Augusta National began today, April 11, in sixth place, the same position it held when branches started breaking. I, meanwhile, have set up a command center in Row F of the Masters press building, right next to Gary Van Sickle, the Top 50’s v.p. and executive course rater.

Here’s the Masters stat we’re keeping our eyes on: scoring average by hole. Between 1942 and 2013, the 17th, “Nandina,” was the tournament’s tenth most difficult hole, yielding an average of 4.15 strokes per player per round. It played easiest (3.9485) in 1996, due to the premier of Howard Stern’s radio show in Texas, and most difficult (4.3480) in 1951, following the spying convictions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Last year, No. 17 was, predictably, the tenth most difficult hole at 4.22.

But now we’re watching as post-Eisenhower-Tree data streams in. As of 4:51 p.m. EDT, No. 17 ranks eleventh in difficulty with an average of 4.172 pppr. In language the layman will understand, this means that the 17th has dropped a full 1.0 in seasonally-adjusted difficulty, relative to the other 17 holes. Put another way, it means the hole is easier than before.

Easier is better than harder — ask any weekend golfer — so I have directed the Catch Basin staff to credit Augusta National with a “fun credit” of .05 points. This will not affect its current ranking, but we’ll be monitoring the National’s metrics all week and making adjustments as necessary.

(Thanks to SI senior writer Alan Shipnuck for his helpful advice about carrying numbers. We’ll look into it.)

Top 50 on TV: The Masters, as usual, is being played at sixth-ranked Augusta National Golf Club. It’s a little-known fact that when the first Masters was played, in 1934, the club was too poor to pay Horton Smith his victor’s prize. Instead, they offered him a friends-and-family discount on future rounds of golf, which he foolishly declined.

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Shoulder Pain Benches Top 50 CEO

“There are many rumors circulating on the internet regarding your shoulder injury,” writes a Top 50 fan from Sequoia Heights, Fla. “The silliest so far blames frozen golf balls, but Drudge is peddling some conspiracy theory going back to your college-radical days at Stanford. I’m guessing you’re keeping mum on purpose, to drum up more publicity. Am I right?”

John Garrity

Top 50 Founder and CEO John Garrity (right) at Madrid Central Station before his injury. (Photo by Edoardo Molinari)

Van — may I call you Van? — you couldn’t be more right. When I saw how much attention Tiger Woods gets for his career-threatening injuries, I decided to milk my recently-torn labrum for all it’s worth. Here’s how it works: Whenever a fellow journalist asks me why my right arm is dangling like an adventitious prop root, I smile enigmatically and walk away. This has gotten me front-page coverage in more than a hundred newspapers and three different citations on Bill Maher’s HBO program.

Frankly, it’s too easy — which is why I’m calling an end to it right now. Here’s the complete story, as revealed in my exclusive interview with Sports Illustrated senior writer Gary Van Sickle:

Q: Do you, in fact, have an injured shoulder?

A: Yes.

Q: Which shoulder?

A: I … [unintelligible] … agreement that we wouldn’t talk about that. You [redacted] only when ….

Q: How did you hurt it?

A: Actually, that’s kind of a funny story. In February, we had a brief thaw in Kansas City, so I went out to play a few holes at [42nd-ranked] Hillcrest. It was a breezy day, temperature in the fifties, the sun popped out now and again. However — and this makes me laugh ‘til my arm hurts — I didn’t consider the fact that my bag, and the golf balls in it, had been stored in an unheated garage at Catch Basin.But I noticed that none of my shots were flying more than a few feet off the ground — even the wedges! Naturally, I tried to hit them harder, but I got the same results. It wasn’t until I plopped three balls onto the iced-over pond on No. 14 that it hit me: I was playing with frozen golf balls! Hilarious, right? The next morning, of course, I woke up to the sensation of my shoulder caught in a bear trap.

Q: Your right shoulder?

A: Listen, if you’re going to [redacted] this bull—- [unintelligible] ….

Q: Fine. I’m out of here.

A: [Unintelligible] Right shoulder, yeah.

Q: What are you doing in the way of rehab?

