Tag Archives: Gary Van Sickle

THE PLAYERS: Van Sickle’s View

Gary Van Sickle, our chief course rater and principal PGA Tour correspondent, moonlights as a Sports Illustrated senior writer. In that capacity he is, at this very moment, covering THE PLAYERS at the 51st-ranked TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course in Ponte Vedra, Fla. Busy as he is, Gary was kind enough to slide a few thousand words of cogent analysis under our door, asking only that we not identify him as the author. We therefore ask that you, the readers, honor his request.

Phil Mickelson

Mickelson, a former PLAYERS champ, was happy to take the Fifth. (John Garrity)

Gary’s chosen topic, by the way, is “THE PLAYERS: Is It the Fifth Major?”

Repeat after me: There will never be a fifth major championship.

Now repeat after me again: Never say never.

It is no longer a stretch to use the words fifth major in the same sentence as THE PLAYERS. It’s been done. In fact, starting in the pages of Sports Illustrated in 1984 when Dan Jenkins, famous sportswriter and soon to be World Golf Hall of Fame member, wrote about the Tournament Players Championship (a.k.a. The Players). “For two years,”Jenkins wrote, “the pros had been howling louder than a North Florida wind about the horrors of the design of their own course at their own headquarters and the site of their own championship, which has certainly become the ‘fifth major.’”

Ahh, you say, but Jenkins is a comedian and a master of sarcasm. Those aren’t quote marks around fifth major, you say, those are Dan’s dried tears from laughing so hard at his ironic use of “certainly” and “fifth major.”

Fine. Let’s go to Pebble Beach during the West Coast Swing of 2008, where Phil Mickelson was answering a question about where he plays. “What’s difficult from a player’s point of view,” Lefty said, “is scheduling, because if you take the five majors, counting the Players, and the three World Golf Championships, which is eight…”

Five majors. He said it!

Not so fast, you counter. Phil, too, is a comedian and… wait a minute, didn’t Phil win The Players the year before this comment? He’s counting The Players as a major because HE won it!

Gee, you people are so cynical. I don’t even know you anymore.

Let’s agree on two things, at least. One, golf history is fluid. It meanders like the mighty Mississippi. Even the Masters wasn’t always a major. Adding a fifth major championship may seem as unnecessary as dunking an Oreo in hot fudge, but hey, it might happen in this now-now-NOW world where yesterday’s tradition is today’s who cares?

Two, the competition for any future fifth-major status looks a lot like a Soviet election—only one real candidate. The Players is effectively the last man standing.

You’re not so sure? Well, follow along as I weed out the pretenders, who will fall away, one by one, like those sniffling, rose-less Bachelorettes.

Let’s start with the weakest.

A friend, whom I will identify only as a “Mr. Google” in order to protect his true identity, found this in a 1981 Associated Press story: “Tom Watson, who turned back the Masters bids of Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller, can expect a challenge from a different quarter this week in golf’s “Fifth Major,” the $300,000 MONY Tournament of Champions.”

Sounds like the new kid at the AP desk swallowed some bad press release for lunch. The T of C was a small-field event for winners only. Not a major. Not even close.

Next, from the bargain bin at Borders, there’s Tales from Q-School: Inside Golf’s Fifth Major, by John Feinstein. Horror stories from the PGA Tour’s qualifying tournament could, indeed, fill a book, but if Q-School is really a major championship, you should be able to name a Q-School winner of the last 30 years.

Can’t do it? Didn’t think so. Case closed.

Next up is AmateurGolf.blogspot.com with the headline, “THE FIFTH MAJOR: THE U.S. AMATEUR.” Yes, it used to be called the National Amateur, and it was once part of the Grand Slam (or the “Impregnable Quadrilateral,” a nickname that somehow didn’t stick), won by Bobby Jones in 1930—the U.S. and British Amateurs, the U.S. and British Opens. That was back when amateur golf mattered and pro golf was viewed as a troupe of unwashed vagabonds. The National Amateur faded in relevance, however, well before the 21st century.

The only thing funnier than last year’s Golf Boys’ video was when the European Tour issued a press release touting its BMW PGA Championship as golf’s “Fifth Major.”  Yes, seven of the top nine players in the world ranking competed, and yes, golf’s pendulum of power has clearly swung toward Europe for the first time since America invented the game. (Just kidding—laugh, Scotland!)

Said England’s Lee Westwood, a delightful and clever chap, “The Players probably used to be regarded as the fifth major, and it felt that way back in the late ‘90s. But since the invention of the World Golf Championships, it’s actually stepped back. So what is it, eighth on the list now?”

