Tag Archives: golf courses

Challenge to Turnberry, Augusta National Rankings Rendered Moot

“One point concerning your algorithm,” writes Rick Boule, yet another New Englander frosted by the absence of northeastern courses in the Top 50. “I’m hoping I didn’t miss some nuance in the methodology, but if 10 is the ideal, wouldn’t Turnberry at 10.68 and Augusta National at 10.70 (rated 6 and 7 respectively) fall below your rankings 8 through 12, which have scores of 9.48 through 10.63?”

Boule doesn’t give his occupation, but I’m guessing that he’s a grad student at MIT, where they stay up all night eating pizza and dreaming up ways to punk their rivals at Cal Sci. Which is not to say that he is — what’s the word? — wrong. Turnberry and Augusta National are 0.68 and 0.70 from a perfect 10, while the courses ranked 8 through 12 fall between 0.52 and 0.63 short (or long) of perfection. Which means that for the last 2-½ years they should have been ranked higher than those two famous courses.

I could plead “typo” and simply correct the scores, but Apple’s “Time Machine” software backs up our hard drives on an hourly, daily and weekly basis. I’m confident that a look back in time will reveal that some hacker — possibly Boule himself — guessed our password and planted a number-tweaking bacterium in the list. To which I can only say: “Well played! The joke’s on us.”

I would have addressed the issue yesterday, but I spent Sunday afternoon at the elbow of SI’s Gary Van Sickle in the press room of the WGC-Accenture Match Play in Tucson, Ariz. (Gary looks to me for advice when his laptop starts to shake or buzz.) And now, writing early Monday morning in my room at the Williams Center Marriott Courtyard, I find that I don’t have to address the problem at all.

Why? Because I’ve gotten a voice mail from Cal Sci informing me that all our hardware and software issues have been resolved, the numbers have been crunched and, at long last, WE HAVE A NEW TOP 50 RANKING!

“One highly-regarded golf course, one of your top ten, has fallen completely off the list,” says the excited voice (which, to be honest, I don’t recognize). “What’s more, a brand new golf course has made an unprecedented first appearance at No. 10. Can you guess which one?”

I hate to admit it, but I can’t. So I am eagerly looking forward to this afternoon, when a FedEx envelope with the results will be waiting for me at the front desk of a different Arizona hotel.* If all goes as planned, the new Top 50 will be posted here tomorrow night. Or Tuesday afternoon, at the latest.

*We normally transmit the Top 50 by e-mail or facsimile, but I’m told that the entire Cal Sci campus suffered a power blackout at 6:48 p.m., local time. Authorities are investigating.

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New Top 50 Just Around the Corner

The computer room at Catch Basin is operating normally again, the flooding issues having been resolved and the possum captured and relocated to a creek in southern Jackson County, Mo. That leaves only a couple of obstacles to be overcome before we issue the long-awaited Top 50 update. The first is a minor software glitch: incompatibility issues involving Cal Sci’s mainframe computer and our 1970s-issue Bomar Brain. We’re working on that.

The other obstacle is human frailty. It turns out that a previously dependable course rater — a 10-handicap Midwesterner with a degree from a recognized university — submitted corrupted data for a handful of European golf courses. Most of the errors are inconsequential. He reports, for example, that the new Castle Stuart links in Inverness, Scotland, is a 9-hole parkland course, when it is, in fact, an 18-hole linksland course on the Firth of Moray.

One of his findings, however, has distorted the rankings in an unacceptable way. The course in question belongs to the venerable Pau Golf Club of southern France, currently No. 3,676. Opened in 1856, Pau (pronounced “Poh”) is the oldest course on the European mainland. Apparently dazzled by its antiquity, our renegade rater ignored Top 50 protocols and awarded bonus points for “hundreds of beautiful hardwood trees” and “French-speaking clubhouse staff.” We have discovered, however, that he did not make an actual tour of the golf course.

Pau Golf Club

The Pau Golf Club of France has a wash basin fit for a Caesar. (John Garrity)

Is that a problem? Oh, Mama! In the ball-washer section of the evaluation report, our man gave Pau a rare five-brush rating, calling the club’s Roman-era stone wash basin “the best crankless ball-washer in golf and the only orb overhauler worthy of installation in the British Museum.” Unfortunately, he treated the Roman basin as a dedicated ball washer — which it most definitely is not. Pau members use it to clean their clubs, to scrub their shoes and, for all we know, to brush their teeth.

