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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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