Ouch. Added South Africa’s Ernie Els, “This event is definitely taking the place of the TPC. I also feel we’ve got a stronger field here and a classic golf course.”

Naturally, their comments were totally objective. Westwood is a longstanding critic of The Players, notably skipping it, and Els needed to justify his redesign of the Wentworth Club course, which drew loud criticism even though everybody loves Ernie.

Golf’s Fifth Major, the BMW PGA? Please, serious attempts only, gentlemen.

Here’s what a real Fifth Major contender looks like. The Australian Open, the toast of an entire continent, dates to 1904, is played on classic layouts such as Royal Melbourne and Kingston Heath, and its roll call of champions includes Gene Sarazen, Norman von Nida, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Greg Norman and Bobby Locke. Gary Player won it a record seven times. Nicklaus won six.

Even better, Nicklaus called it the fifth major on his many trips Down Under, which is noted in nearly every Aussie Open reference. When the Greatest Golfer of the Twentieth Century speaks, people listen.

But when the Greatest Golfer of the Twentieth Century writes, they don’t read. In his 1969 biography, The Greatest Game of All: My Life in Golf, Jack stated, “In conversations with friends I referred to the Australian Open as a major championship, but they knew and I knew I was kidding myself. Being the national championship of a golf-minded country, the Australian Open was a most estimable tournament to be won but simply wasn’t a major championship except in the eyes of Australians. Of course, the men who won it prized it highly.”

Sorry about that, mates. No Jack endorsement plus few top American players in the last 20 years equals no major.

Gary’s rant will resume shortly. (Our fact checkers need a breather.)


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Troon North Benefits from Ying Correction

“Your Top 50 rating of Conestoga Golf Club at 8.09 is ludicrous,” writes Gary Van Sickle of Retrograde, Pa. “I’ve gone over the numbers repeatedly and never gotten more than an 8.05. This is a complete travesty — as opposed to a partial travesty, which no one likes.”

Conestoga Par 3

The par-3 fifth hole at Conestoga Golf Club: Too isolated? Or perfectly isolated? (John Garrity)

I usually dispose of crank e-mails by tapping the garbage-can icon, but something about this particular missive made me hesitate. Then it hit me: Van Sickle is our PGA Tour correspondent and executive director for course rating. So, with a heavy sigh, I re-read his rant and then forwarded it to Y. E. Ying, the Cal Sci “hotshot” who’s been crunching our numbers since Charlie Eppes ran off to Europe with what’s-her-name.

“Will check,” Ying texted me back. Two days later, he texted me again. “Van Sickle is correct. Conestoga GC of Mesquite, Nev., scores at 8.05 and should be ranked 55th. No. 50, at 8.09, is Pinnacle Course at Troon North Golf Club, Scottsdale, Az. Sorry. Please excuse error.”

Sorry? The Top 50 doesn’t publish apologies! The Top 50 publishes authoritative, 100% confirmed empirical data culled from the golf industry’s most comprehensive course-evaluation protocols. I’d have fired Ying on the spot if I didn’t have to run everything past a bankruptcy judge.

Another reader, who calls herself “Anon-a-mouse,” asks if I can tell the difference between closely-ranked courses like Conestoga and Troon North. My honest answer is no. I played Conestoga a few months ago and was blown away by its high-desert beauty. I played Troon North in February (as adjunct faculty at the Tour Tempo VIP School) and was similarly blown away by its high-desert beauty. Conestoga is more rugged and natural, with canyon holes that leave you feeling completely cut off from civilization. Troon’s Pinnacle course is the more difficult to play, with cactus patches that practically gobble up the wandering drive.

Ask me which is better, and I can only shrug. That’s why I employ only scientific criteria to rank the world’s courses from top (Askernish Old) to bottom (Ft. Meade City Mobile Home Park Golf Course). That’s why we confidently claim to be “99.9% accurate.” And that’s why we promptly correct the rare error made by a pocket-protector know-it-all who never returns our calls.

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but congratulations to Top 50 favorite Gil Hanse and LPGA Hall of Famer Amy Alcott for bagging the Brazil Olympics course-design contract. Coincidentally, Hanse’s acclaimed Castle Stuart Golf Links jumps two spots to No. 5. Way to go, Gil!

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More Honors for Top 50 Staff

“What happened?” asks a reader from North Sydney, Australia. “You were covering the tour event in San Diego, and then … nothing. Is this your idea of ’24/7 tour coverage’?”

Not exactly, Sid.