A: I’m working with a trainer/therapist at my local 24 Hour Fitness. Most of the exercises involve gentle stretching to the sound of snapping ligaments and ripping muscle fibers.

Q: Is this your first shoulder injury?

A: No. Ten or fifteen years ago I shredded my left rotator cuff in a putting accident.

Q: A what?

A: I was playing [51st-ranked] Haig Point with some SI colleagues. What happened was, my cart was parked just off the green, so I was pulling my putter out of the bag while starting to walk toward my ball. Unfortunately, the putter grip got caught between some other shafts and didn’t clear the top of the bag. I called attention to it by screaming and falling to the ground.

Q: Did you finish the hole?

A: I think I’ve said enough on this subject.

Q: What impact will your injury have on Top 50 operations? Will course rating continue?

A: Of course not. You and the rest of the staff are furloughed until further notice.

Q: Well, [redacted] you. [unintelligible] …

A: My pleasure, Gary.

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but the Arnold Palmer Invitational Starring Adam Scott is being played at 51st-ranked Bay Hill Club and Lodge in Bay Hill, Fla. Tiger Woods withdrew early in the week, sidelined by persistent back pain, and former Masters champ Bubba Watson withdrew after a first-round 83, citing allergies.

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Top 50 Veep Tours Fiesta Lakes

To our readers: Immediately upon hearing that Gary Van Sickle had taken a coveted first prize in the Golf Writers Association of America’s annual writing contest, our founder and CEO stormed out of Catch Basin, leaving this note on his office door: “Mr. Hot-Shot Golf Writer can handle the posts until further notice.” Here, then, is a recent course evaluation from the Top 50’s popular executive vice-president and chief course rater:

Fiesta Lakes Scorecard

FLGC’s scorecard was worth .045 Top-50 points. (Gary Van Sickle)

Mesa, Ariz.—You can tell a great golf course by its scorecard. Fiftieth-ranked Fiesta Lakes Golf Club’s card is on pale blue, non-glossy, sturdy paper with black ink. It’s a 3-by-4 card, probably because 3-by-5 would be a cliché.

All nine holes are listed with yardage and par, totaling a massive 1,533 yards and par 29. There are lined blanks for four players’ scores, in case you have any friends (though I kind of doubt it). There, beneath the last line, is what makes FLGC (as insiders at the adjacent Mesa Hilton know it) a must-stop. Three helpful tips: Tee off between markers. Let faster players pass. Replace divots.

Thanks to the card’s message, I avoided the common first-tee mistake of teeing off outside the markers, in front of the markers or, even worse, diagonal to the markers. Also, I walked up to the tee past a lone gazebo—the course’s signature hole, except for the fact that it’s just a gazebo, not a hole. I was a single, having just signed in at the fabulous clubhouse… trailer… shack. A gentleman and his young son were lollygagging on the first tee, looking like total beginners. Maybe they weren’t, though, or maybe they read the scorecard because they invited me to play through on the opening tee ball.

I’m pretty sure they were impressed when I teed off between the markers, depositing a 9-iron shot just off the right fringe on a monstrous 130-yard hole that was mostly wide open. It could be that getting the ball airborne was what impressed them because as I watched them from the second tee, after two-putting for an easy par, airborne shots weren’t really their strong suits. But I was glad they were there. This is what golf is all about, bringing your kid to a course and introducing him or her to the game. No better place for that than an easy par-3 track.

The second hole cleverly went back by the first tee, but a devilish pin position on the kitchen-table-sized green cost me a bogey. The third hole, also in keeping with the ingenious back-and-forth routing, was the strongest thus far, 168 yards, kind of downhill and guarded by some trees on the right. Fiesta Lakes is all grass and trees, a nice shady respite from the typical Phoenix-area desert golf. I holed a nice par-saving eight-foot putt while a waiting threesome watched from the fourth tee.

Probably impressed by my repeated airborne shots, they, too, waved me through. It was three college-aged players, two guys and a girl. Those scorecard instructions really work! Four holes on a par 3 course, and I’ve already played through two groups. Veteran golfers at real clubs aren’t this agreeable. I bumped a 4-iron down the right side of the fairway, since this was a 274-yard par 4, dogleg right, and without a rangefinder a large pond beyond the fairway’s bend looked like it might be in play. A wedge and two putts and I was off to the fifth.

