Tag Archives: Pebble Beach

Can Turnberry’s View Be Saved?

The Top 50‘s readers seem to be unevenly incensed over the news that Scotland’s Ailsa Craig has been plundered to provide curling stones for Olympic athletes. “It’s disheartening to think my ancient kinsmen have chosen to support the second most Scottish game at the expense of one of the treasures of the first,” writes David Hill, the recently-retired director of championships for the R&A. “No, it’s heartening,” writes Hebridean Curling Society secretary Angus Macmurray, “to think my ancient kinsmen have chosen to support the second most Scottish game at the expense of one of the treasures of the first.”

Ailsa Crag

This rock, far bigger than the Hope Diamond, can be had for far less. (John Garrity)

Since a blog is only as good as the outrage it inspires, I take this as a sign that something must be done, right now, to preserve Ailsa Craig for future generations. The way forward is hinted at by John Burns in his Pulitzer Prize-worthy coverage for The New York Times:

… the modest income from the quarrying of the island’s prized strains of blue hone and common green and a lease granted to Britain’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds have taxed the dwindling resources of its owner, the eighth Marquess of Ailsa, whose family has owned the island for 500 years.

Like many of Britain’s old landowning families, the marquess’s family has been through decades of retrenchment as a result of inheritance taxes. It lost the family seat, Culzean Castle, to the National Trust in 1945, and in 2010 the current marquess decided to part with Ailsa Craig, posting an initial price of $4 million. That figure was later cut to $2.4 million, and as the waters of the Firth of Clyde have lapped at Ailsa Craig’s rocky shore each day, little has changed in the intervening years. The island remains misty, monumental and for sale.

My first impulse, upon reading this, was to simply write a check for $2.4 million, take possession of the island and begin a thorough rehab of its iconic profile. But my very wise wife pointed out that this is the sort of stunt that one-percenters like myself are given to, and my generosity might be misconstrued. So I have decided instead to grant the privilege of preserving third-ranked Turnberry’s view to my readers — a.k.a. “The American golfer.” Send me your donations, large or small, and I will hold them in an interest-bearing account until we meet the $2.4 million asking price. I will then purchase the island on behalf of the Top 50 Charitable Trust, assuming the purely honorific title of “first Marquess of Catch Basin” along with the necessary powers of attorney to carry out the restoration.

By “restoration,” of course, I mean restoration of the island to its pre-Sochi profile, which will require the repatriation of some two thousand tons of microgranite. I expect the five-star Turnberry Resort to underwrite this aspect of the project, it being in that Open Championship venue’s interest to preserve one of golf’s most iconic views. But if Turnberry or the R&A should fail to step up, we can follow the example of London Bridge, which was dismantled in 1967 and moved to Lake Havasu City, Ariz., as part of a real-estate deal. My personal choice would be to dismantle Ailsa Craig and reassemble it in the Flint Hills of Kansas, just west of fourth-ranked Prairie Dunes Country Club. This would be good for two reasons. 1) Prairie Dunes, with its view enhanced, would pass Turnberry in the ranking. (I love both courses, but hey, I live in Kansas City.) 2) There are very few Olympic curlers in Kansas.

Please make your checks payable to John Garrity.

Top 50 on TV: Ninth-ranked Pebble Beach Golf Links hosts the AT&T National Pro-Am at Pebble Beach. Pebble recently gained nearly a tenth of a point in the ranking, probably because of its new driving range and golf academy, which occupy a large plot of land above the Peter Hay Par-3 Course. Unfortunately, I had to deduct .032 points yesterday afternoon when I saw that the admittedly gorgeous tee line faces directly into the setting sun. (Range rats prefer north-facing ranges, except in the Southern Hemisphere; that’s because water below the equator circles the drain in the opposite direction.) Needless to say, all of the Monterey Peninsula courses would benefit from the addition of an offshore island, if one could be had for a fair price.

Pebble Beach driving range

The new range at Pebble Beach is a major upgrade for the venerable resort. (John Garrity)


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KC Pro Fights for Hillcrest Ranking

“Hey, John,” writes Kansas City club pro John Bozarth. “When we get the ninth green finished here at Hillcrest, will we move up in the Top 50 list?”

Hillcrest's 9th green

Richard III wasn’t found under the tailings of Hillcrest’s old 9th green — just a lot of ribbons and rice. (John Garrity)

Bozarth is referring to the original Donald Ross green at 45th-ranked Hillcrest Golf Club, a three-time PGA Tour venue. Several years ago, a club executive decided that Ross’s green would produce more revenue as a wedding bower, situated as it was close to the clubhouse and parking for tin-can-festooned getaway cars. Dimly aware that golfers would still need a place to hole out before moving on to No. 10, the executive installed a new ninth green of dubious merit — a small, sticky putting patch fronted by a bunker and a stone wall.