First of all, as Steve Allen used to ask his studio audiences after a joke failed, “Who paid to get in?” The Top 50  is still working on a plan to monetize its award-winning tour coverage, but at present we’re laboring for zip. We do have corporate sponsors — Sports Illustrated generously paid for my California trip, and my pressroom lunches were catered by Flemings and Souplantation — but no Top 50 reader, as of yet, has sent in a check for twenty or thirty thousand dollars along with a note of appreciation for our in-depth coverage of Sang-Moon Bae’s California swing.

Secondly … well, actually, that first explanation is enough.

Here’s what actually went down at the Farmers Insurance Open. We had just posted Tokyo correspondent Duke Ishikawa’s report on the Japanese PGA Tour when word came that our course rating director, Gary Van Sickle, had won three of the top writing prizes at the ING Media Awards in Orlando, Fla. That good news called for a non-alcoholic celebration, which lasted well into the early-morning hours.

Stanford U

Garrity's U-Day victory will benefit Stanford's golf team. (John Garrity)

So I was already a bit groggy when I arrived at Torrey Pines Golf Club, a little before noon on Sunday. Nevertheless, I had gotten halfway through a Flemings steak, medium rare, when FIO communications director Rick Schloss pulled me away to share more good news: “Congratulations, John. You’ve won the University Day competition* for Stanford University.”

*He may have said “drawing” instead of “competition.” The conversation was not recorded.

I don’t have to tell you how big this was. For the third round of the tournament, players and media who wore their school colors competed for a share of a $70,000  charitable pot put up by Farmers Insurance. With Saturday’s low round of 65, Jonas Blixt earned $20,000 for the golf team at his alma mater, Florida State University. Cameron Tringale’s 66 was worth $10,000 to his former team, the Bulldogs of Georgia Tech. Every other player who wore their college colors got $500 for their team.

My triumph in the media division, Schloss informed me, was worth an additional $500 to the Stanford golf team. Furthermore, I, personally, had won a PING golf bag and a sand wedge, which would be shipped directly to Top 50 headquarters.* He then dragged me off to the interview room for a round of prize-accepting handshakes in front of a University of Farmers backdrop. (I’m still blinking from all the camera flashes.)

*Note to Catch Basin staff: The bag and club had better be in my office when I get home.

Anyway, two big honors in two days was more than this veteran scribe could handle. I wisely bagged my final-round coverage and spent the afternoon spamming the good news to the world’s major media outlets.

For the record, I have a second alma mater, the University of Missouri, where I labored as a freshman and for one semester of graduate school. I thought I was covering all bases by wearing a Stanford-logoed black polo shirt, black being half of Mizzou’s color scheme; but my cardinal-colored, Rick Santorum-style sweater vest gave the Farmers judges the impression that I was an all-Stanford entry. But don’t worry, Mizzou golfers. I’ll send you the wedge.*

*If it doesn’t fit my specs.

Top 50 on TV: The AT&T Pro-Am at Pebble Beach (Golf Channel, CBS) is finishing up at 9th-ranked Pebble Beach Golf Links near Monterey, Calif. If anything of interest happens there, I’ll let you know.

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Van Sickle Scores Trifecta at ING Media Awards

LA JOLLA, CALIF. — The awards have started to pour in, reflecting the Top 50’s recent emphasis on 24/7 tournament coverage. Yesterday, our director of course rating and chief tour correspondent, Gary Van Sickle, dominated the 19th Annual ING Media Awards in Orlando, Fla., taking three of the top writing awards, including the coveted Outstanding Achievement Award for “Remembering Pittsburgh’s Needle.”*

ING Media Award Plaque

Catch Basin's trophy room is getting crowded, but we can always stack the plaques.

* Our man also took two first places for Sports Illustrated stories: “The Trials of Jobe” (Competition Writing) and “Get Real, USGA” (Opinion Writing).

Asked for a transcript of his acceptance speeches, Van Sickle writes, “You don’t get to talk, but there were glorious cupcakes, imprinted with the ING logo in the frosting. Best cupcakes ever.”

I’ll try to get Gary to sit down next week for an extended interview (not a contract renegotiation). In the meantime, stay glued to this prize-winning site for continuing coverage of the Farmers Insurance Open.