Rest assured that the overreaching course rater faces severe sanctions. But I’ll need an extra week or so to correct Pau’s score and then recalibrate the updated Top 50.*

*To readers who wonder how a mid-ranked European course can impact the Top 50, I will simply point out that our list, unlike other course rating systems, is configured from the bottom up — i.e., we start with the lowest-ranked course (Ft. Meade City Mobile Home Park Golf Course) and work our way up to No. 1 (Askernish Old).

By the way, England’s Joe Lloyd — winner of the 1897 U.S. Open at the Chicago Golf Club — was Pau’s first head pro. (Or, as they say in France, le premier professeur de golf.) Lloyd also spent many summers pro-ing at the beautiful Essex Country Club in Manchester, Mass., where he was succeeded by Donald Ross, creator of Oak Hill (No. 8), Seminole (No. 14) and Pine Needles (No. 30).

Essex, one of many New England clubs yearning to break into the Top 50, will host the 2010 Curtis Cup.


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Explaining the Top 50 Algorithm

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

The question makes me smile.

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

Askernish Old Golf Course

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

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

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

Ft. Meade (FL) Golf Course

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

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

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

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


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Riviera’s 10th: Best Drivable Par 4?

I was 999 words into an appreciation of the drivable, par-4 10th at Riviera Country Club, site of this week’s Northern Trust Open, when Geoff Shackelford posted this great photograph of the hole — taken, apparently, from a stepladder balanced on top of a carnival tractor. There are no people in Geoff’s photo, so I’m guessing he took it either on Tuesday, when the Oscar nominations were being announced, or this afternoon, when the threesome of Jonathan Byrd, Kevin Sutherland and Charlie Wi made the turn.

Full Image

The 10th at Riviera C.C. (Geoff Shackelford)

A picture being worth the proverbial thousand words, I trashed my comments and drove over to the SI Vault to see if the curators had preserved an essay I wrote about Riviera’s 10th during the 1995 PGA Championship (won by Steve Elkington). I found it in a folder labeled “Literary Gems,” next to one of Dan Patrick’s Q&A columns. Titled “Short and Sweet,” it played off a number of Hollywood tropes. “What a performance!” it began …

… On Thursday, the 10th hole at Riviera Country Club wore a beret and wondered, in a boozy voice, if “ze golfair” would be interested in some stimulating postcards. On Friday, the 10th played the teenager with rolled-up sleeves who offered you a cigarette when you were 11. On Saturday, the 10th put on a striped jacket and stood outside a tent extolling the charms of Little Egypt. And on Sunday, when the PGA Championship was ripe for the taking, the 10th wore a trench coat and tried to entice the big hitters with promises of a nuclear device.

A hole has to have a lot of personality to get me that wound up. The 10th at Riviera is my favorite drivable par-4, and I suspect it is the favorite of most modern golf architects. Bobby Weed cited it as the inspiration for his 16th hole at the University of Florida Golf Course (See “This Old Course”), although he was probably forgetting that the Scots were building drivable par 4s before he was born — the difference being that the Scots also built unreachable par 3s. (The eight seaside holes at James Braid’s Girvan Golf Course, just down the road from Turnberry, seem to have had par assigned by dropping numbered stones from a helicopter.)

If Shackelford’s pic and my purple prose don’t satisfy your pangs for 10th-hole trivia, you can pig out on Steve DiMeglio’s recent piece in USAToday, which begins, “Short and sweet — and plenty dangerous.”

Or is that the first line of Steve’s bio?

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The Aqua-Range: Proof of Greatness?

I am often asked if a golf course gains or loses Top 50 points for tangential or peripheral attributes. “Does free wi-fi in the men’s locker room make a difference?” asks a housewife from Kansas City, Mo. “Do you deduct points for a greenkeeper who plays polka music at ear-splitting volumes in the maintenance shed?” asks a 28-handicapper, also from Kansas City.

To the first question, the answer is a resounding no. The presence or absence of clubhouse filigree has no bearing on the merits of an architect’s design or the quality of a course’s upkeep.

To the second question, the answer is also no.  The Top 50 algorithm adds points for boisterous greenkeepers.*  (Shyness and quietude, although desirable in a librarian, are red flags when you’re hiring a course superintendent. It’s the mousy guy who is out at dawn, spreading fertilizer in the rough and mowing greens until they’re unputtable.)