Ross promptly shifted in his grave.

Since 17-½ holes falls just shy of the accepted standard for championship play, Hillcrest no longer evokes comparisons to Ross’s more-famous parkland courses, such as Chicago’s Beverly CC, Atlanta’s East Lake GC, and Rochester’s 51st-ranked Oak Hill CC, site of this summer’s PGA Championship. But Bozarth assumes, with logic on his side, that the restoration of Hillcrest’s once-great ninth hole will put his track back in the national picture.

“I would at the very least like to go ahead of the other course listed from the Kansas City area,” Bozarth writes.* “What is the criteria for choosing the ranking? Is there a way to influence that decision, like free fountain drinks, or maybe a season’s supply of tees? Or I could let you use my covered cart when it is cold. Well, I think you can see where I’m going with this.”

*The “other course” would be Tom Fazio’s 42nd-ranked Hallbrook Country Club, one of the midwest’s most challenging layouts and home course of Tour Tempo pioneer John Novosel, co-author of Tour Tempo 2: The Short Game and Beyond. 

Bozarth is a friend, so I know that his wink-wink, nudge-nudge is merely his way of acknowledging the incorruptibility of the Top 50 ranking. (It’s all science here at Catch Basin. A season’s supply of tees doesn’t even move the needle.) But he’s not crazy for supposing that Hillcrest will move up when the old ninth green is put back in play.

That new fleet of golf carts won’t hurt, either.

Top 50 on TV: Ninth-ranked Pebble Beach Golf Links swept defending champ Phil Mickelson off his feet today at the AT&T National Pro-Am. (Those rocks are slippery.) Meanwhile, the postman just delivered a book by Oliver Horovitz called An American Caddie in St. Andrews: Growing Up, Girls, and Looping on the [16th-ranked] Old Course. I enjoyed An American Caddie in page proofs some time back, but it’s possible that Gotham Books has trimmed it to appeal to the bridal-shower crowd. I’ll read it again and let you know.

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Coastal Par-3 Breaks Into Top 50

Pebble Beach is so over-rated,” grouses a reader from Ft. Meade, Fla., dissing our ninth-ranked course. Another reader insists that sixth-ranked Augusta National is “a lot of fancy grass and prom corsages masquerading as a golf course.”

It would be easy to dismiss these comments as the ravings of unschooled dolts, but the Top 50 doesn’t operate that way. We investigate such claims. We put all our resources to the task. We even make calls.

Gary Van Sickle

Van Sickle ponders Pebble’s ranking while covering the U.S. Open at Olympic. (John Garrity)

To placate the Ft. Meade correspondent, we sent chief course rater Gary Van Sickle to Monterey to see if the iconic California layout had deteriorated since we last played it. Gary immediately wired back that it had not. “PEBBLE BEACH REMAINS THE GREATEST GOLFING EXPERIENCE IN THE WORLD STOP SEND EXPENSE MONEY STOP.”

He filed the rest of his report in the form of a GOLF.com article from which we quote to the full extent of the fair-use provisions of the Copyright Act:

Purists like to rate golf courses based on absolutes like shot values, relation to par and other inside-golf things. I’ve read those who say Pebble has 10 great holes and eight mediocre ones, and that it’s grossly overrated. I wish one of those critics could have been out on the peninsula with my group Sunday afternoon, basking in the early-evening golden light with postcard views in every direction, hearing the crashing of the waves, the squawk of the gulls and smelling the scent of the sea. Race the sun to the finish, like we did (although it was a very slowwww race), and try to play the 18th hole in the dark when you could no longer see the ball at your feet, and tell me Pebble Beach is overrated.

It isn’t. It’s an experience you can’t put a price on. You would pay just to walk this hallowed green and savor the dramatic meeting between land and sea. It’s special.

After playing Pebble, Gary visited the previously unranked Casserly Par-3 Golf Course in Watsonville, just up the coast. Finding it to be “better than a pleasant surprise” at $9 per round, he called our attention to Casserly’s signature hole, the 112-yard seventh, which calls for a carry over a ravine and a 60-foot pine that blocks the green. “I COULDN’T SEE THE PIN BEHIND THE PINE STOP VERY COOL STOP”

Gary’s enthusiasm for Casserly was almost as great as his enthusiasm for Pebble, so we have tentatively installed the Par-3 at No. 49, displacing Robert Trent Jones Jr.’s CordeValle Resort course, site of the PGA Tour’s Frys.com Open.