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Sponsor Invites: The Good, Bad & Ugly

While we work on upgrades to the Bomar Brain, our senior course rater, Gary Van Sickle, has been entertaining you with his analysis of 2011 PGA Tour sponsor exemptions, which he hopes to package as a coffee table book called America on a Shoestring: Migrant Golfers in a Landscape of Plenty. Here is Gary’s take on last year’s most prominent invitees:

John Daly

John Daly: Did he wear out his welcome in 2011? (John Garrity)

John Daly received seven exemptions last year but complained when he was turned down for spots at the Bob Hope Classic and Waste Management Phoenix Open. It’ll be interesting to see how many free spots he gets in 2012 — in other words, has he finally worn out his welcome? He had a televised meltdown at a tournament in Austria, then withdrew from the Australian Open after hitting seven shots into a lake on the 11th hole and running out of golf balls. (Daly was seven over par before the disaster.) Many observers thought Daly’s conduct was not only unprofessional but premeditated because he was angry after drawing a two-shot penalty for playing the wrong ball — a range ball — from a fairway bunker on the 10th hole. Australian golf officials were upset enough to rescind Daly’s invitation for the subsequent Australian PGA Championship. (Daly has a long history of withdrawing from tournaments before, during and after rounds.) Last year, Daly received exemptions from the Farmer’s Insurance Classic, Mayakoba Classic, Transitions Championship, Zurich Classic, Colonial Invitational, Travelers Championship and Canadian Open. Though he hasn’t been exempt for years, Daly has not attempted to regain his card by going back to Q-school.

Bud Cauley gave up his final year of eligibility at the University of Alabama to turn pro and apparently knew he was ready. Cauley parlayed four exemptions into a PGA Tour card. He’s exactly the kind of player sponsor’s exemption should go to — promising young talent that needs a chance. Cauley received an exemption from the Viking Classic in July, where he finished fourth. He was in contention at the Frys.com Classic, where he placed fifth and won $340,000.  Those top-10 finishes got him into tour events the following weeks. He was able to bypass Q-school by having more winnings on the non-members’ money list than the player who finished 125th on the official money list. Cauley won $735,150 in eight starts.

Sam Saunders proved for a second straight year that it’s good to have a famous relative. He’s the grandson of Arnold Palmer and was able land his maximum of seven exemptions for a second straight year since dropping out of Clemson University. Saunders also scored some Nationwide Tour exemptions. Saunders finished 15th at Pebble Beach, where his grandfather is a part-owner, and 30th at Bay Hill, the tournament his grandfather hosts. Kevin Tway, son of former PGA champion Bob, scored four exemptions and missed four cuts.

Patrick Cantlay came off a remarkable freshman season at UCLA and enjoyed an even better summer. He was low amateur at the U.S. Open and runner-up at the U.S. Amateur. His stellar play prompted four sponsor’s exemptions, and Cantlay made the cut each time, finishing ninth at the Canadian Open. Had he been a pro, he would’ve won more than $380,000 in his PGA Tour appearances, but Cantlay went back to UCLA to be a sophomore.

Scott Stallings, a former star at Tennessee Tech, got into the Transitions Championship because his friend and mentor, Kenny Perry, helped him get an exemption. (Perry has an endorsement deal with Transitions, the eye care company.) Stallings contended for the title, finished third and used that good finish as a springboard to get in more tournaments during the summer. He won at Greenbrier and is fully exempt.

Gary Woodland won that Transitions Championship. Like Stallings, he was a Q-school grad the previous year, but he finished third in Phoenix after Waste Management offered him an exemption. Woodland won more than $3.4 million last year, finished top 20 on the money list and paired with Matt Kuchar to win the World Cup.

Brendan Steele was another young player who needed exemptions early in the year to get into tournaments. He got passes for Riviera and Bay Hill, then won the Valero Texas Open in May.

Rory McIlroy, who won the U.S. Open in June, ironically needed an exemption to defend his title at the Wells Fargo Championship because he decided to drop his PGA Tour membership at the end of 2010.

Cantlay, by the way, had the best record of making cuts among players who got exemptions, going 4 for 4. Scott Piercy and Lee Westwood (not a PGA Tour member), were 3 for 3.

Thanks, Gary. Your next assignment is to rank the tournament courses you mentioned, three of which are already in the Top 50, in your order of preference.

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but the above-mentioned Bud Cauley got lots of air time while shooting a first-round 66 in the Sony Open at Honolulu’s 184th-ranked Waialae Country Club. “I did a lot of things right,” Cauley told the AP. “I did a lot of things I was doing last summer.” [Assignment for the weekend: Watch Jennifer Love Hewitt in “I Know What You Did Last Summer.”]

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Ogilvie Was Best Guest of 2011

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer at Sports Illustrated (and director of course rating for the Top 50), writes that “while the PGA Tour is abuzz with talk about proposed changes to the qualifying tournament (Q-school), another route to the tour has been overlooked.”