The blue card said 155, but it didn’t appear that long, and apparently wasn’t because my choked-down 8-iron flew the green, hit some firm ground and bounded up onto the next tee box beneath some towering trees. A stupid-lucky bump-and-run chip led to an undeserved par.

The fourth through seventh holes play counterclockwise around the lake. The eighth, like the arm on the letter G played back toward it and is the most dangerous on the course for those of us who play the game from the air. I’m sure that fifth hole, with its forced carry over the lake, claims a lot of victims. A tee shot just right of the green looked usable. Upon arrival, no ball. The ground was firm and (a first time Fiesta Lakester learned) the water sneaked in around the green’s right side. My ball wasn’t on the fringe, it was under water. Well, at least I’d had the good sense to tee off between the markers. So call me crazy. That was a bogey.

The eighth hole was a secretive little bitch, but the ninth, ah, now here was a signature hole (unlike the gazebo) that actually came with a hole included. The card said it was 255 yards, par 4. Drivable? Yes, especially if you’ve got the red-ass after hitting the fringe and finding the lake on the previous hole. The problem was, it was a dogleg right, toward the clubhouse, and several huge trees on the dogleg corner blocked the angle of attack.

Well, I wasn’t going to let a little thing like common sense keep me from my only chance to hit driver at Fiesta Lakes. I had to tee up near the left tee marker (still between them, being the rules-stickler that I am) and stand off to the side of the tee box, lower than the ball, to have a go. This is not conducive to hitting the fade I need. Neither is my swing. I see draws and hit draws. My fade usually turns out to be a straight ball, if I’m lucky. No matter the odds, though, I wait for another threesome I’ve caught to clear the green, which I can barely make out behind the trees. I’ve got the ball teed up as high as I dare and I make sure to feel like I’m swinging up at it and—whack. The ball barely clears the big trees and looks to be on a pretty good line. That’s all I can see. I hit another one, just for practice and to increase the value I got for my $14 greens fee. This one fades (that’s the polite word for it) and sails over the eighth tee, across the seventh fairway and ends up near the fence that guards the FLGC practice range (and I use that term loosely).

My first ball is 12 feet from the hole. I play the second one, too, because it’s dead, blocked by some smaller trees. I chip a 7-iron low and hard, it bounces left and finds a gap in the trees, runs up the bank and onto the green… to a foot. It’s a ludicrous birdie. The eagle putt breaks sharply at the cup and lips out. It’s a well-earned birdie.

As I head to the parking lot, one of the guys from the group ahead asks, “Did you drive that last green?” I confess that I did. “From the tee?” he wonders. Right between the markers, I said. “Well, I couldn’t believe how soft it landed,” he said. “We didn’t know where it came from.”

I told him I was glad to have a witness for my shot of the day. But where did it come from? From between the markers, man. It says so right on the scorecard. [GVS]

John Garrity with Challenger

Top 50 CEO John Garrity poses beside his Dodge Challenger at Casino Del Sol. (Pat Woodrum)

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but our founder and CEO was spotted on the short-game practice green at the spanking-new Sewailo Golf Club in Tucson, Ariz. He was later seen, with his wife, in the magnificent PY Steakhouse at the adjoining Casino Del Sol Resort. Sewailo, if you missed our earlier accounts, was co-designed by four-time tour-winner Notah Begay and is the new home course for the University of Arizona Wildcats. Garrity’s original review describes it as “17 picturesque, challenging, and surprisingly-water-featured desert holes, along with one over-the-top, freaky-hard par 5 (the tenth), where you can make a desert snowman in less time than it takes a roadrunner to race to the airport.” (The tenth, we’re told by Van Sickle, is where our Founder and CEO scored a hard-earned 8.)

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Golf on Hold at Top 50 Headquarters

“What’s your favorite form of holiday precipitation?” asks a reader from Carthage, Mo.

