Tag Archives: Pebble Beach

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.

(10-4.)

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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Florida Aqua-Range Gets Late Nod

Gary Van Sickle is fashionably late with his vote for best aqua-range, but the Top 50 never closes. So now … a man who needs no introduction … except, of course, to say that he’s a veteran senior writer at Sports Illustrated, the top print golf analyst east of the Rio Grande, and father of first-year tour pro Mike Van Sickle.

“Don’t recall the aqua-range question,” Gary writes. “Can’t be an age thing. What’s your name again, young feller? Only one I can recall is Imperial Lakewoods (formerly Imperial Lakes)* in Palmetto, Fla., just outside Bradenton.”

*Coincidentally, the scientists at Catch Basin are putting together a ranking of golf courses that have changed names, whether due to bankruptcy, renovation, change of ownership or an understandable lapse of memory, given the owner’s age. For example, A. W. Tillinghast’s Swope Memorial Golf Course, No. 45, is the golf course formerly known as Swope No. 1, while its cross-park 9-hole counterpart, currently called the Heart of America Golf Course (but billed as the Blue River Golf Course in my soon-to-be-revived classic, America’s Worst Golf Courses), was Swope No. 2. Other famous courses, although they try to hide the fact, have not always gone by their current names — e.g., Seminole Golf Club (formerly Barracuda Dunes Resort), Pebble Beach Golf Links (briefly known as Otter Play Golf Club) and The Country Club at Brookline (aka Boston Blackie’s Suburban Pitch ‘n’ Putt).

“Imperial Lakes was the first course Mike Van Sickle was on,” Gary continues. “He traversed the course as a baby in a snuggy, carried by Betsy, while I played with my folks. Mike actually has a photo of himself as a 3- or 4-year old hitting balls into the water on the Imperial Lakes range. I’m suitably attired in pink shirt, light blue shorts and a St. Andrews Hogan-style cap.”*

*The Top 50 is making every effort to obtain this photograph.

“So I’d rate Imperial Lakes No. 1,” Gary concludes. “I can’t think of any others I’ve played.”

(Mike’s father adds this gratuitous post script: “Your website needs traffic. I make wisecracks, and nothing. No replies. It’s deader than a thing that’s not alive.”)

Chantilly Aqua Range

Dolce Chantilly is still No. 1 (John Garrity)

Van Sickle’s endorsement is no threat to the current No. 1 aqua-range, the tree-lined stunner at the Dolce Chantilly Golf Club and Hotel in Chantilly, France. But I’m slipping Imperial Woodlakes Golf Club (or whatever it’s called) into the third spot, behind Chung Shan Hot Spring Golf Club of Guangdong Province, China.

Addendum: Some readers have detected a certain volatility in our recent rankings, which — along with a handful of minor errors, which we have promptly corrected and apologized for — have led some to question the scientific underpinnings of the the Top 50. “You no longer mention Professor Eppes and the Cal Sci algorithm,” writes one worried technophile. “Are you flying solo?”

Answer: No! The Top 50 is still the leader in empirically-derived golf course evaluation, and nothing that happens in some musty California classroom is going to change that. But in the spirit of full disclosure, I am more or less obliged to report that Professor Charles Eppes recently eloped with some raven-haired bimbo and fled to England. Charlie is currently teaching at Foxent College, Oxford, not far from Wentworth Golf Club, No. 84. In his absence, the Cal Sci algorithm is being steered by a total math geek who knows absolutely nothing about golf.

This is, I am told, a temporary situation. But until the Cal Sci Board of Regents can find a qualified replacement, we at Catch Basin will have to soldier on with our nimble minds, flexible fingers and one very overworked Bomar Brain. In the meantime, we sincerely regret any inconvenience.

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A Gripe from the Branch Office

“I can’t hit a 1-iron, but I’ve proven countless times that I can hit a tree.” — Anon.

“Have you got something against trees?” asks a tree surgeon from Dubai.

The question puzzled me at first, but an hour’s perusal of the new Top 50 enlightened me. Four of the top five courses (and six of the top ten) are as treeless as the polar ice caps. The wind-blown machair at top-ranked Askernish Old supports a stubble of knee-high marram grass, but a South Uist horse thief will never hang there — nothing to hang him on, so to speak. Ditto for the dramatic dunes of Carne (No. 3), which support no vegetation taller than a garden gnome. Even Pittsburgh’s legendary Oakmont Country Club (No. 47), come to think of it, didn’t crack the Top 50 until its members chopped, sawed, toppled, bulldozed and ground up a few million board feet of shade trees in preparation for the 2007 U.S. Open.

But to answer the tree doc’s question, no. We’ve got nothing against trees. Many of the Top 50 courses are extravagantly shaded, and no fewer than seven* are named for nature’s biggest nuisances: Oak Hill (No. 9), Cypress Point (No. 13), Pine Needles (No. 30), Castle Pines (No. 33), Calusa Pines (No. 46), Oakmont (No. 47) and Laurel Valley (No. 49).

* Eight if the “Poipu” in Poipu Bay (No. 15) is Hawaiian for the arthritic, scarlet-blossomed view-hogger that ate my Pro V-1 four years ago.

Carne Golf Links

No bark on Carne's infamous 17th, but it can certainly bite. (John Garrity)

It’s just a fact that links courses are the most highly-regarded golf courses, and a true links has no, or hardly any, trees.* How else to explain Castle Stuart’s debut at No. 10, leapfrogging hundreds of parkland courses? Or St. Andrews Old at No. 16, despite a closing hole that is indistinguishable from the visitors’ parking lot.

*Despite its name, the Pebble Beach Golf Links (No. 2) is not a true links. It is a cliffside course, the distinction being obvious to anyone who has ever sliced his tee shot on Pebble’s sixth hole.

Personally, I’m about as pro-tree as they come. I have trees in my front yard and trees in my back yard, and if you see me discreetly raking my spiky sweet-gum balls under the neighbor’s fence, it’s because I want to share my arboreal bounty.

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but the Honda Classic is being played on the Jack Nicklaus-designed Champion Course at the PGA National Resort & Spa in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. Nicklaus has two courses in the Top 50, both of which have hosted PGA Tour or Champions Tour events. The first person who can e-mail me the names of those tournaments will be mocked for spending too much time in front of the flat screen. (Or awarded a free copy of my book Ancestral Links: A Golf Obsession Spanning Generations, just out in paperback. It all depends on my mood.)

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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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