*I use the term “greenkeeper” because that’s what the first greenkeeper, Old Tom Morris, called himself. He was “the keeper of the [town] green” at Prestwick, Scotland, and later at St. Andrews, in addition to his golf professional duties. Modern-day pedants insist that the term is “greenskeeper” because there are nine or more greens on a golf course. I, for one, am not going to lose a minute’s sleep over the distinction.

To the larger question, I reply: “Hell, yes!” A course ranking system is only as good as the data fed into it, and my Top 50 taps into more data streams than the other six major surveys combined. Do the Golf Digest raters count the ball washers on a course? No, they simply assume that there will be one on every hole. Do Golfweek’s experts make a distinction between curbed and curbless cart paths? I think not. And when these self-styled critics attempt to factor in the intangibles, they invariably get it wrong. Golf Magazine’s raters, for instance, will not give Top 100 status to a course that offers an aqua range.

Chantilly Aqua Range

Safety is paramount at the Dolce Chantilly Golf Club, north of Paris.

How do you account for such obstinacy? Personally, I fell in love with aqua ranges during my “Mats Only” period, when I spent a lot of time working on my golf game. Contrary to what my swing gurus told me — that hitting hundreds of floaters into a pond would train me to hit balls into water hazards during actual rounds — I found that the aqua range desensitized me to the distant plunk or sploosh of a ball landing in water.  Over time, I lost my fear of water hazards and lowered my handicap by nine or ten strokes.

My favorite aqua ranges? I’d give the nod to the tree-lined water range at the Dolce Chantilly Golf Club and Hotel, just north of Paris, France. Second place goes to the Chung Shan Hot Spring Golf Club in Guangdong Province, China, where the surrounding mountains look so fetching in the reflected waters of the club’s target pond. (After a good practice session, hundreds of floater balls bob like corks in the murky water — a sight as beautiful as any algal bloom.)

P.S. Assuming that we can get the possum out of the basement without calling an exterminator, the new Top 50 list will be posted on Tuesday, Feb. 9.


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Red Sox Fan Begs to Differ

Wayne Mills writes, “I just came across your blog after reading your GOLF Magazine piece on Fazio/golf architecture. After reading your take on course ratings (I’m a Golfweek rater), I thought I would endeavor to enlighten you about New England’s great golf courses.”

Wayne goes on to list his personal Top 10 New England courses, and I thank him for that. I’ll even concede that his rankings have merit. But I want to make a couple of points before presenting his choices.

Point 1: Wayne admits that he’s a Golfweek rater — i.e., he is a lavishly-compensated minion working for a rival course-ranking outfit.

Point 2: Wayne has, in all likelihood, visited most of the golf courses in his Top 10. (Familiarity with a venue does not disqualify a course rater, but neither can we ignore the obvious temptation to give high scores to a country club or resort that has fed, clothed, and possibly even bathed the critic.) I, on the other hand, have never even heard of the 9-hole Tatnuck Country Club of Worcester, Mass., which is currently T-53 on my list.

Point 3: Wayne won’t reveal where he lives. (I’m sending the longitudes and latitudes of his Top 10 to my Cal Sci consultant, Charles Eppes, but simple triangulation suggests that Wayne lives in Boston’s elegant Beacon Hill neighborhood, probably on Bowdoin Street. And he drives an Escalade.)

That aside, here are Wayne’s choices for Feast of the East, along with his snarky comments:

The Country Club (Not top 50??? Please, the place is a museum and a cathedral.)

Newport CC (Ever been?)

Kittansett (Oceanfront as good as any.)

Wannamoisett (Ross at his best.)

The Orchards in W Mass (A classic Ross.)

Taconic at Williams College (An unbelievably good golf course in a bucolic setting.)

Eastward Ho on Cape Cod (Herbert Fowler’s greatest. Classic golf in a glorious waterfront setting.)

Crumpin Fox (Roger Rulewich’s masterpiece.)

Country Club of Vermont (A modern classic in the Green Mountains.)

10  Belgrade Lakes (Ten times the course that The Ledges is.)

“And many more,” he writes, before parting with a venomous, “Let me know if you ever get up this way and I’ll show you.” [My emphasis.]

Nice try, Wayne. I’ll visit Boston again when Paul Revere rides out on his horse to say it’s safe.


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Where’s the Post-Panic Golf Boom?

I’m not often wrong, but I definitely misread this Great Recession thing. “Hot damn!” I told my golf-architect pals last winter. “You’ll be up to your armpits in federal funds! You’ll go down in history for Pinehurst No. 12, Pebble Beach New and Bethpage Mauve!” I even advised one of my designer friends, Bill Amick, to invite New York mayor Michael Bloomberg to Tavern on the Green to discuss a new muni in Central Park. I told Bill, “You could call it The Links at Strawberry Fields!”