69th Street, KCMO

Weather slows, but never stops, the essential work at Catch Basin. (John Garrity)

Unsure how to reply, I sent the question to the basement data center at Catch Basin, our Kansas City headquarters. Within the hour, the following ranking appeared on my first-generation (camera-less) iPad:

1) Freezing drizzle, freezing rain, freezing fog, surface condensation (tie), 10.31

2) Snow (fresh), 10.46

3) Snow (partially melted — i.e., slush), 9.28

4) Sleet, 9.10

5) Rain, 11.13

6) Hail, 8.19

On reflection, I think this ranking fairly captures my sentiments regarding the wet stuff. I favor “quiet” precipitation, for obvious reasons.*

*As a writer, I do my best work when there are no distractions, and the sound of car tires crunching through curbside slush certainly counts as a distraction. My avocation as a cocktail pianist also suffers from storms, particularly when hail starts clanging off the music-room skylights during one of my nine-hour practice sessions.

To be sure, the silent forms become an annoyance when vehicles start sliding off the frontage road and piling up at the bottom of the berm. But I own a fleet of radio-dispatched tow trucks, so even the “worst” weather has its compensations. (As I write this, a matte-finish glaze is silently accumulating on the surrounding pavements. For a few hours, at least, we needn’t worry about Jehovah’s Witnesses or band-candy grifters.)

Precipitation in any form is currently welcome, as I recently spent eight days in the Arizona desert — an ordeal that left me with cracked and bleeding lips and mismatched hands, one deeply tanned, the other jarringly pale. I will report on this five-course cactus banquet in my next post, which I have scheduled for Christmas Eve (for maximum impact).

Chuck Garbedian

TMGC runner-up Chuck Garbedian chronicles his own greatness on The Gallery’s 51st-ranked North Course, a John Fought/Tom Lehman design. (John Garrity)

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but Chuck Garbedian, the Top 50’s morning-radio coordinator and Wisconsin station chief, scored an impressive second-place at the Tucson Media Golf Classic. Two-time TMC champ and TMC Hall of Famer Gary Van Sickle failed to place this year, but Sports Illustrated’s senior writer got high marks for his on-stage interview with former PGA Tour star and Golf Channel analyst Notah Begay, who was in Tucson for the grand opening of his Sewailo Golf Club, co-designed with Ty Butler. The new track, a desert-golf anomaly with wide fairways and a plethora of water features, debuts at No. 51.

Sewailo Golf Club

The 17th hole at the new Sewailo Golf Club at Tucson’s Casino Del Sol Resort. (John Garrity)

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Van Sickle Ties Swing Guru En Route to Second Shivas Invitational Title

A reader in Texas wants to know if the Top 50 blog has morphed into a stable of tournament golfers. “You hardly ever write up a new golf course or devote more than a few lines to a classic layout,” he writes, “but every time I pick up the paper I read about some Top 50 staffer winning the Masters or something. What are you doing in your underground complex at Catch Basin — cloning tour players?”

Philadelphia Cricket Club

The former U.S. Open venue doubles as an outdoor wedding chapel. (John Garrity)

The reader exaggerates. No one on our payroll has yet managed to win a major, and I can’t think of anyone at our Kansas City headquarters who could beat Tiger Woods straight up. But I can see how a Texan might overestimate our tournament success, given the near-constant media drumbeat for our best players.

Just this past weekend, for instance, career-amateur Gary Van Sickle won the 24th Shivas Invitational on the 50th-ranked St. Martin’s Course at Philadelphia Cricket Club. Van Sickle, our executive vice-president and chief course rater, shot a first-and-final-round 69 on the surviving nine at St. Martin’s, a two-time U.S. Open venue, matching former PGA Tour player and $300-per-hour swing coach Dewey Arnette.* It was Van Sickle’s second Shivas title in as many tries, and it won him another brass plate on the hard-to-ship Shivas Trophy.

*Tournament chairman Michael Bamberger ruled that Arnette was “co-champion” on a technicality — the technicality being that he shot the same score as Van Sickle.

Van Sickle’s latest win (along with my own top-20 finish at the Shivas) caps a string of Top 50 playing triumphs, including a couple of high-dollar victories (West Penn Open, Frank Fuhrer Invitational) and a tournament-best 66 at the New England Open by our social-networking coordinator, Mike Van Sickle, who has already qualified for the second stage of PGA Tour Q-School.