Practice round at Olympic

51st-ranked Olympic Club is tough from the back tees. (John Garrity)

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but the U.S. Open is being played on the famous Lake Course at San Francisco’s Olympic Club, currently ranked No. 51. Further west, in Japan, they’re still agonizing over the abysmal attendance, in late May, at the Diamond Cup at the Country Club of Japan in the Tokyo suburbs. “Miserable results,” writes Duke Ishikawa, our chief Asian correspondent. “The four-day total was 6,839. Same week as Colonial. Thursday was only a thousand.”

There are several reasons for Japan’s attendance slump, but Duke says it’s mostly the fans’ infatuation with young Ryo Ishikawa (no relation), who is playing more American events. “I have suggested in my articles that Ryo play more in the U.S. because it’s the world’s strongest tour,” he writes, “and especially the Memorial, because that’s Jack’s tournament. But Katsuji Ebisawa, our tour’s new chairman, sent an official letter to Ryo entreating ‘please don’t forget the Japanese Tour.’

Duke continues: “The New York Times said ‘One Star Between Two Tours,’ but I don’t think Ryo is a star. He is just an idol, a gallery’s pet. Or a pin-up boy. But he still influences the sports show in Japan. To stay on the U.S. Tour or not, that is Ryo’s question.”

Pressed for another reason why fans might shun the Japanese tournaments, Duke mentions the high prices at concession stands. “At Japan Open my friends paid US $11 for a piece of sausage and a coke.”

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Michael Murphy Riffs, Act 2

With routine maintenance occupying the Bomar Brain, I’ve decided to do the crowd-pleasing thing and post more of my interview with Golf in the Kingdom author Michael Murphy. Our conversation, from 20 months ago, was filmed and recorded at the Warner Bros. studios in Burbank, Calif., not far from the sound stage where Casablanca was filmed. Michael wore jeans and a brown sweater, and he looked much the same as I remembered him — thin gray hair, face not-to-deeply lined for 79, complexion slightly florid, quick to smile.

JG: Are you still playing golf?

MM: Nope.

JG: When did you stop? After we played at Pebble?*

*The novelist and the blogger shared a memorable round, complete with a metaphysically-induced hole-in-one by a third party, at the 1994 Shivas Irons Games of the Links.

MM: I quit four or five years ago. Finally, I — well, you know my game, John. I modeled my swing on Byron Nelson, down the middle and 200 yards. But it’s so boring to be out-driven by 100 yards. Two shots to get to my partner’s drive. I don’t like that, actually. To hell with that!

Royal Portrush

Northern Ireland's Royal Portrush links — another course that could have been the inspiration, but wasn't, for Burningbush. (John Garrity)

JG: Did you have a final round that you knew would be your final round?

MM: I can’t remember. [frowning] No, it’s receded into the misty past. But I make up for it, I walk my four or five miles every day. When you and I played, I was a runner, competing in the over-40 divisions. That took a lot of my time and energy. But now it’s just pride. Some would call it ego. I went out with my brother once, it was in the last year of his life. He had various afflictions. To be 100 yards behind my younger brother, who was in bad shape — it’s humiliating.

JG: But you do remember our round at Pebble Beach?

MM: Very.

JG: And the hole-in-one that Andy Nusbaum made on the seventh?

MM: The only hole-in-one I’ve ever seen!

JG: And since it was part of the “Games of the Links,” you had a flautist and a cellist playing Renaissance music on the tee, and an actor in the role of Seamus McDuff, and I was covering it for Sports Illustrated, and it was all being videotaped. Andy not only got the best-documented hole-in-one in history — it even came with a live musical score!

MM: High point of his life. All downhill after that.

JG: Getting back to Golf in the Kingdom, how much time did you spend on location at Bandon Dunes?

MM: Well, almost four weeks. I think I only missed the last week.

OFF-CAMERA VOICE: Twenty days.

MM: Twenty days?

OFF-CAMERA VOICE: Well, [apparel titan] John Ashworth is a great friend of mine, and I was visiting him down in Carlsbad, and he said, “If you really want to make a low-budget feature of Golf in the Kingdom, go up to this place called Bandon Dunes. It’s just perfect.” I’d never heard of it, so I said, “Well, you’re going to have to call for me.” So he called Mike Keiser, and Mike said, “Have Mindy call me.” And I called him. He said, ‘It’s destiny, come on up.”

