Tag Archives: golf courses

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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Top 50 CEO Comes Clean on Golf Trip

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

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

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

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

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

Sunset Golf at Askernish

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

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

Because they are.

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

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

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

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

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

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Tiger, Phil Lead Designers’ Flight

The Course Designers’ flight at the Masters may not get as much attention as it used to, but what a leader board! Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson share the lead at 6-under par heading into the weekend, and Tom Watson is three back after a second-round 74. Ernie Els survived the 36-hole cut despite a Friday afternoon run-in with Augusta National’s 15th hole; he’s at even-par and T21.

The twist at the Masters, of course, is that the designers are ranked according to their golfing ability, not their design proficiency. That leads to amusing results. Top-ranked designer Ben Crenshaw (Sand Hills Golf Club, No. 19, Kapalua Plantation Course, No. 34) shot rounds of 77-78 and missed the cut by eight strokes. But Woods, who has yet to complete a golf course after three years in the design business, gets to play on the weekend. It may not be fair, but that’s what makes it fun.

Anyway, here are the two-round cumulative results:

Position Player Total Cumulative
T-1 Tiger Woods -6 138
T-1 Phil Mickelson -6 138
3 Tom Watson -3 141
4 Ernie Els E 144
T-5 Bernhard Langer +5 149*
T-5 Mark O’Meara +5 149*
7 Vijay Singh +10 154*
8 Ben Crenshaw +11 155*
9 Ian Woosnam +20 164*
*Missed Cut

Top 50 on TV: The Course Designers’ Tournament is being played at Augusta National, No. 7, but the CBS cameras can’t get enough of the new Tom Fazio-designed Augusta National Practice Facility. The new range, which replaces a foreshortened lawn that ended in a 200-foot vertical net, is more than 400 yards long and lined with azaleas (reminiscent of my back yard). The short-game area, on the golf course side of the range, is roped for spectators and features white-sand bunkers and tournament-ready greens. I’ll review Fazio’s work in more detail in a subsequent post, but for this week only his Augusta National range cracks the Top 50 at No. 47, replacing Oakmont Country Club.

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Are Artificial Trees in Augusta’s Future?

Every year at the Masters, an old folk song plays in my head: “In the pines, in the pines, where the sun never shines ….” There are better tree songs, I suppose — Hoagy Carmichael’s “A Dogwood Died in Dallas” comes to mind — but Augusta National’s famous 18 meanders through a pine forest. In fact, when founder Bobby Jones gave course designer Alister MacKenzie his first tour of the Fruitland Nursery property, it was to point out that skinny Georgia pines, unlike Britain’s massive hardwoods, could be felled with a few strokes of a hatchet. And if for some reason you wanted more trees, pines were easy to transplant, having root balls about the size of a duffle bag.*

*The portability of pines is demonstrated annually on the National’s eleventh hole, where trees come and go with the nonchalance of guests at a high-end resort hotel.

The downside of the pine is its propensity for shedding pollen in the spring. A single loblolly pine, according an Audubon-knock-off pamphlet I can’t put my hand on, can produce two to three kilograms of yellow powder overnight — enough to cover a fleet of rental cars. Bees carry some of this pollen to flowers, but the rest drifts up against curbs and doorsills or is inhaled by guileless visitors from the north.

“The official Masters color might have to be changed from green to yellow,” Ron Green Jr. wrote in Monday’s Charlotte Observer. “There’s a soft yellow haze in the air and a heavy coating on most static surfaces around the golf course.”

Relief is promised in the form of thunderstorms, which are expected to rumble through Augusta in the next hour or so. Until then, the  Augusta National Golf Club’s No. 7 ranking is suspended (subject to review by the executive committee).

Golf Cart at 2010 Masters

Georgia farmers hail record harvest of sneezables. (John Garrity)

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Masters Field Too Strong for Tiger?

With Masters week looming, people keep asking what question I’ll spring on Tiger Woods at his Monday press conference. They assume, based upon my background as an investigative, that I will throw him hardballs such as, “Who is Janine, and how did she get your signature on a golf flag?”

Their assumptions are wrong. I’m going to throw the spitter. I’m going to ask Tiger the question that my weak-kneed, pusillanimous colleagues won’t touch with a two-foot pole: “Who is the best course designer in this year’s field?”

I expect Tiger to blush and stammer, because nothing embarrasses him more than his oh-for-three record as a golf architect. Three years after he opened Tiger Woods Design in a blind mail drop outside a mall in Windermere, Fla., Woods has yet to cut a ribbon at a course opening. His Al Ruwaya course in Dubai is stalled, his Cliffs at High Carolina course remains hypothetical, and his Mexican clients have put off construction of their Punta Brava seaside course until they get assurances that they can build it with American labor.