Nevertheless, the Top 50 rates courses, not players. Philly Cricket has two other tracks — the 37th-ranked Wissahickon Course, designed by A.W. Tillinghast (currently being renovated by Keith Foster and Dan Meersman) and the upstart Militia Hill Course, designed by Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry — but it’s the Chestnut Hill track, behind the PCC’s cricket pitch and sprawling red-brick clubhouse, that hosted the 1907 and 1910 Opens, won by Alec Ross and Alex Smith, respectively. (Ross’s brother Donald designed an eye-opening seven courses in the current Top 50, including Royal Dornoch, Seminole and Hillcrest.) And here’s a great bit of trivia from Sal Johnson’s book, The Official U.S. Open Almanac:

Entering the 13th hole of the final round [in 1907], A.W. Tillinghast was the low amateur in the field. At that moment, however, , he was overcome by the heat, forcing him to withdraw …. Tillinghast, of course, went on to become one of America’s finest course designers. Some of his famous courses, like Baltusrol and Winged Foot [plus Bethpage Black and Swope Memorial] have been tapped by the USGA as sites for its championships.

“Philadelphia Cricket Club,” Johnson points out in his 1910 notes, “was the first host club to allow the professionals into the clubhouse and to give them locker room privileges.”

These days, the top pros tend not to congregate in the Chestnut Hill shower room. But it’s not because they’re not welcome; it’s more a case of the St. Martin’s layout no longer being U.S. Open compliant, in that nine holes have gone missing. The Shivas Invitational turned this into a virtue by formatting the competition as two nine-hole rounds, the first played from the forward tees to front hole locations with a maximum of four clubs, none longer than 39.5 inches. (The winner of this first lap was Simon & Schuster editor Jofi Ferrari-Adler, who shot a stunning four-under-par 31 with a 3-iron as his biggest stick.) The second nine, played from the back tees to back hole locations, was a conventional 14-club competition.

The playing conditions, it must be said, were superb, it being one of those rare autumn days when shirtsleeve temperatures and abundant sunshine amplify the glory of fall foliage at its colorful peak. The greens were slick and maddeningly-hard to read, corrupting the scorecards of a celebrity-laden field that included Top 50 course-designer Gil Hanse (fifth-ranked Castle Stuart and the incipient Olympics Course in Rio de Janeiro); head professionals Scott Nye (18th-ranked Merion GC, site of the most-recent U.S. Open) and Graeme Lennie (33rd-ranked Balcomie Links); and award-winning actor Richard Kind (Spin City, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Good Wife).*

*Unable to perform due to injury — but diligent in their roles as cart-companions and spectators — were Drama-Desk- and Obie-award-winning actor David Morse (Treme, The Negotiator, John Adams) and legendary links writer and author James W. Finegan (Emerald Fairways and Foam-Flecked Seas).

Tournament play concluded on the ninth green at 4:58 p.m.. At five, a wedding ceremony began between the green and the starter’s shed. That’s so Philadelphia.

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but the PGA Tour continues it’s inaugural head-start season with the McGladrey Classic on the Seaside Course in Sea Island, Ga. At 7,055 yards, the par-70 layout has a robust 141 slope rating and a designer line that starts with Harry Colt and C.H. Alison (original nine), runs through Joe Lee (Marshside nine) and culminates with Tom Fazio, who directed a 1999 revision. The Seaside Course, aping Merion, uses red wicker baskets instead of hole flags, the difference being that Seaside is public and Merion not so much.

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Top 50 Staff Blanketed Merion

“I see that Merion Golf Club has soared in your course ranking since the U.S. Open,” writes a gentleman from Pabst Blue Ribbon, Nev. “Is that because Merion looked good  on TV, or did you actually have a course rater on the ground?”

John Garrity at Merion

Top 50 founder and CEO John Garrity led the course-rating team at Merion. (Darren Carroll)

Great question, PBR. I was in Ardmore, Pa., following every shot, and so was Top 50 vice-president and ratings chief Gary Van Sickle, who led a team of qualified second-raters from Catch Basin, our Kansas City headquarters. To insure that we could carry out our mission without undue friction, the USGA assigned us a work station just off the first tee. Believe me, there was no chance that our staffers would nod off with those Pro V1s and Bridgestones whistling past their noggins.