JG: Well, anyway, you go up there and they’re making a film after all these years, 38 years. They’re bringing your novel to life. But these are new people with their own vision. What’s that like for you? I mean, you obviously had in your head an idea about the characters and what everything looked like.

MM: Well, it helped me understand why they say, “Keep the damn writer off the set.” I mean, these are two radically different art forms. It’s like two species mating; they can’t mate, but they think they can. So I gained tremendous insight into my own vast incompetence. I mean, to see twenty people or so, every one of them with a job. You have the director, the two assistant directors, the photographer, the assistant photographer, all of them certified pros. Then you have these “grips” with these belts of tools — weird tools that you’ve never seen before, and they’re coming in from different angles. And I realize that the photographer [Arturo D. Smith], who’s a tremendously gifted guy, and the director [Susan Streitfeld] are seeing things that I don’t see — things that I haven’t been trained to see — and they have been doing this for thirty years. So after two or three days, I retired to the sidelines.

JG: You took a knee.

MM: With a great sense of relief. But I had a fantastic time with David O’Hara, who plays Shivas Irons. We practiced meditation together, we had drinks together, we had great talks at night. It was a lot of fun, and it really opened my eyes to the vast amount of skill that goes into a feature film. And the difficulties! God, it’s a miracle that any of these films turn out well. There’s so many moving parts. I use the line — don’t print this, because they’re all watching, including the lawyer ….

JG: I’m good about these things. I understand “off the record.”

MM: Well, I say, “It’s a lot like making love. A lot can go wrong.” [Laughter] My wife’s not going to like that. Whatever. Keep it in.

JG: But you have seen actors, over the years, perform scenes from the book. The Games of the Links was part dinner theater.

MM: Yes, and I’ve always loved that, because I have friends who write screenplays or write for the theater. They write with anticipation of how it’s going to sound. I never did. Golf in the Kingdom was the first book I ever wrote, and it wasn’t really edited. It just came out. But Annie Long, who plays Agatha in the movie, she said, “Boy, you write in such a way that it’s fun to deliver.” And that was so flattering. I don’t know how true it is, but it was flattering. You know, you think it up here [pointing to his head], and then you feel it [pointing to his chest], and then somebody does it. And it’s a wonderful miracle, you know?

JG: But every actor, I assume, brings something different to it.

MM: Right, exactly. And the same for every director and every director of photography. But first and foremost is the actor.

JG: The cast [Malcolm McDowell, David O’Hara, Frances Fisher, Tony Curran, et al.] obviously had the chops for playing these roles. Did they also bring some knowledge of golf to the project?

MM: Well, the young guy who plays Michael [Mason Gamble], he has a nice golf swing and has played a lot of golf. Malcolm McDowell, he plays golf all the time. Six of the cast are Brits, two or three of them Scots-Irish. So there’s a lot of command of the language, and they’re all talented. For the amount of money that was paid, it defies the laws of gravity.

JG: What scenes were they shooting when you were on the site?

MM: Well, I missed the banquet scene. It was primarily David as Shivas Irons and Mason as the Michael character. And Jim Turner as the MacIver character.

JG: People describe movie making as this agony of waiting and waiting to do something, and finally doing it, and then sitting down and waiting some more. Was that your take?

MM: Very much so. I mean, it’s a tough, tough job.

JG: Would you have the temperament for that?

MM: I doubt it. I can sit and write all day — but see, I’m in charge of everything. The author is the producer, the director, the actor, he’s everything. So to be out there with the movie makers and to be reduced to a mere widget — well, I’m not trained for that. So I just rooted from the sideline. Once I owned up to the staggering size of my incompetence, I actually had a very good time.

Speaking of staggering incompetence, the Top 50’s IT director just stopped by to tell me that the latest shipment of fanfold paper was folded wrong side out. I’ll pick up the Murphy interview again in a couple of days. Meanwhile, if any of you have actually seen the movie, I’d welcome a short review.

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but the PGA Championship will be contested  on the 512th-ranked Highlands Course at the Atlanta Athletic Club in Johns Creek, Ga. Informed this afternoon that this is the first major to which fans can bring cell phones, Masters champion Charl Schwarzel said, “Every single phone these days has got a silent mode, so put the thing on silent. That’s about all I can say.”

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Price? It’s No Indicator of Quality Golf

“I know your rankings are baloney,” writes a reverse-mortgage broker from Decatur, Ga. “How do I know? Because you’ve got so-called “top fifty” courses that I can play for less than fifty dollars. You know as well as I do that great golf is expensive. As my dad used to tell me, ‘If you can afford to play it, it’s not worth playing.’”