Photo of Cassique Golf Club

The 15th at Tom Watson's Cassique Golf Club, Kiawah Island, S.C. (Tom Watson Design)

Should Tiger dare to answer my question, he’ll have to weigh the design credentials of a couple of dozen tournament players — many of whom have actually visited the courses they are credited with designing. He’ll have to give consideration to two-time Masters champion Bernhard Langer, who has put his stamp on some 17 courses on three continents. But Langer might not prevail in a design playoff with former Masters champs Raymond Floyd (Turnberry Isle Resort and Club, Aventura, Fla.) and Vijay Singh (The Water at Jumeirah Golf Estates, Dubai). And those two worthies would certainly meet their match in three-time Masters champion Tom Watson, whose Independence course at the Reunion Resort in Orlando, Fla., has drawn categorical praise from GOLF Magazine, Golf Digest and Golfweek. Watson showed what he’s made of when he agreed to renovate the marvelous Ballybunion Old in County Kerry, Ireland — a judicious tweaking that saw Ballybunion fall only three places, to No. 5, in the Top 50.

The best designer to tee it up on Thursday, however, will be yet another two-time Masters champion: Ben Crenshaw. With his acclaimed design partner, Bill Coore, Crenshaw is the only active player with two courses in the Top 50: Sand Hills Golf Club, No. 19, and The Plantation Course, No. 34. And that’s not counting the duo’s renovation work on Prairie Dunes Country Club, No. 6.*

*Is there a correlation between Masters titles and design potential? I think there is. Phil Mickelson, a two-time Masters winner, successfully partnered with Gary Stephens on the Lower Course at Whisper Rock Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz. The salient fact is that Mickelson finished Whisper Rock in 2001, three years before he donned his first green jacket. (That augurs well for non-Masters winner Ernie Els. The Big Easy has co-designed roughly a dozen courses to date, including the Anahita Golf Course on the isle of Mauritius, chosen “Best Golf Development for Europe and Africa” by CNBC International Property Awards.)

Tiger may not see it my way, but what’s he going to do? Change the subject to his marriage?

Top 50 on TV: The Nabisco Championship, the first major of the LPGA season, returns to the Mission Hills Tournament Course, No. 44. I’m very fond of this course, having sharpened my game on its eucalyptus-lined fairways during countless playing lessons with my West Coast swing guru, Rob Stanger. It lacks, I admit, the symbolic depth of Desmond Muirhead’s later work — such as his par-4 “Guernica” hole at the Segovia Golf Club in Chiyoda, Japan, which commemorates Picasso’s famous painting of a town savagely bombed during the Spanish Civil War. (“A dismembered foot and hand surround the green,” Muirhead wrote in his program notes, “a solitary eye glares at you from behind it. The teeing ground is elevated as a symbol of power for the golfer and to help to see clearly the horse’s head around the lake.”) I also think that Mission Hills, situated as it is in the desert, could use a few more water fountains.

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The Top 50 Hits the Road

It has been a long winter in Kansas City. Last weekend’s ten-inch snow mocked the arrival of “spring” and prevented me from tuning up on the silky fairways of the Heart of America Golf Academy Par-3 (No. 55). “You need a vacation” said my wife, watching in admiration as I practiced full swings in the TV room, leaving perfect, dollar-bill sized scuff marks on the Persian rug. “I bought you a discount ticket on Southwest Airlines. I packed your suitcase. The car service will be here in ten minutes.”

My vacations, of course, are of the working variety. I am typing this in the media center of the La Costa Resort & Spa in Carlsbad, Calif., site of this week’s LPGA Tour event, the KIA Classic.* If I can find time between my course-rating activities and my sideline as a free-lance dowser, I will file a game story to Sports Illustrated Golf Plus on Monday morning.

*La Costa’s theater-style press room, with its digital video screens, multi-media work stations and ergonomically-correct executive chairs, is No. 5 in the most recent World Press Facility Ranking Presented by Frito-Lay.

Word of my presence has spread quickly, judging from the press-room buzz about La Costa’s Dick Wilson/Joe Lee-designed composite course. Rolex points leader Ai Miyazato took a bashful stab at course rating yesterday when she was asked to compare La Costa’s tournament track to the more famous South Course at nearby Torrey Pines. “Well, I would say the grass is different,” she said through an interpreter. “I think over here is more thick so that makes it a little less distance, but the greens are much softer over here, so it’s kind of half and half.”

I carry the Top 50 data base on 42 keychain flash drives, so I was able to compare the Japanese star’s impressions with the reports of my course raters. They were all in agreement: “half and half.”

“But Torrey Pines,” Miyazato continued, “was like almost no wind, and it seems like over here is more windy. So La Costa is more difficult.”

I would have to disagree with Ai on that point. The ocean cliffs of Torrey Pines are far more exposed than the condo canyons of La Costa, and the latter is lined with giant gum trees, to which the wind must inevitably stick. Conclusion: Torrey Pines is more difficult.

More difficult, I shouldn’t have to add, does not mean better.