My mistake was in assuming that our current financial crisis would lead to a national consensus on stimulus spending and jobs programs. The Great Depression, remember, was good for golf. New Deal programs such as the WPA and CWA spent millions of dollars on ball fields, boat ramps, hiking trails and golf courses, which allowed taxpayer money to trickle down to the likes of legendary golf architect A.W. Tillinghast, who used it to build classic public courses like Long Island’s Bethpage Black (site of the 20002 and 2009 U. S. Opens) and Kansas City’s Swope Memorial (host to the 2005 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship).*

*For a thorough exploration of the New Deal golf boom, read Jeff Silverman’s terrific article, “Going Public,” in the June 15, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated Golf Plus.

This time, however, a perfectly good Financial Panic will be wasted. The wimpy $787 billion stimulus package that Congress passed last year explicitly ruled out funding for “basketball courts, tanning salons, swimming pools, wineries, bordellos, puppy mills, sweat shops, cockfight arenas, sidewalks or paved areas within 400 yards of Keith Olbermann, and golf facilities.” Golf, in other words, will not be allowed to benefit from 10% unemployment and trillion-dollar deficits.

I raised this sorry state of affairs a few months ago in North Carolina during my six-courses-in-one-day golf outing with famed golf architect Tom Fazio. “Politically, it’s a different deal,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “You and I would like for this country to be like Ireland and Scotland, where every community has its own golf course. But there’s a lot of people who don’t play golf, and they don’t want that. And they don’t want an art studio, either. They want jobs for the industry that they’re in, or they want ‘economic development.’”

Tom, while searching his bag in vain for a driver that would hit the ball 290 yards with a two-yard draw, came up with an even better reason for our lawmakers’ indifference to golf course development: “The difference between now and the thirties, if you think about it, is we have enough golf courses out there.”

Enough courses? We have sixteen thousand of them, actually, in the U.S. alone. A non-golfer might argue that we have more than enough, given the fact that courses are going out of business, declaring bankruptcy or otherwise giving every indication that they might better serve their communities as dog parks or frisbee fields.*

*I would argue that we suffer from a golf-course shortage. That will become apparent in the spring, when the millions of golfers who normally stay home on weekends to watch Tiger Woods rush, en masse, to the links.

If a municipality really wants a golf course, Tom went on, it can acquire one for far less than it costs to build one. “But where are they going to get the money from? You look at every state and municipal budget — they’re broke! And if they’re not broke, they won’t spend on recreation. They’re shutting down recreation.”

The upside, Tom admitted, is that he can now play golf almost any day of the week. Which is easy to do, since Tom’s winter office in Tequesta, Fla., is right across the highway from the Jupiter Hills Club (No. 10), designed by his tour-player uncle, George Fazio.

For more of Tom Fazio on the plight of the golf industry, check out my feature, “Back to the Drawing Board,” in the February 2010 issue of GOLF Magazine. Or simply click here, saving yourself a few bucks and pushing my former employers that much closer to insolvency.

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Jack Nicklaus Is 70 at the Turn

I can’t let the day go by without noting that Jack Nicklaus has turned 70 — making it 69 years, exactly, since he hit No. 1 on the Nicklaus Family Top 10. Jack has two mountain courses in my current Top 50 — The TPC at Snoqualmie Ridge, No. 23, and Castle Pines Golf Club, No. 33 — and four flatter and thus easier courses on GOLF Magazine’s Top 100 Courses in the U.S., including PGA Tour venues Muirfield Village (Dublin, Ohio) and Harbour Town Golf Links (Hilton Head, S.C.).

“I’m a very fortunate guy in that golf course design is something that kept me in the game of golf,” Jack told Reuters. “It’s a lasting thing that will remain long after my golf game and lifetime.”

Asked last fall to name his favorite course by a dead architect, Jack went for a Donald Ross masterpiece in the sand hills of North Carolina. “From a design perspective, it’s Pinehurst No. 2. It’s a totally tree-lined course where a tree doesn’t come into play and water hazards are non-existent.” Jack could have added that the Carolina Hotel has a terrific breakfast buffet, but for reasons of his own he chose not to.