Reading Decatur’s words, I have to chuckle. The Cal Sci algorithm that we use to pick the Top 50 includes practically every variable that might go into a course ranking system, including admittedly off-beat criteria such as flag-material thread count and average-wind-speed-to-ambient-grade ratio. But we have never — I repeat, never — fed the price of a round into our computers.

Think about it. If cost were proportional to quality, you wouldn’t need a course rating. You’d simply Google “most expensive golf” and up would pop your number one course: Shadow Creek Golf Course of Las Vegas, Nevada. ($500 per round.) Right behind Shadow Creek, according to copycat web sites, are Pebble Beach Golf Links ($475) and Old Head Golf Links of Kinsale, Ireland ($400).

17th Green at Pebble Beach

Pebble Beach: Always a delight, but never a bargain. (John Garrity)

Change the search to “most expensive golf clubs” and you get a gaggle of neighboring clubs on Long Island, N.Y., including four-time U.S. Open venue Shinnecock Hills GC, the National Golf Links of America, Atlantic GC, and The Bridge, all of which cost between a half-million and $750,000 to join. (And only if you’re invited!) The ten founding members of Sebonack GC, meanwhile, forked over $1.5 million each to play in the dunes along Great Peconic Bay. Which tells you that your average Hamptons golfer can treat you to a round at Shadow Creek with change found under his sofa cushions.

Of those eight courses, you will note, only Pebble Beach is in my Top 50. That’s because I recognize the absurdity of evaluating a course by its price tag. First of all, green fees can and do change, independent of course conditions. When I first played the  16th-ranked Old Course at St. Andrews, I paid something like 22 British pounds. Today, I’d have to pay a high-season rate of 130 pounds. Is the Old Course 5.9 times better than it was in 1990? Of course not!*

*It’s only 1.07 times better, and that’s due to improved parking around the Links Clubhouse, which opened in 1995.

A second reason to discount price is that it empowers Donald Trump.

A third reason …. but do I have to go on?

My old friend Jaime Diaz, the best print analyst in golf today, supports my views in the current Golf World. In a column headlined “Bigger Didn’t Make Golf Better; Some Tips on Saving the Game,” Jaime lands a few good jabs on the jaw of golf-industry bloat, including the cogent point that modern courses have been stretched to absurd lengths, making the game far too difficult for the average player. His solution: shorten ‘em.

“Longer term,” he goes on, “the greatest opportunity to turn the game around lies in the way people learn it ….”

“Over the years I’ve been increasingly struck by how many of the most accomplished and fulfilled golfers started out playing young and on the cheap, usually at a ragtag course where they could go round and round. More often than not, they learned technique by copying better players, with the final process one of simple and often zone-inducing trial and error. As Michael Hebron, a PGA Master Professional, likes to say, ‘You play to learn, not learn to play.'”

Askernish's "Old Tom's Pulpit" green

Askernish: Full membership for 125 British Pounds per year!

Yes! Now, flick your eyes to the sidebar on the right. You’ll see that the top two spots in the Top 50 are held by Askernish Old and Carne, two peerless links courses whose combined construction costs wouldn’t match what The Donald will spend on clubhouse art for his overblown Trump International Golf Links in Aberdeenshire. Neither Askernish nor Carne have valet parking, bag boys or teaching pros. Neither has a full-service practice range. Or cart paths. Or ball washers. What they have in abundance are spectacular dunes, awesome views, unforgettable holes, and summer days that go on and on and on.

Yes, Askernish and Carne would drop in the ranking if our algorithm gave points for sky-high green fees. But it doesn’t. It gives points for teenagers deciding to skip dinner to squeeze in another 18 before dark.

Tell us we’re wrong.

Top 50 on TV: Uh …. forget what you just read. Two of our priciest courses are on display this weekend at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am — the luxe Pebble Beach Golf Links (No. 9) and the very exclusive Monterey Peninsula Country Club (No. 46). All we can say in our defense is that we’ve never spent a penny at either one of them. (It’s good to be a golf writer!)

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Castle Stuart Passes Latest Test

A reader from “Lake Wobegon” — a transparent alias for Lake Michigan, which provided the backdrop and fog for last week’s PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, No. 18 — asks for my definition of the word overrated. “If I can figure out what dictionary you’re using,” he writes, “I can maybe understand your omission of Pine Valley, Pinehurst No. 2, Medinah No. 3, Cherry Hills, The Country Club, Riviera, Inverness, Oakland Hills, Firestone South, Winged Foot, Congressional and Baltusrol from your ridiculous rankings.”