Top 50 on TV: Dick Wilson’s highly-regarded eighteen at Florida’s Bay Hill Club & Lodge (No. 56) is the site of this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, a PGA Tour event. Palmer, a course designer himself, likes to tweak Wilson’s old track from time to time. Most of his changes are inconsequential, such as this year’s lengthening of the already-unplayable par-4 18th by ten yards. But Palmer has shown true genius by moving the tournament tee on the par-4 15th to the other side of heavily-trafficked Bay Hill Boulevard, forcing the pros to smack their drives over a pair of neatly-trimmed hedges. As one who has long argued for the inclusion of steeplechase elements in golf design, I can only say, “Well done, Arnie — and pay no attention to the neighsayers.”

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Fighting Words Over Brookline Ranking

“I have to disagree with Swope Memorial,” Dan B writes. “This is a decent local municipal course, but it does not belong in any national discussion, regardless of who designed it or what tournament it may have hosted.”

Dan’s spirited rebuke is music to my ears! The whole point of the Top 50 is to get students of great golf design to come out of their shells and start squabbling like litigants on Judge Judy. If you were to visit us here at Catch Basin, you’d find Top 50 staffers shouting in hallways, hurling logoed caps at each other and throwing the occasional punch over the most arcane disagreements. Tempers flare because most of these disputes are, at their core, matters of individual taste. Are the greens at North Dakota’s Medicine Hole, No. 38, better than the greens at Augusta National, No. 7? I would say no — particularly during Masters week. But my assistant with the frayed knuckles asks: Better for whom? The average Badlands golfer will take four or five putts on Augusta’s 9th green — which, Omar will argue, is proof of faulty design.

17th at Ballybunion

Ballybunion Old: Better than TPC Scottsdale? (John Garrity)

Similarly, there are those who, like Dan B, wonder how a midwestern muni like Swope Memorial, No. 45, can topple a legendary layout like The Country Club. We are all prey to this “we know who or what is best” attitude. It’s the same conventional wisdom that told us that a 20-year-old American street urchin named Francis Ouimet couldn’t possibly outplay the British golf titans Harry Vardon and Ted Ray for the 1913 U.S. Open title.

The Top 50 algorithm, I’m proud to say, does not look down its nose at underdogs. When you take a closer look at a mutt like Swope Memorial — give it a flea bath, say, and a good brushing — you may find that it has a pedigree to compare with that of any Brookline Pomeranian. Did you know, for instance, that the legendary newsman O.B. Keeler, Bobby Jones’s mentor and Boswell, was a regular at Swope Park during his brief tenure at  the Kansas City Star? Keeler wrote about the parkland gem in its 9-hole, pre-Tillinghast iteration, circa 1910, but you could easily apply his words to today’s 6,274-yard championship layout:

It was as simple and straightforward a golf course as nature could devise, uncomplicated by fancy architectural notions. An intermittent sort of stream with trees guarded the first green, and another stream in a steep-walled valley, with a spread of swamp to the right, had to be crossed on the one-shotter, No. 4. … The fairways were good enough, and the rough wasn’t particularly rough, though the putting surfaces never seemed adequate and we were forever complaining about them. Withal, they were not to be despised as excuses. ‘You know how those greens are,’ you could tell your friends.

That sounds a lot like the Swope Memorial I play on my senior-discount, weekdays-and-weekend-afternoons annual pass — particularly that passage about a “steep-walled valley with a spread of swamp,” a spot I seem to find with some regularity. The greens, of course, have improved greatly since Keeler’s time, though they may not be as “sophisticated” as those at The Country Club.

As I recall it [Keeler continues], the original public course at Swope Park ought to have been about as easy a nine holes as the most gingerly neophyte could have asked on which to start cutting down his medal average of 7 strokes to the hole. Yet the shameful confession may as well be made, that not only did I fail to achieve the average of 4 that originally was established as my Ultima Thule*, but also that I cannot recall ever playing a single round of nine holes at an average of 5 — certainly not the full round of 18 holes — in the three years I fought, bled and courted apoplexy about that course.**

*The Latin words Ultima Thule, in medieval geographies, denoted any distant place beyond the boundaries of the known world. The term was later appropriated by the Swedish Viking-rock band, Ultima Thule, which sold one certified platinum and three gold albums in the 1990s.

**From O.B. Keeler’s The Autobiography of an Average Golfer, Greenberg, 1925.

I could go on quoting Keeler to my advantage, but the proof is in the playing, so to speak. I happily invite any Country Club member out to Swope Memorial as my guest, on the understanding that I get a round at The Country Club in return. Who knows? If it impresses me, Brookline might find its way back to the Top 50.*

*Golfweek’s latest course ranking (3-12-10) has The Country Club at No. 20 on its list of so-called Classic Courses. That sounds impressive until you notice that Golfweek excludes all courses built since 1960 — they have a Top 100 of their own! — and totally ignores golf courses outside the U. S. If I were The Country Club, I’d find a second and challenge Golfweek to a duel.

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