That would be sponsor’s exemptions. Each event gets a handful of exemptions — a free invite into the tournament — to do with as tournament officials please. Non-tour members can accept up to seven free passes in a season, but for tour members there is no limit. And there is no watchdog.  In this oh-so-political game, it’s often not what you’ve done, but who you know.

Gary Van Sickle

Gary Van Sickle, Top 50's chief course rater, at Coyote Springs Golf Club in Mesquite, Nev. (John Garrity)

Van Sickle, who is no relation to the Gary Van Sickle who presides over the California Tree Fruit Growers Association, goes on to analyze the past year’s sponsor’s exemptions:

In 2011, 270 playing spots were awarded via sponsor’s exemptions in 31 tournaments. That’s an average of nearly nine spots per tournament — a pretty big number considering how tough it is to win a card through Q-school or the Nationwide Tour. Of those 270 free passes, recipients made the cut (and a check) 109 time. That’s 42 percent, not bad. Fourteen SE’s finished among the top ten (that’s five percent), and the best finish by a player competing on an exemption was third place. In all, 26 SE’s (9.6 percent) finished among the top 20.

“Another overlooked route to the tour,” Van Sickle continues, “is the Monday qualifier, a one-day, 18-hole event in which a field of players competes for three or four available spots.”

Not every tournament has Monday qualifying, and in 2011 the successful Monday qualifiers didn’t fare very well. Only 20 of 91 Monday qualifiers made cuts (22 percent). John Merrick, who was ninth at the Travelers Championship, earned the only top-ten finish by a Monday qualifier. Merrick, Lee Janzen and Michael Letzig were the only players to be successful twice in Monday qualifying this year.

Who is the king of sponsor’s exemptions?

“In 2011,” Van Sickle reports, “it was Joe Ogilvie.”

While Ogilvie, Scott McCarron and Brad Faxon each received 11 sponsor’s exemptions, Ogilvie was the only one to cash in on his opportunities. The 2007 U.S. Bank/Milwaukee champion made six cuts in 11 events, and his third-place finish at the Byron Nelson Championship, worth $377,000, was the biggest payday scored by any player receiving an exemption. Ogilvie won $541,650 in six events, and that, combined with 13 other appearances, enabled Ogilvie to finish 116th on the money list and regain exempt status.

Faxon called in a career’s worth of favors for his 11 spots as he waited to turn 50 in late summer and start competing on the Champions Tour. Faxon missed 11 cuts in 11 tries, but the work apparently paid off. He won a senior event late in the year.

McCarron made six cuts, like Ogilvie, but had only one finish better than 38th, a tie for sixth at the McGladrey Classic that earned him $125,200, more than one-fourth of his winnings for the year. McCarron finished 145th on the money list and is only conditionally exempt for 2012.

“I’ve worked up a report on other notable sponsor’s exemptions,”Van Sickle concludes, “like John Daly, Gary Woodland and — would you believe it? — Rory McIlroy. I’ll file them as soon as I complete my rating of the Jack Nicklaus layout at Coyote Springs Golf Club in Mesquite, Nev. Until then, Happy New Year!”


 Sponsor’s Exemptions, 2011

(Cuts made in parentheses)

11 Brad Faxon (0)

11 Scott McCarron (6)

11 Joe Ogilvie (6)

7 John Daly (3)

7 Rod Pampling (4)

7 Sam Saunders (2)

5 Will MacKenzie (1)

4 Notah Begay (1)

4 Patrick Cantlay (4)

4 Bud Cauley (3)

4 Erik Compton (3)

4 Morgan Hoffman (2)

4 Kevin Tway (0)

4 Charles Warren (1)

3 Billy Andrade (0)

3 Jay Williamson (1)

3 Joseph Bramlett (0)

3 Todd Hamilton (1)

3 Lee Janzen (2)

3 Colt Knost (1)

3 Scott Piercy (3)

3 Brett Quigley (1)

3 Jeff Quinney (2)

3 Lee Westwood (3)

3 Brett Wetterich (1)


Money Won by Players Playing on Exemptions

$541,650 Joe Ogilvie

$500,804 Bud Cauley

$374,000 Scott Stallings

$369,153 Rod Pampling

$359,112 Adam Hadwin

$251,600 John Cook

$222,650 Gary Woodland

$205,704 Lee Westwood

$204,354 Scott McCarron

$177,375 Shigeki Maruyama

$164,286 John Daly

$155,440 Brett Wetterich

$135,525 Sam Saunders

$112,840 Ben Curtis

$  88,000 Peter Hanson

$  82,650 Justin Hicks (Honda)