Simply by perusing Wobegon’s list of “slighted” courses I can tell a lot about the man. (There can be no doubt he is a man.) He lives on the far side of fifty, plays to a single-digit handicap, drives a Cadillac Escalade, walks about with a sweater around his neck, drinks Johnny Walker Black, has a home library with more than 200 golf books and a wing chair, votes Republican, has a trophy wife, and files an amended tax return two years out of five. He is, in other words, a man very much like myself.*

*I drive a Honda Insight hybrid, never touch alcohol and vote Democratic, but I roughly conform to the stereotype.

So I can understand Wobegon’s reluctance to accept that Time has passed him — and his beloved Canon of Great Golf Courses — by. (“It strikes! one, two,”  declaims Ben Jonson. “Three, four, five, six. Enough, enough, dear watch, Thy pulse hath beat enough.” ) All the courses he names have resided for a while in the Top 50, only to flow down and off the list like water going over a falls. As for my definition of overrated, I go with American Heritage: “to rate or appraise too highly.”

Which brings me back to the Castle Stuart Golf Links of Inverness, Scotland. Castle Stuart, open only a few months when it debuted last year at No. 10, has since risen to ninth, raising suspicions that insiders with personal agendas might have influenced the rating.*

*Specifically, critics have pointed to my middle name, which happens to be Stuart, and to my most recent book, Ancestral Links: A Golf Obsession Spanning Generations, which has three chapters on the golfing history of the Royal Stuart family, ending with a thwarted visit to the Castle Stuart construction site in the autumn of 2007. My critics, of course, are complete asses.

Castle Stuart

Whitecaps on the Firth? The 11th at Castle Stuart (John Garrity)

As mentioned in an earlier post, Dave Henson and I played only five holes at Castle Stuart on the Fourth of July, due to winds of up to 70 mph and precipitation in the form of horizontal rain, sleet, snow, hail and frozen desserts. Returning three days later at mid-morning, we were happy to see the sky cleared of clouds and the sun spreading its warmth; the only hangup was the wind, which was inexplicably stronger, gusting to 75. Dave was dubious about playing, but I assured him that Mark Parsinen and Gil Hanse had taken wind into account when they designed Castle Stuart. “Just remember to keep one foot on your trolley when you’re hitting a shot,” I told him. “And don’t hit your driver into the wind.”

Dave, whose former post in the Labor Department had him giving advice rather than taking it, apparently thought I was joking. He spent most of the round picking up his  toppled bag, chasing his trolley as it rolled toward cliffs, and watching his drives get swatted down by the gale. I, on the other hand, played most of my shots with a hybrid-4,  employing a hinge-and-hold technique that produced a steady tattoo of 130- to 150-yard wormburners. “It’s golf as it was meant to be played,” I told my frazzled friend, mentally pocketing skin after skin.

Despite the extreme conditions, Castle Stuart was playable. The ball rolled on its own accord on just one green, the twelfth, which clings to a promontory above the beach. The broad fairways, meanwhile, were receptive to smartly-struck drives, and the green complexes tended to collect and contain wayward shots rather than repel them. Aesthetically, Castle Stuart most resembles Top 50 evergreens Pebble Beach and Whistling Straits. The first three holes on each side run low along the water but in opposite directions, bringing the wind into play in contrary fashion. Subsequent holes ride the higher ground, and it’s only when you walk over to cliff’s edge that you see the holes below. The views, needless to say, are spectacular, and there are so many memorable holes that it’s hard to pick out a favorite. The postcard hole is probably the par-3 11th, played from a cliff-wall tee to a hanging-over-the-water green guarded by a nasty pot bunker.

Anyway, having played the course twice now — once last summer in a modest breeze and more recently in wind-tunnel conditions — I can confidently say that Castle Stuart, at No. 9, is not overrated. If anything, it is underrated. (“To rate or evaluate too low; underestimate.”) Personally, I put it right up there with Askernish Old and Carne, my two favorite courses.

Top 50 Alert: Erin Hills Golf Course of Erin, Wisc., recently picked to host the 2017 U.S. Open, debuts at No. 23, the highest first-time ranking for a course since Castle Stuart debuted at No. 10.  Built on farmland outside Milwaukee, Erin Hills echoes the trend toward rural courses with links-style characteristics, a la Prairie Dunes, Sand Hills, Whistling Straits and Medicine Hole. In fact, the bag drop/caddyshack at Erin Hills is an actual barn. (Note to USGA: Provide paved parking for Escalades.)