Intrigued by Jack’s choice, I’m going to put on my Golf Ghost hat to ask the very late Donald Ross to name his favorite course by a living architect. When I get an answer, I’ll let you know. Until then, here’s my interview with Ross’s ghost that ran in the 2006 SI Golf Plus Masters Preview.

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New England Courses: Underrated?

A persistent correspondent from the Bay State wants to know why there are no New England courses in my Top 50. My first instinct is to answer in the soothing voice I employ with grandchildren whose grade school teams have lost by more than thirty points (or 8 wickets, if they’re Aussies): “There’s no disgrace in being average, Johnny. George W. Bush was average, and he grew up to be a two-term president of the United States!”

I’ll resist that temptation. The truth is, no fewer than 37 northeastern courses are ranked in my Top 100. It’s just their bad luck that I only publish the Top 50.

For example, three New England courses are currently tied for 53rd place with scores of 8.09. They are: The Country Club (Willie and Alex Campbell, Rees Jones), Brookline, Mass.; The Ledges Golf Club (William Bradley Booth), York, Maine; and the 9-hole Tatnuck Country Club (Donald Ross), Worcester, Mass.

It’s hard to argue against their inclusion. The Country Club is the oldest golf club in the U.S., host to the 1999 Ryder Cup and the site of the 1913 U.S. Open, won by Francis Ouimet.  The Ledges was  GOLF Magazine’s “best new public course in New England” for 1999, and Golf Styles New England calls its 18th hole “the toughest finishing hole in New England.” Tatnuck, according to a reviewer at golflink.com, is “a plush, scenic 9-hole Donald Ross design with tree-lined fairways and nice elevation changes. There are 18 tees … [and] the restaurant is arguably the best in Worcester.”

I’d be surprised, however, if any of these courses move up when the new Top 50 is posted next week.*

*There’s been another delay. The raw data sheets were inadvertently put in the clothes washer, causing them to clump together in a pulpy mass.

I’m basing that on a recent phone conversation with one of my Vermont course raters. “Have you looked out a window lately?” he asked me. “It’s a frickin’ Ice Age out there! All the courses are covered with snow, and I don’t see relief coming until spring, at the earliest.”

He’s an excitable guy, but he knows his golf courses. Sorry, New England! Unless that “global warming” thing pans out, your courses are destined for second-tier status.

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Reckless Charge of Bias from Hilton Head Hacker

A comment by David Henson of Hilton Head, S.C., deserves a considered reply. He asks, “Does the site of your most recent (golf) victory, i.e., Palmetto Hall on Hilton Head Island, get a mention??”

Henson is referring to my triumph (with an unnamed partner whose initials are D.H.) in the Contested Handicap Flight of the 2009 Palmetto Hall Plantation Club Member-Guest. And while I appreciate his mention of our five-match blitzkrieg over some of Palmetto Hall’s most-accomplished mid-handicappers, I have to correct the impression he leaves — that my Top 50 course rankings are in some way influenced by subjective criteria. The fact that I was fed and entertained for four days; treated to 60-some-odd holes of free golf; gifted with a dozen logoed golf balls, a designer golf shirt and sundry other golf-related items; and, at tournament’s end, awarded a ceramic champion’s urn of Grecian motif (suitable for displaying one’s ashes after acceptance into the St. Peter’s Golf & Country Club) — none of that can impact the secret Cal Sci algorithm behind the Top 50 rankings.

To refute any claims of bias, I will merely point out that the Robert Cupp course, the more difficult of Palmetto Hall’s two championship layouts, languishes at No. 783 on the most recent JG Top 50. “Too much water, too many trees, and the greens aren’t level,” complains my most experienced course rater. Another evaluator calls the Cupp’s single-cut-of-rough policy “barbaric … The perfectly struck drive, of which I hit many, rolls through the fairway and disappears into 5-inch Bermuda rough. On any other course I would have shot 95 or better, but I stormed off Palmetto Hall without turning in my scorecard.”

Granted, that was 2-½ years ago. When I played Palmetto Hall last September, the rough on both courses was cut at a reasonable height and the surrounding pine forest produced the statistically proper ratio of bounce-backs into the fairway versus balls lost in the woods — i.e., 4 to 1. If it were a restaurant, I would have given the Cupp course 4-½ forks.

Whether design tweaks and storm damage have pushed Palmetto Hall into the Top 50 remains to be seen. Meanwhile, I’ll be checking random variables with the Bomar Brain and re-reading chapters of Douglas R. Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach. The tentative release date for my updated Top 50 is January 17.


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