$  69,031 Morgan Hoffman

$  67,786 Josh Teater

$  61,590 Scott Piercy

$  55,481 Martin Kaymer


Money Won by Monday Qualifiers

$190,925 John Merrick

$  54,987 Frank Lickliter

$  51,837 Erik Compton

$  42,000 Mathias Gronberg

$  29,000 Michael Letzig

$  17,356 Josh Broadaway

$  16,336 Robert Gamez

$  16,087 Erick Justesen

$  14,430 Andre Stolz

$  13,542 Troy Kelly

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Changes Ahead for Top 50 Blog?

Dear Readers: Although Mr. Garrity has not visited our Catch Basin headquarters for several weeks, he keeps in touch through texts and “honks.”* On Christmas Day he alerted us to a possible change of emphasis on the Top 50 blog. “More tour analysis,” he honked. “Less anime.” In a follow-up text, he wrote, “Offer Van Sickle premium to leave SI and cover tour full-time.”

Falcon Ridge's 15th hole

The 15th hole at 51st-ranked Falcon Ridge Golf Club, Mesquite, Nev. (John Garrity)

*Honks are 63-character messages from Honker Ltd., a Twitter rival in which Mr. Garrity has invested much of his fortune. If you would like to learn more about Honker, feel free to enter your social security and credit card numbers in the comment box.

We’re not sure what Mr. Garrity has in mind for 2012, but we know he’d like to wish you all a Happy New Year and remind you of the recent publication of Tour Tempo 2: The Short Game and Beyond by John Novosel and John Garrity, now available in iPad, Kindle and Nook editions.

On behalf of the Top 50 staff, I thank you for your past support and hope you’ll continue to count on the Top 50 for all your course-rating needs.


M. G. Snead, Operations Director

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Van Sickle Caps Best Season with Philly Cricket Club Triumph

The Presidents Cup at 51st-ranked Royal Melbourne seems to be occupying the middle-of-the-fairway media. I can think of no other reason for the relatively-short shelf life of Gary Van Sickle’s recent triumph at the 21st Annual Shivas Invitational. Van Sickle, the Top 50‘s chief course rater, withstood 40-degree temperatures, gale-force winds and a donut breakfast to shoot 78 on the Philadelphia Cricket Club’s 37th-ranked Wissahickon course.

A score of 78 may not sound impressive, but par was about 80 on a day that reminded neighbors in nearby Valley Forge of the winter of 1777-78, which sent the handicaps of General Washington and his 12,000-man Continental Army soaring. Finishing a stroke behind Van Sickle were Mike Donald, remembered for his 19-hole playoff loss to Hale Irwin in the 1990 U.S. Open, and 15-year PGA Tour veteran Bill Britton.

Van Sickle, upon presentation of the Shivas Trophy by tournament chairman Michael Bamberger, said, “You’ll have to ship it to me. There’s no way I can take this on my flight back to Pittsburgh.”

Also in the field were Sirius Satellite Radio host Peter Kessler, R.E.M. bass player and songwriter Mike Mills, and Top 50 founder and chief executive John Garrity, all of whom finished in the top 18.

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but Alister MacKenzie’s Royal Melbourne composite course was in the Top 50 for an uninterrupted span of 252 months before dropping off the list this past July. Asked why the famous sandbelt course had been demoted, Van Sickle said, “No, really, I have to catch that plane.”


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Top 50 Staff: Stickin’ It!

“You’ve obviously been on vacation,” said the receptionist at Catch Basin, our Kansas City headquarters.

I chuckled. “Did my tan give me away?”

“No,” she said, reaching for her coat. “But you haven’t checked your voice mail for two weeks, and we couldn’t reach you when the cat died. I closed out the petty cash account in lieu of severance. You’ll find my resignation letter on your desk.”

Turnberry Lighthouse

Top 50's Van Sickle drains putt at Virginia tourney. (John Garrity)

The last I saw of her, through the glass entry doors, she was dancing in little circles on the way to her car.

But the receptionist — I forget her name — was right about my being on vacation. Once or twice a year I put my Top 50 obligations on hold to devote all my time and energy to my first love: competitive golf.