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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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No Substance to Reader’s Complaint

“Where have you been?” asks a reader from Peculiar, Mo. “Geoff Shackelford posts more in a day than you give us in a month.”

The reader, of course, couldn’t be more wrong. My Top 50 Blog is all about the adjacent list, and the list is constantly being updated by the Cal Sci math department. Last Saturday, for example, the Carne Golf Links of Belmullet, Ireland, briefly snatched the No. 2 ranking from the Augusta National Golf Club of Augusta, Ga. Yesterday, the new Machrihanish Dunes course on Scotland’s Kintyre Peninsula surged to No. 50, only to be beaten back by the Nairn Golf Links, a well-regarded Highlands course that will host the 2012 Curtis Cup matches. And now, in just the past two hours, those four courses have reverted to the ranks they held last Friday. Had the reader been paying attention, she would have spotted the activity and held off on her nagging e-mail.

My “columns,” as I like to think of them, are a different matter. I try to knock one out on at least a monthly basis, but I lead a busy life. In addition to my SI/GOLF/Golf.com duties, I serve on two Presidential commissions, take occasional gigs as a hotel-lobby jazz pianist, coach a parochial-league basketball team, assist several NBA teams with their draft choices, serve as official photographer for the Missouri Snipe-Hunt Association and  — on doctor’s orders — play golf as often as I can. Finding time to craft these columns is difficult, and readers‘ complaints don’t make it any easier.

Did I mention how much I travel? I spent the last three weeks in Scotland and Ireland checking up on several of the Top 50’s links courses. After each round I filled out the 22-page Top 50 course-rating form and mailed it off to the States, a procedure that took from two to four hours. (The longer time was for top-ranked Askernish Old, where the backup generator didn’t always kick in when the clubhouse windmill slowed.) Many of these rounds lasted until well past ten p.m. with hours of paperwork to follow, so no one, least of all my wife, should be surprised that I had to bang on a farmhouse door at 1 a.m. on the Herbridean island of South Uist to get the key to the front doors of the Borrodale Hotel, which was inexplicably locked.

That said, I hope to post several brief course reports in the next few days. They may not satisfy the reader in Peculiar, but they should go over well in Normal, Ill.

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Rolex Jumps on Top 50 Bandwagon

Reading the foreword to The Rolex World’s Top 1000 Golf Courses — which has appeared, as if by magic, on my desk in the press tent at the Open Championship in St. Andrews, Scotland — I find myself blushing with false modesty. In the just-published volume’s “Dear Golfers” opener the watchmakers boast that their book, which weighs about as much as a loaded picnic hamper, took three years to complete.

“We have a network of over 200 ‘inspectors,’” the minutemen continue, “composed of enlightened amateurs, professional golfers and journalists specializing in golf course architecture. They have anonymously worked their way around the golfing world, completing an in-depth questionnaire and adding incisive and personalized comments of their own. Our Editorial Committee has given each course a score, geared primarily to the excellence of the site, the course architecture involved, and of course maintenance and condition. After considerable deliberation and verification, we took the entire 33,000 courses currently registered worldwide and ended up with those we consider to be the Top 1000.”

Royal Dornoch Golf

Royal Dornoch rated a mere 95? Really? (John Garrity)

This, of course, is pretty much the modus operandi of The Top 50, so I accept Rolex’s imitation as the sincerest form of flattery and wish them the best as they attempt to catch up.

But now I read the next paragraph.  “For the first time in the history of golf,” the sundial salesmen crow, “a genuine world ranking has been established; like all rankings it is of course subjective but it is the result of unbiased and independent opinion with no commercial pressure.”

This preposterous claim is easily debunked. The Top 50 has been cranking out genuine world rankings since July of 2007, when, by the watchmaker’s own account, they were still looking up courses on MapQuest. Furthermore, Rolex concedes that its rankings are subjective — unlike the Top 50, which concedes nothing. As for the claim that their ratings are reached “with no commercial pressure,” I can only tip my hat in admiration. Like the Times Square huckster with a hundred watches pinned to the lining of his raincoat, Rolex cranes its neck looking in all directions and finds no corporate involvement.*

*Nothing in this paragraph should be interpreted as a criticism of Rolex, valued sponsor of the biennial Writers Cup matches between teams of golf writers from the United States and Europe.