So no, Merion didn’t jump from No. 32 to No. 18 because it looked good on TV — although it did look very, very good. “Merion is no regular track,” Van Sickle wrote in his 82-page post-tournament report. “Better looking by the minute … the course. A number of holes are on high ground, they’re … all right. The course drains … and the grounds crew has done a phenomenal job. I’m upgrading the course … Should be … brick-hard … this week. Merion will … rise up …”

I usually recuse myself, relying on our Cal Sci algorithm (and a little-known NSA program that monitors country-club budgets) to properly weigh the data, but I fully support our team’s conclusions. Specifically, I liked that Merion’s woodsmen had felled hundreds of trees since my last visit.* Many of those trees had been on the golf course for decades, cluttering the view, clogging the lanes of play and wreaking environmental havoc on Merion’s tees and greens. The cutting of all those trees, along with their removal, gave stately old Merion a fresh, clean look. 

*I covered the 1989 U.S. Amateur for Sports Illustrated.

Merion's 15th hole

Merion’s 15th hole charmed Van Sickle’s platoon of second-raters. (John Garrity)

Was Merion too difficult? Did the USGA cross the line with its punitive setup of skinny fairways, ungraduated rough,treacherous greens and tangly collars?

No.

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but the PGA Tour, minus a weary Justin Rose and an injured Tiger Woods, will cavort in the AT&T National at 51st-ranked Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md. Meanwhile, our chief Asian correspondent, Duke Ishikawa, reports that preparations for the 1914 World Amateur Team Golf Championship are not going smoothly. The WATGC, better known as the Eisenhower Trophy, will be played in Karuizawa Prefecture, Japan, on the 51st-ranked Robert Trent Jones-designed Karuizawa 72 course owned by the Prince Hotels chain. Duke writes:

In the middle of February, this year, we visited the Karuizawa Prince Hotel and talked to the general manager, who told us, “We have reserved our facilities for two weeks during the championship, but no budget from the Japan Golf Association has come yet. That makes for us big trouble, because of uneasiness about the future. We only have a year and a half for preparation.”

“The Eisenhower Trophy is not the Olympic Games or World Cup soccer,” Duke continues, “but it is still a world-class event. The host country has a big responsibility to the other 80-or-so countries. However, the JGA has a very limited income.” Citing “unbelievable rumors,” Duke describes a JGA board of directors riddled with personal agendas and conflicts of interest that render it incapable of properly staging a big-time competition.

We need to know where the money is coming from. Otherwise the JGA is very irresponsible indeed. But the golf business has been so bad in Japan because of big deflation and the bad economy. I interviewed several local golf course managers recently, and all of them said, “We are not going to cooperate with the Eisenhower Trophy in 2014.”

Citing the “low ability” of JGA directors, Duke concludes: “We are just afraid the Eisenhower Trophy will not be successfully held in September, 2014, in Japan.”

Recognizing the seriousness of these concerns, I have forwarded Duke’s Karuizawa-72 file to Catch Basin’s Reassessment Department. Any changes to that course’s ranking will be posted without delay.

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Cal Sci Algorithm Gets Moisture Adjustment

“Has it occurred to you,” begins an email from Death Valley, Ariz., “that Aquaman isn’t real? That he is a character from a comic book? That his opinion on course rankings is worthless because, I repeat, HE ISN’T REAL!!!”

Highland Links

Nova Scotia’s lovely Highland Links gained .0069 points for its many water hazards. (John Garrity)

Well yes, DV — may I call you DV? — yes, that has occurred to me. I’m familiar with the Aquaman comics, but I know the difference between a cartoon character and a first-class course rater, and it’s not as big a difference as you might think. Anyway, I had our Top 50 ratings chief, Gary Van Sickle, look into Aquaman’s background, and he assures me that our scaly friend is strictly above-board (if not above ground). As a further precaution, we require that Aquaman file his reports via Gary’s email account to guard against hacking, spamming and, most importantly, phishing.