Last week, for example, I anchored the Sports Illustrated/Golf.com team to a 9-6 shellacking of the GOLF Magazine staff at the Golf.com World Amateur Handicap Championship in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Playing for the first time at the venerable Dunes Golf and Beach Club, I scored two out of a possible three points and shared MVP honors with dot-commie Billy Tucker. (“Well done,” said a gracious David Denunzio, GOLF’s captain. “You have been reported to the handicapping committee.”)

Should I be playing tournament golf on the eve of the all-important Indian Summer golf season? Yes, I should. The Top 50 is the world’s most credible course-ranking site because our raters are more than sparkling intellects and polished writers; we are also tournament-hardened, trophy-grasping, spotlight-seeking sportsmen.

Today, for example, our Pennsylvania ratings director, Gary Van Sickle, fired a first-round 77 at the USGA Senior Amateur Championship in Manakin-Sabor, Va. If Gary  survives a weekend of medal play and then rumbles through the 64-man match-play brackets, he will copy the feat of Atlantic Coast ratings chief Dave Henson, who recently blew away six opponents on his way to the Palmetto Hall Plantation Club Handicap Match Play title.

Dave Henson at Askernish

Top 50's Henson digs himself out of a jam at Palmetto Hall. (John Garrity)

“Tournament experience may not be a requirement if you rate courses for Golf Digest,” Dave said in a statement issued through his web site. “You’ll have to ask their editors why not.”

Next up on my tournament schedule: The St. Francis Xavier Charity Scramble, Sept. 25, at  51st-ranked Swope Memorial Golf Course, Kansas City, Mo.

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but Britain & Ireland have taken a 7-5 lead over the U.S. going into the final day of the Walker Cup at Scotland’s Royal Aberdeen links. Our U.K. ratings director, Gary Van Sickle, calls the venue “a classic and wild links course.”

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Remembering Pittsburgh’s “Needle”

With Mr. Garrity still incommunicado, Sports Illustrated senior writer Gary Van Sickle has graciously provided us with the following column. “It’s sort of got a golf course theme,” Van Sickle explains, “and several Top 50 courses are mentioned.”

You grip a club when you play golf, but the reality for a lot of us is, it’s the other way around. Golf grips us.

There is so much to get caught up in—the unending line of better-than-ever new clubs; thousands of golf courses around the world we have yet to play, and most of which we never will; handicaps and the eternal quest to improve; the matches, the press bets and the smack-talk that comes with them; and the great outdoors, the beauty of nature (even if it’s sometimes re-imagined by a golf course architect).

It is easy to forget how special golf can be, how special it is.

I was reminded of this when I read in a Pittsburgh newspaper that The Needle had passed away. The Needle was Frank (Archie) Archinaco, a long-time member at swank Allegheny Country Club, not far from where I live in Pittsburgh’s northern suburbs. I did not know Archie. (I hope it’s OK if I call him Archie. I’m presuming familiarity.)  I never met the man. But just about everything I needed to know about him I learned from his obituary.  It caught my eye because most of the Post-Gazette obits were shortish items, less than a column long. Archie’s obit spread over three columns.

It was no ordinary obituary, obviously. I believe Archie had some input into it. He had a terminal disease, he knew he was dying, and his obit included tidbits about his life that no one else likely would have known or thought significant.  Seriously, who includes golfing exploits in an obituary? I’ll tell you who — a real golfer. The kind of golfer who cares so much about his round that he’ll replay all 18 holes—if you ask him—while you share drinks in the grill room afterward. A real golfer like Archie.

Ballybunion Graveyard & Green

Ballybunion was one of the Needle's favorite haunts. (John Garrity)

From the Post-Gazette: Frank passionately loved to play golf and played at nearly every top 100 golf course in the world, as well as many others. His favorites included Cypress Point, Pebble Beach, Ballybunion and his home course, Allegheny Country Club.

We all know name-dropping golfers who love to talk about the great courses of the world that they played. No matter what exotic course you say you teed it up at and loved, they’ll do you one better. Unless you’ve played Augusta National or Pine Valley, that is. Those are the ultimate toppers.

It was important to Archie, as he was dying, to let us know he’d checked off most of the top-100 course list. You’ve got to be serious to do that, plus have serious contacts just to get on some of those super-private tracks. Not to mention serious dough. But Archie isn’t one of those obnoxious name-droppers. He could have listed 20 more impressive clubs he had played, but he didn’t. He simply told us about his top-100 feat so we’d know how much golf meant to him, how seriously he took it. It also says something about the pride he had for his beloved Allegheny Country Club that he mentioned it in the same sentence with Cypress and Pebble and the ‘Bunion. It’s a loyal, true blue member who proudly waves the ACC flag even in his final days.