Those points aside, I give the editors credit for compiling an impressive catalog of meritorious golf courses from all corners of the admittedly spherical earth. In addition to course addresses, phone numbers and dress codes, Rolex provides altitudes and GPS coordinates. (For example, the Moonah Links Legends Course in Fingal, Australia,  sits at an altitude of 15 meters at 38˚24‘24.27” S 144˚51‘14.68” E — information that would have kept me from missing my tee time on my last trip Down Under.) Rolex also designates a “signature hole” for each course — an important detail if you send a lot of COD packages to golfers.

As for the Rolex rankings themselves, what can I say? First of all, they aren’t true rankings. To avoid hurt feelings, the Editorial Committee scored the courses in five-percentile blocks, corralling the top 15 into the “100” category, the next 73 into the “95” category, and the rest of the sorry lot into “90s,” “85s,” “80s,” and “75s.” It’s an original scheme, but you wind up with a 73-way tie for sixteenth that puts Pebble Beach, Pinehurst No. 2 and Prairie Dunes on the same level. (Their scientifically-accurate Top 50 ratings are 6, 51, and 7, respectively.) Furthermore, Rolex’s top-15 reads like an tardy schoolboy’s test paper, correctly guessing only three courses from the Top 50 blog (Augusta National, Cypress Point and St. Andrews Old Course), while canonizing Top 50 no-shows such as Bethpage Black and Torrey Pines South.

The real problem with the Rolex Thousand is that they published it. I love hardcover books as much as the next man — if the next man is Johannes Gutenberg — but I don’t take my grocery lists to the bindery. Golf course rankings, to be meaningful, must be updated every few hours, and only the Top 50 performs this valuable service. Rolex, having to meet printers’ deadlines, doesn’t even mention the new Castle Stuart course in Scotland. The Top 50, attuned to the digital age, has the Highlands masterpiece at No. 10.

Still, I give the Rolex 1000 a solid 95 for effort. It’s not their fault that the Top 50 is a perfect 10.


Top 50 on TV: The tour pros are still hogging the tee times on the St. Andrews Old Course, No. 16, as I type this on a breezy Sunday afternoon in the Kingdom of Fife. Fortunately, there are three other Top-50 courses within easy driving distance of the R&A clubhouse. (The Balcomie Course at Crail, the Torrance Course at St. Andrews Bay, and Kinghorn.) And that doesn’t include the wonderful Kingsbarns Golf Links (alt. 30 feet), which will debut in the Top 50 as early as next week, pending resolution of drainage issues at Catch Basin, our Kansas City headquarters.

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Watson Wins the Watson in KC

Heavy rains over the weekend have again wreaked havoc upon the basement computer room at Catch Basin, our Kansas City headquarters. Fortunately, we didn’t repair the baseboards after the last cloudburst, so the monetary damage is slight.

Tom Watson

Watson successfully double-defended on Sunday. (John Garrity)

No such luck for Kansas City Country Club, currently ranked No. 51 on the Top 50. Tom Watson’s home course was declared “unplayable” on Monday morning, forcing tournament officials to cancel the final round of the Watson Challenge.* The same officials then handed Watson a check for $10,000, it being the local custom to compensate winners no matter how bad the weather.** “It’s too bad we didn’t get to play 54 holes,” Watson told reporters before hopping on a plane to Monterey, Calif., for a satellite tournament at the beautiful Pebble Beach Golf Links, No. 7. “– because the more you play, the more the best players come to the top.”

* The Watson Challenge — named, I believe, for former IBM president and chairman Thomas J. Watson — is an annual 54-hole invitational tournament for professional and amateur golfers in the Kansas City area. Tom Watson, the golfer, has won it the past three years, leading locals to grudgingly accept that he may, indeed, be the best golfer in town.

** Watson shot weekend rounds of 65-69 to edge legendary Asian Tour veteran Clay Devers, of Shawnee, Ks., by a stroke.

Following the old adage, “It’s always brightest before the storm,” Sunday afternoon was so beautiful that Watson went straight from the flash interview area to the putting green for a solitary practice session. (See below.) Upon viewing this photo, our principal Heart of America course rater awarded 12 bonus points to Kansas City Country Club for “Infrastructure: Hall of Fame Golfers.”

Tom Watson practicing putting

Tom Watson at Kansas City Country Club. Looking for a game? (John Garrity)

Top 50 on TV: The U.S. Open is being played on the Pebble Beach Golf Links, No. 7. We’ll have a look at the layout on Wednesday and then ask our panel of experts to give their opinions on changes that were made in preparation for the Open. If their opinions conform to our own, we will post them here later in the week.

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