Coincidentally, Gary has just forwarded a fresh (not frozen) report from our man in Atlantis:

Dear Mr. Garrity,

I use the title “Mr.” reluctantly. You’re just another annoying air-breather to me. I figure we denizens of the deep can wait you out, though. You’ll pollute the air and die from global warming long before the ocean temperatures rise enough to bother me down here in the air-conditioned Marianas Trench, site of my vacation home. It’s way cool, brother.

I am writing — well, telepathing my thoughts to a dolphin, who then transcribes them to what you earth-breathers call Microsoft Word — to point out a flaw in your ranking system. Two flaws, actually. One, they’re just stupid. But that’s kind of a technical point.

Second, since water is the most important thing on earth and makes up 90 percent of you annoying air-breathers’ body bags, you clearly don’t put enough emphasis on water hazards in your rankings. Courses with more and bigger water hazards are better than courses without. Ever played a really good course in the desert? Didn’t think so.

I have to interrupt Aquaman’s otherwise-cogent analysis to point out that 20th-ranked Desert Hollow in Hurricane, Utah, is a desert course, as is 27th-ranked Redlands Mesa in Grand Junction, Colo., the 44th-ranked Mission Hills Tournament Course in Rancho Mirage, Calif.,  and 51st-ranked Coyote Springs, north of Las Vegas, Nevada. But back to Aquaman.

In fact, if you, Mr. Garrity, could get your CalTech Forbin Project 800X off its lazy digital ass, you could probably reprogram it to rank courses by the amount of water in their hazards, by cubic meters or fathoms or, as we use to measure here in Atlantis, aquabergs. (It’s a little larger than a cubic meter. You can barely fit two inside a seahorse, let’s put it that way. And that seahorse is not very happy about it, let me tell you, sir!)

Measuring the total amount of water actually on a course is going to completely reorganize your thus-far lame rankings. Since I haven’t played all 15,000 courses on your dirtpile, I don’t know what course would rank No. 1. Obviously, the water hazard will have to be surrounded (or at least 80% so) by the course for its contents to count. Pebble Beach, for instance, couldn’t lay claim to the entire Pacific Ocean just because it’s got a few holes along the shoreline. That would be a lot of saltwater volume to boost it in the rankings. The water has to be inside the course boundaries to count.

I believe this numerical and logical renumbering is the best way to rank your courses. I think we all agree that the courses that contain the most of my finny friends — which I can command to do my bidding, by the way — are obviously the best golf courses.

Which reminds me, if you don’t mind a small plug, I’m beginning a new side business besides my mundane duties as King of Atlantis and Father of AquaBitch. I’m getting into the ball-retrieval business. You lose a ball in a water hazard that has live underwater denizens, and I order them to retrieve it for you. Simply sign up for an online account at AquaBalls.com, pay an annual service fee, and then we invoice you for each individual retrieval. We can also sell you other balls that have been deposited in the water and remain unclaimed. That’s an extra charge, however, plus a service and handling fee. It’s all very reasonable, and as part of our contract you need only worship me for a prescribed few minutes each day.

I look forward to seeing your computer’s revised rankings. I hope it happens soon because I’d hate to see a brigade of killer whales go ape-shit on you the next time you play in Kansas City. That would be tragic.

As usual, all the best.

Aquaman, King of Atlantis (Father of AquaBitch and that no-good, lazy AquaLam-o-Lad)

Persuaded by Aquaman’s reasoning, we have tweaked the Cal Sci algorithm to account for water-hazard capacity and adjusted the rankings accordingly. To our surprise, the rankings remain exactly the same, with one exception: Kansas City’s Hillcrest Golf Club moves up one spot.

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but the Crowne Plaza Invitational begins today at 51st-ranked Colonial Country Club in Forth Worth, Texas. Known as “Hogan’s Alley” (because the popular TV show, Hogan’s Heroes, was shot there in the 1960s), Colonial has been ranked Fifth Best Course We Play on Tour by PGA Tour players. (Courses No. 1 through 4 in the survey were Augusta National GC, Harbour Town Links, Riviera CC and Pebble Beach Golf Links, all of which have been in the Top 50 at one time or another.)

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