More from the Post-Gazette: His handicap peaked at 8. His exceptional play under pressure in tournaments labeled him, jokingly, as a sandbagger. Those who knew him well knew he never cheated at golf.

A handicap is a vanity. It’s a caste system for golf. It’s funny how handicaps inspire fudging at both ends of the scale. There are ego-trippers who claim to be 6-handicappers but can’t break 90 and players who can shoot in the mid-70s but keep their handicap in the low teens so they can win the bets and the events—yes, the sandbaggers.

Archie wanted us to know that at some point he’d gotten his handicap into single digits. That is the Holy Grail for amateur hackers. If you’ve got a single digit handicap at a private club, you’re a player. Note that Archie didn’t claim to still be an 8. But he wanted us to know that he could play the game at a very respectable level at one point in his life.

He also addressed the downside of the handicap system. When you play better than you’re supposed to play, better than your handicap says you’re supposed to, no one ever congratulates you, no one gives you credit. No one says, “Good for you for finally putting 18 good holes together. Way to finally play to your potential ” Nope. If you shoot 74 and you’re an 8 and your net 66 blows everyone else away, you’re just another sandbagger. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

This was Archie’s way of burying that unfair label. There are some amateurs—and I’ll bet Archie was one of them—who have a knack for rising to the occasion. He was probably a good putter—you have to be to get as low as 8.  I imagine Archie as the guy who always holed the putt on the 9th or 18th green when money was on the line. I picture him as clutch, the kind of guy you loved as a partner and hated as an opponent. Don’t drop the S-word on him just because he didn’t choke when the rest of would have. The man could play a little bit. Archie wants you to know that.

A hole-in-one eluded him for nearly his entire career. However, on Oct. 3, 2009, he scored a hole-in-one with a 5-iron at Allegheny’s eighth hole.

That’s another thing about golfers. There are certain things you do. Kind of a Bucket List. You’ve got to play Pebble Beach, the Old Course at St. Andrews, and a few other classic layouts before you die. And you’ve got to make a hole-in-one. It’s just one lucky shot out of thousands, but you’ve got to get one. It’s a pride thing. It is something golfers inevitably ask each other: “So, have you made an ace?” They leave off the “yet,” but it’s implied. As in, you’re not a real member of the club until you score a hole-in-one. It’s also an implied invitation to ask them about theirs… please.

Archie got his ace, all right. Just barely in time.

One year later (after the ace), Frank was diagnosed with terminal, inoperable, metastasized pancreatic cancer. He promised friends and family that he would “fight to my last breath” to beat the disease.

We know now that Archie lost that match. He was 67. He was “charismatic, charming, clowning and joking,” his obit said, and he earned his nickname, The Needle, “because of his pointed teasing with friends.” He was a former president and CEO of PPG’s Automotive Glass and Service.

His obit said that he had another nickname, “the General,” given to him by nurses at the hospital where he was born because he weighed nearly ten pounds and was much larger than the other children. “The comparison would foreshadow the remainder of his life,” the obit said. You can forgive Archie that vanity because he’d already lived the life and proved he was a business leader—a general.

Archie also wanted you to know that he was voted high school class president and later graduated with honors from Villanova University, where he was classmates with Jim Croce, the late singer-songwriter, and  played cards with him.

I’m glad Archie included golf in his obituary. It told me a lot about him. I didn’t know Archie personally, but I know golfers just like him. So do you—the successful businessman who exudes confidence at all times and is always trying to win the game, whether it’s a double-press bet or scoring a better tee time or telling a funnier story. You drop a name in the men’s grill, he drops a bigger one. It’s part of the he-who-dies-with-the-most-toys-wins mentality, except in this case it’s a he-who-plays-the-most-golf-courses-wins game. Guys like him make golf clubs fun. They make you want to hang out at the grill room and shoot the breeze—not that you’d ever actually admit that to him, naturally. That would be another win for him.

No, I never met Archie—The Needle—but it is obvious that golf had a strong grip on him. He accomplished a lot in his illustrious life. And, it seems to me, he was a real golfer. I hope—I believe—that Archie would consider that high praise, indeed.

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but Pinehurst No. 2 (No. 51 on the Top 50) reopened  Monday after a thorough makeover by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore. The Donald Ross-designed course, which will host the 2014 U.S. and U.S. Women’s Open Championships, had 32 acres of grass and roughly 700 sprinkler heads removed. “My mouth literally falls open when I see the incredible work that they’ve done,” said USGA executive director Mike Davis, explaining why he was forced to play his round blindfolded.


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